Thinking Green: Developers are proposing projects in Skagit County that incorporate new ways of handling rainwater


MOUNT VERNON – When it rains, water flowing off of rooftops and down gutters eventually makes its way out to Puget Sound.

But new green building techniques beginning to take hold in Skagit County aim to slow that water’s flow.

Examples of these techniques include rooftop gardens and vegetated strips of land between streets and sidewalks called “rain gardens.”

The idea is to use the natural topography to help handle rainwater. When it rains, water saturates the rain gardens instead of flowing swiftly into storm drains. Soils filter sediments and chemicals out of the water so that the water in the storm-water system is cleaner.

The popularity of building green has largely skipped over Skagit County as it steadily spreads in King, Snohomish and Whatcom counties.

But it’s on its way.

Developers are proposing projects here that incorporate new methods of handling rainwater. Local governments, pressured by new, stricter stormwater standards from the state, are eager to start demonstration projects and provide builders with the tools they need to get these green building practices on the ground.

“It’s definitely on everybody’s plate because of the new water quality restrictions and new permits that we’re all operating under,” said Burlington Planning Director Margaret Fleek.

Meanwhile, state money could be funnelled into the county to help foster green building.

About $26 million in the budget that is before Gov. Chris Gregoire includes money to support local low-impact development. About $500,000 of that comes through the newly created agency formed to clean up the Puget Sound.

Hilary Culverwell of the Puget Sound Action Team, a precursor to the new agency, recently told Skagit mayors and county commissioners that she wants to bring some of the money in the new budget to Skagit County for green building here – if there is consensus that local governments are interested.

With Skagit County’s rural nature and fast-growing population, Culverwell said it is the perfect place to implement building practices that are easier on the environment.

“When other areas were built out to accommodate that kind of growth, it happened at a time when we didn’t understand water quality and growth,” Culverwell said in an interview. “Well, now we do.”

Out to the Sound

There are 1,400 “impaired” bodies of water in the Puget Sound’s basins, Culverwell said. Rainwater is thought to be responsible for one-third of the pollution in these, she added.

Working in Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties for 4 ½ years, Culverwell said she has talked a lot about building green. “Anybody who will listen to me, I’ve been talking to them about the concept of low-impact development.”

The Puget Sound region has seen a 10 percent increase in the impervious surfaces in the past 10 years, she said, putting pressure on urban streams. Impervious surfaces speed up water and send it – mixed in with oil and lawn chemicals and other byproducts of human activities – into the storm-water system.

Urban streams are directly impacted by this system, which in some places flows into the streams, including ones that bear fish.

This is partly why low-impact development is one practice sited in a recovery plan for wild Chinook salmon in the Skagit River basin.

“Low-impact development techniques should be evaluated and approved by local jurisdictions and written into building codes,” the plan states. It also recommends that impervious surface be kept to below 7 percent of the land in watersheds.

Some developers are already using these techniques.

Tromping around a hilly building site Thursday in east Mount Vernon, Don Poe took samples to monitor rainwater. Poe is the project director at a 38-acre site destined for 76 home lots next to Skagit Highlands.

“One of the best things we can do with rainwater is slow it down,” Poe said.  “You get rid of some sediments we don’t want in our salmon streams.”

Old-growth cedars on the site shade a stretch of fish-bearing Trumpeter Creek. The site’s developer, Mill Creek-based David Alan Development, is relying on Poe’s background in restorative ecology to implement some green building techniques, including rain gardens.

A hard sell

Aside from environmental benefits of building green, there are other reasons that these kinds of project are on the rise. Some developers are finding that they can be greener, save money and conserve space where detention ponds would have gone.

Green building can carry financial reward, either in savings from concrete and steel or in more space for extra lots. Also, Poe said, the site he’s working on will be more valuable because of the building techniques.

“I was concerned about the additional money that we’re spending on the project, but I’ve found that lending institutions love it,” he said. “They think there will be people attracted to this kind of project.”

The site, slated to be ready for builders next fall, will be worth more than $12 million, Poe said.

These new ideas don’t always go down easy within the development community, though. “We’re the first in Mount Vernon,” Poe said. “To tell you the truth, it was a hard sell.”

One green development proposed in Sedro-Woolley made the City Council there pause recently.

Mayor Mike Anderson said the main concern was whether to approve narrower streets and whether the City would eventually be forced to take over upkeep of the rain gardens along the road.

But with an agreement that the homeowner association would be responsible for maintaining the gardens, the council gave the developer the green light to move through the city’s permitting process.

“For me, it works. It’s practical,” Anderson said of green building techniques. He added that one benefit is fewer detention ponds. “We don’t like mosquito-breeding ponds.”

The proposed development, called Camden Gardens, lies east of Birch Lane and north of East Jones Road. Corey Zembruski is co-president of Gateway Homes & Communities, the Burlington company developing the 60-lot plat.

Zembruski said the lots are 8400 square feet, and house there will go on the market by the end of the summer in the $320,000 to $380,000 range. Building green has been a vision for Zembruski and co-President Virginia Blackburn, he added.

Local governments think green

Jana Hanson, Mount Vernon’s director of community and economic development, said the city wants to create a demonstration low-impact project like some that have been successful in Seattle. “We’d like to encourage developers and builders to use these new techniques,” she said.

Builders in Anacortes have several green building projects in the works, said Don Measamer, the city’s assistant planning director. He said three homes on Anaco Beach have rain gardens. ‘I think you’re going to see a lot more of it in the Anacortes area,” he added.

In Burlington, Planning Director Fleek sees an opportunity to use green building techniques in the North Burlington Boulevard area, which lacks storm drainage, and in other parts of the city where streets lack vegetation to begin with.

“I’m totally excited about getting something green going on our streets because it just hasn’t been happening,” Fleek said.


By Kate Moser, Staff Writer
Reprinted with permission of the Skagit Valley Herald.
Published on April 28, 2007

Kate Moser can be reached at 360-416-2145 or