Plans to develop in a forest buffer are continuing the rift between a neighborhood and a local business.
For more than 25 years the Abbey Road community and Emerald Heights Retirement Center have coexisted in harmony within the Education Hill neighborhood of Redmond. In recent years that harmonious relationship has turned hostile over the proposal of expanding the retirement center, adding a large assisted living building along the eastern property line.
“We knew that we wanted to improve our health care offering,” Grant Linacre, executive director of Emerald Heights, said. “For us, this is the crux of this expansion. We currently have a health center that has skilled nursing and assisted living in two different spaces. The skilled nursing was built 27 years ago at this point, and still has two people in one room. And that’s a little dated. At this point in time we are focusing on private rooms, a more dignified health care experience. And that’s what we want to bring to our campus.”
The location for the proposed assisted living building will make use of the undeveloped forest buffer land between the Emerald Heights property and 176th Avenue Northeast. Emerald Heights decided on this section of land because it allows the assisted living and skilled nursing rooms to be connected to the main building via skybridge.
“Currently, there isn’t anything developed in that space, but [building in the forested buffer] allowed us to build a skybridge,” Linacre said. “That would be very important, because when you’re in assisted living, think walkers and scooters. When you’re in skilled nursing, think wheelchair. So our assisted living residents still have a strong connection to the [main building].”
Many nearby residents raised issues with the location of the proposed building and worry that the scenery in the area will be drastically changed. The proposed building will stand three stories tall and force the removal of nearly 100 trees, decreasing the “screen” between Emerald Heights and the Abbey Road community.
According to King County Superior Court documents, Emerald Heights stated as part of the proposal new trees will be planted and landscapes will be maintained to ensure a buffer for privacy.
“While the height of the building is not incongruous, the length, scale and mass of the building is unlike anything else in the neighborhood. The proposed plantings are stated to provide 80 percent screening, yet that wouldn’t be for many years and is not the same as the existing screening,” according to court documents.
The building was proposed in 2017 and according to John Stilin, a member of the Abbey Road homeowners association (HOA), Emerald Heights gave the HOA 21 days to file an appeal against the proposed expansion and the community did so to protect the forested buffer.
In the documents, the court stated that the hearing examiner erred when she concluded the Emerald Height proposal will not have significant adverse aesthetics, views, privacy, lighting, trees and land use impacts. Further, the building will not only affect the residents of the area but also the visitors who frequent that road for the scenery, the documents state.
“The size of the proposed buildings, along with its location, are wholly incongruous with the rest of the neighborhood,” the documents state.
According to a press release issued by the HOA, a King County Superior Court judge disagreed with the hearing examiner and remanded the case back to the city of Redmond to either mitigate the adverse impacts or issue a determination of significance under the State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA).
Although Education Hill is not commercially zoned, the city of Redmond allows retirement communities in residential neighborhoods with a conditional use permit. The permit requires the applicant to demonstrate the proposed development meets SEPA requirements and is compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods.
In 2011, Emerald Heights rezoned its property for future expansion to allow for more density. In 2014 Emerald Heights took on the first phase of expansion, building an independent living apartment called Trailside, as well as improvements to community centers.
When the initial rezoning occurred the previous executive director said the forested greenbelt buffer would remain undeveloped and the expansion would make use of optimal developed land on the property.
However, the term greenbelt now is under scrutiny.
“It is not a greenbelt by any legal definition,” Linacre said. “I wasn’t here in 2011, but understand that even our team called it the greenbelt in some of the paperwork they submitted, but it is not a protected area that can’t be developed.”
Linacre said the heart of the project is something really good — being able to provide better care for the residents of the retirement center. Linacre also said Emerald Heights has worked extensively with the city to make sure everything in the project either meets or exceeds the codes of Redmond.
Following the superior court ruling, both Emerald Heights and the HOA have filed appeals to the appellate court and are waiting for the results.
“We’re committed to seeing our proposed project through and seeing what the appellate court has to say,” said Linacre.
The HOA press release states that homeowners of Abbey Road are not opposed to expansion of Emerald Heights.
“We are supportive of Emerald Heights residents who seek expanded assisted living facilities,” Neil Barnett, HOA president, said. “However, we are happy the judge recognized that placing a building the size of the Redmond Hampton Inn in the greenbelt buffer that obscures the complex from view will have a huge negative impact on compatibility with the community.”