OLYMPIA — A conservation easement, designed to block future industrial development on Hood Canal, has been signed by Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark and Michael Brady, representing the Navy.
The Navy will pay $720,000 for the easement, which precludes commercial projects that extend out into the water.
The easement covers a strip of land below the low-tide mark, specifically from 18 feet below the average low tide to 70 feet down. About 4,800 acres are covered by the easement, which extends from the Hood Canal bridge to just south of the Jefferson-Mason County line near Eldon.
It has been widely speculated that the easement would block construction of the controversial pit-to-pier project. The proposal would move sand and gravel by conveyor to the Hood Canal shoreline in Jefferson County, where a 990-foot pier would be built for loading ships and barges. Officials with Thorndyke Resource, the company proposing the project, have said such an easement would not be legal, because it would preclude navigation and commerce.
The company is moving ahead with the project, and Jefferson County planners recently released an environmental-impact statement describing its various effects on people and the environment.
Matthew Randazzo, senior adviser to Goldmark, said officials with the Department of Natural Resources will not comment on any specific proposal, such as the pit-to-pier project, “but this easement will prevent any new large-scale industrial or commercial development in the footprint of this easement.”
The easement will not affect public access, privately owned lands, recreational uses, aquaculture or geoduck harvest.
“This agreement will buffer important military operating areas in Hood Canal and ensure the long-term stability of the Navy’s presence at
Naval Base Kitsap, which will sustain the jobs that depend on the Navy’s continued presence in the region,” Goldmark said in a prepared statement.
“This agreement will also provide new protections for sensitive marine ecosystems and safeguard public access to Hood Canal,” he added.
Capt. Tom Zwolfer, commanding officer of Naval Base Kitsap, said the agreement will help protect the Navy’s operating areas for the next 55 years.
“These ranges and military operating areas are crucial for military readiness and national defense,” he said. “This transaction represents a substantial step toward readiness sustainment for the Navy.”
Phil Best of the Hood Canal Environmental Council said his organization has been worried about industrial development of the fragile waterway since the Navy first proposed its massive submarine base at Bangor. He acknowledged the irony in the Navy’s efforts to protect the remainder of the shoreline.
“I think the Navy has accepted their responsibility and is a pretty good steward of the area,” Best said. “I think it (the conservation easement) is an excellent resolution to a lot of iffy problems facing Hood Canal in terms of industrialization.”
Many years ago, the Hood Canal Environmental Council went to court to fight a gravel operation near the Hamma Hamma River, he said, and the courts ruled that rural Hood Canal should not be subject to industrialization.
Kitsap County Commissioner
Rob Gelder said he supports the easement in Jefferson County to protect Navy operations and the “fragile ecosystem” of Hood Canal.
Meanwhile, a similar Hood Canal easement has been proposed to prevent industrial development on Kitsap County’s shoreline. Gelder said he would like to see the details before offering his wholehearted support for that project.
“We have not been contacted about how an easement would be structured on the Kitsap side,” he said. “I would welcome that before the agreement is signed, and I hope they would have the courtesy to do so.”
Dan Baskins of Thorndyke Resource said he believes the pier needed for his company’s gravel-transport operation would be allowed even with the easement in place. He obtained a copy of the draft agreement through a public-disclosure request, He noted that one clause preserves the rights of third parties when it comes to navigation, Public Trust Doctrine and treaty rights recognized by federal law.
“I have zero concern that this agreement with the Navy and DNR will affect the project we are working on,” Baskins said, adding that he expects the agency to grant his company a lease for the below-tide property needed for the proposed pier.
Asked about the clause cited by Baskins, Randazzo of DNR said he could only address the general meaning of the clause, not its application to a specific project.
“Nothing under the Public Trust Doctrine or federal navigational servitude provides a private entity with a vested right to construct an improvement on state-owned aquatic land,” Randazzo said, ruling out any new commercial development.
Randazzo noted that the same clause protects existing leaseholders, including commercial operators, who are listed in an attachment to the easement agreement.
The easement agreement was signed Monday by Goldmark for the state and Brady, identified as real estate contracting officer for Naval Facilities Engineering Command.
A news release issued by the Department of Natural Resources includes comments from local conservation groups:
Mike Stevens, the state’s director of The Nature Conservancy, said: “With this action, we are changing the future for Hood Canal. Commissioner Goldmark and the Navy have shown profound foresight and historic leadership by preventing destructive development across a huge swath of Puget Sound bedlands. Orcas, oysters, and people should all rejoice.”
Paul Kundtz, the state’s director of The Trust for Public Land, said: “This is a win-win-win for Hood Canal’s natural resources, its traditional economy, and the Navy’s vital mission delivery. We congratulate Commissioner Goldmark, the team at the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Navy on another significant success in our ongoing efforts to conserve the Hood Canal.”
John Fabian, who leads the Hood Canal Coalition, said: “I’m sure I speak for all members of the Hood Canal Coalition when I say that we are delighted that Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark and the United States Navy have been able to conclude this historic agreement to protect Hood Canal.”