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Opinion: Letter to the Editor: A Tale of Two Hills
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Opinion: Letter to the Editor: A Tale of Two Hills

To the Editor:

The current debacle involving the proposed Karig Estates residential development resembles a similar controversy that played out a decade earlier at the property known as 5325 Polk Street.

Both properties have strikingly similar environmental attributes — steep slopes, unstable marine clay soils, high-quality tree canopy, water features, resident wildlife, and connectivity to other natural areas and established residential neighborhoods — that thoroughly exemplify the defining qualities embodied in the city’s “Eco City” aspirations, while raising bright red flags for development.

Both garnered fierce neighborhood opposition to residential development proposals due to the likelihood of negative impacts on adjacent neighbors and the loss of prized and increasingly rare natural open space.

Yet the outcomes of the respective development proposals after the city planning and zoning (P&Z) review process tell two completely divergent tales: today, one of these 3-acre properties is Polk Street Nature Park, while the other is poised to become “Karig Estates” — an enclave of McMansions on a soon-to-be denuded hillside perched on an unstable, runoff-prone slope directly above and adjacent to an established neighborhood, Seminary Ridge.

While no one here is suggesting that the city turn the Karig Estates property into a park, what the record at Polk Street and many other places clearly shows is that the city can and often does wield the authority to control not only whether, but how, a given site is developed in order to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of the public.

This is exactly what occurred at Polk Street, where P&Z officials cited a litany of familiar environmental and engineering complaints for rejecting multiple development plans. The challenges are virtually identical at the Karig Estates site — indeed, the names “5325 Polk Street” and “Karig Estates” are interchangeable on the basis of site characteristics alone.

Yet these very same officials have refused to exercise even a modicum of that authority to shape the Karig Estates development in what are relatively minor ways that would, nevertheless, honor the city’s own environmental aspirations and avoid exacerbating already severe slope stability and stormwater runoff problems for dozens of downslope neighbors.

The glaring disparity in the treatment of these two very similar properties speaks volumes about the dysfunction and lack of consistency within the city’s P&Z process, and shows why “40 percent tree canopy,” “protecting springs, ravines, and wetlands,” and other critical environmental policies are far too important to leave in the hands of conflicted and indifferent city planning agencies.

Since the citizen’s advocacy for 5325 Polk Street, I have been a FEMA public assistance project specialist (2013 – present) and have personally seen, inspected, and witnessed slope failure due to marine clay following natural disasters in various parts of the United States. Why the city’s documented geological information on the marine clay at the Karig Estates site is being ignored baffles me. Should City Council approve this project, I will push to have all owners state in all deed transfers they are aware their property includes unstable Marine clay.

Elizabeth Wright

Holmes Run Park Committee chair, 2005 - present