Pacific Raceways
4:30 am
Mon September 26, 2011

Racetrack’s expansion plans have enviros, neighbors worried

Plans to upgrade a dilapidated old race track near Kent are sparking an environmental debate. The owners of Pacific Raceways say that to stay afloat, they badly need an expansion that would bring thousands of new jobs to the area. 

Neighbors are worried about impacts on surrounding wetlands and fish habitat, especially because they say special legislation King County is considering to facilitate the expansion may set a bad precedent.

From teen racers to renown to disrepair

Sixty years ago, the track opened as a way to get teen drag racers off neighborhood streets and provide a safer place for racing. The track quickly grew into a renowned race car venue. In its glory days, it was renamed Seattle International Raceways and hosted several nationally-sanctioned events a year.

Even folks who never went to see the hotrods probably remember radio ads for "64 funny cars..." But the shine of that era has long since faded, says the racetrack’s president Jason Fiorito.

“The road course ... has fallen into disrepair over the years and necessitates some pretty aggressive safety improvements to reacquire national sanctioning,he says, adding that the track now hosts just one nationally-sanctioned race a year, on its drag strip.

The race spans three days, draws about a hundred thousand spectators to the rural area and is televised on ESPN-2.

Expansion plans

Fiorito  is the founder’s grandson. When his family took back management of the track a decade ago, they gave it back its old name and invested $5-million in upgrades. But he says it’s not sustainable. 

His vision is to expand the venue so it could add as many as three national road races to the lineup. And he’s proposing adding a shopping area the size of a mall around it to generate extra income. The mall, he says, would also serve as a buffer against noise.

“So, we’re really talking about north of a hundred million dollars," that the Fiorito family and their associates want to invest in making the facility capable of hosting national, professionally-sanctioned events and for putting in "the associated commercial retail park" surrounding it.

He claims the investments would bring a thousand living wage jobs to the area – and an influx of $30 million to $45 million a year in new spending, generated by new race events.

Neighbors worried

But the facility is located in a rural area. It’s already encroaching on protected wetlands and the Soos Creek Watershed, which is prime habitat for salmon and other sensitive species. A group of concerned neighbors wants to stop the expansion.

“In terms of order and magnitude of operations, you’re going from a high school ballpark to building now Safeco Field,” says Jeff Guddat , who lives about a mile from the track.

He and other members of the group, called Soos Creek Area Response, or SCAR,  admit they don’t like the noise and traffic from the races but insist this is not just a NIMBY issue. The fact that the county has created special legislation to facilitate the track’s expansion also raises alarms.

The group has extensively testified at hearings over the past two years and helped re-instate the requirement for environmental impact statements.  But they say it's part of a proposed master planning process with so many exemptions, the EISs would have no teeth.

Environmental consultant Greg Wingard says the county's proposal to  streamline the process sets a dangerous precedent because it’s been labeled a “demonstration project. ”

“So the implication is not just that this would impact the track and the local community, which is unacceptable enough as it is," Wingert says, "but that similar impacts would be available to other developers in the rural area of King County and other locations than the Pacific Raceways track.”

Councilman stands by plan

But King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who sponsored the legislation, insists the proposal will enhance the public process, providing more opportunities for public involvement than would take place under existing laws. He says it’s badly needed – and not just for the sake of Pacific Raceways. Other developers could benefit from it too.

“We’re losing jobs to south Snohomish County and Pierce County. We need to find a process by which we can encourage predictability ... and that’s what this is all about,” von Reichbauer says.

The legislation passed out of committee last week by a vote of 3-2. Proponents now have 30 days to fine tune it, before a vote by the full council could make it law. 

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