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Developments would bring more than 150 residences to Swede Hill

Posted on November 28th, 2023 By:

Add northern Swede Hill to the list of Gig Harbor locales slated for accelerating suburban growth.

West of Highway 16, on land sloping down to Burnham Drive NW and McCormick Creek, two local developers are shepherding separate proposals through the city’s permitting process that would add more than 150 residences on land now occupied by fields, forest and abandoned gravel pits.

Rush Residential Inc. received preliminary plat approval on Nov. 13 for Summit Pointe, a development of 56 single-family houses along 112th Street NW, which snakes up the hillside from Burnham Drive. It’s not the first subdivision in the neighborhood, but it will be the most densely populated so far. R-2 zoning there allows smaller lot sizes and more houses per acre than in nearby tracts zoned R-1.

Rush Residential VP Scott Walker said he’s “not sure” when development work will begin on the site but he speculated it “might be nine months” from now.

A sign notifies passers-by of possible land-use action at the Summit Pointe site off 11th Street. Photo by Ted Kenney

A contentious process

Next door, developer-landowner Henderson Burnham LLC — owned by the Wall family from the Key Peninsula — has big plans for its 10 parcels, which together comprise 23 acres.

In contrast to Summit Pointe’s relatively smooth progress, hammering out what the Walls can develop on their land has been a sprawling and contentious process.

The Walls originally proposed to build Henderson Heights, a community of 95 townhomes, on approximately 13 acres at the southerly end of their site. The LLC dropped the name Henderson Heights and Hillside View is the working title for the development, said Nick Wall, one of Henderson Burnham’s owners. (Henderson Burnham also abandoned another earlier moniker, The Terrace and The Village in Henderson Heights at Gig Harbor.)

In this filing using an earlier name for the project, Henderson Burnham showed a potential layout for the proposed 95 townhomes on the southern 13 acres of its property. It has not specified how it plans to develop its northern 10 acres.

The Walls’ as-yet-unsuccessful development efforts at Swede Hill have played out in seven separate applications with the city (aplications include conditional use permit, site-specific rezone, planned unit development and more). They also spawned an ongoing lawsuit: Henderson Burnham in 2021 sued the city over favorable zoning rights it contends are vested in its parcels.

The court scheduled a trial in the case for this fall, but postponed it at the parties’ joint request. A new turn of events may now pre-empt the lawsuit: Henderson Burnham in June filed to amend Gig Harbor’s comprehensive plan in order to break the logjam on development of their property.

City annexed plots in 2009

The Swede Hill parcels targeted for development by Rush Residential and Henderson Burnham became part of Gig Harbor in a 2009 annexation that added 377 acres to the city. Prolific Gig Harbor businessman/philanthropist Walt Smith and his ex-wife, Norma Smith, sold the Summit Pointe land to Rush Residential in 2021, and in 2016 provided more than half of the Hillside View parcels to Henderson Burnham. (Walt Smith died in May.)

In October 2021, just over a month before Rush Residential bought its parcels from the Smiths, the Gig Harbor hearing examiner approved a re-zone of the land to R-2 from its previous Employment District (ED) and Single Family Residential (R-1) zoning. The change followed an earlier comprehensive plan amendment that allowed higher density uses.

Henderson Burnham’s path toward gaining its desired zoning has been rockier.

Zoning change

In its lawsuit filed against the city of Gig Harbor in October 2021, Henderson Burnham claimed that the city should have changed the parcels’ zoning to B-2 after the 2009 annexation of the land and a comprehensive plan amendment several months later. The lawsuit maintains that would bring the zoning “in line with the County and City’s long-term plans for the property.”

However, the lawsuit alleged, the city never made that zoning change. In 2017, after Henderson Burnham acquired the land and started the permitting process for its proposed 95 townhomes (aka Henderson Heights), the city required it to apply for a re-zone, Henderson Burnham’s court filing said.

“However, after Henderson submitted complete applications, the City Council amended the B-2 zoning to prohibit the planned townhomes by limiting the maximum density to 6 dwelling units per acres,” the lawsuit said (boldface in original).

“This appears to have been done at least in part as a direct response to Henderson’s application” for the 95 townhomes, the lawsuit charged. It asked the court to require the city of Gig Harbor to process Henderson Burnham’s applications under the B-2 zone uses that prevailed at the time it applied.

An aerial view of the Summit Pointe development site off 112th Street, just west of Highway 16. The Hillside View development would be on adjacent properties to the east of Summit Pointe.

Possible resolution

In its response, the city of Gig Harbor denied many of Henderson Burnham’s key claims. It asked for dismissal of the lawsuit and for reimbursement of legal costs. The court set a trial date of Sept. 27, 2023.

But on July 23, lawyers for Henderson Burnham and the city asked the court to postpone the trial and all further action on the case.

“The parties have recently picked up discussions regarding resolution. In addition, a Comprehensive Plan update process is in progress that may have a bearing on many, if not all, issues at stake,” their request stated.

Henderson Burnham’s northern parcels hold a Residential Low (RL) land use designation, while the southern ones are Commercial/Business (C/B). If the comp plan change and a requested concurrent re-zoning are successful, the entire 23 acres will be re-designated Residential High Transition (RHT), with proposed R-3 zoning. That would allow higher density housing including duplex, triplex and multi-family, as well as some other uses, such as independent-living and nursing facilities.

Comp plan changes on horizon

The city of Gig Harbor accepts private parties’ requests for comp plan changes during odd-numbered years and acts on them in even-numbered ones. Director of Community Development Carl de Simas explained that since the city council did not initiate Henderson Burnham’s proposed change, city staff has not yet reviewed it.

In early 2024, the city council will hold an initial public hearing and decide which requested comp plan amendments will be formally docketed for review by the city’s planning commission. Based on work-study sessions and public hearings, the commission will provide recommendations to the city council, which will vote on whether to approve the amendment.

The 2009 Burnham/Sehmel annexation of 377 acres included the land now planned for the Summit Pointe and Hillside View developments.

One thing missing in Henderson Burnham’s lawsuit and in its filings with the city is a clear picture of what it intends to do with its entire 23 acres. If the 95 townhomes go forward on the lower portion, that still leaves the northerly 10 acres undeveloped.

10 acres unspoken for

If things go according to the Wall family’s plans, will there be more townhomes on that land, single family homes, or even some apartments? In a brief prepared statement, Nick Wall declined to offer any specifics.

Asked about an earlier filing that showed a park or open space on the east side of one of the parcels, along Woodhill Drive, he said that “Henderson Burnham is working with the city of Gig Harbor to maximize the land’s potential with a zone optimization and wetland utilization to create a fantastic onsite park.”

Wall also noted that his father “had a dream to provide a premiere living environment (and) Hillside View will be that dream.” He said, “Henderson Burnham properties is planning a high-end development for those with a mid-level income.”

A diagram of the proposed Summit Pointe development taken from filings made by Rush Residential with the city of Gig Harbor.