YMCA Camp Seymour’s Thomas Road entrance. Photo: Lisa Bryan, KP News

Representatives of YMCA Camp Seymour went home frustrated and disappointed after facing neighborhood opposition to their recent proposal: To construct a concrete water tower, 30 feet in diameter and 60 feet tall, to be situated on the high ground of the 126-acre camp to achieve the water flow required by the current county fire code. 

“We don’t normally see this many people at our meetings,” said Don Swenson, chairman of the Key Peninsula Advisory Commission to the packed house assembled July 18 in the VFW Room at the Key Peninsula Civic Center. Following hours of testimony from both sides, the KP Advisory Commission voted unanimously to recommend denial of the application to the Pierce County Hearing Examiner. 

Ty Booth, planner for Pierce County Planning and Public Works, reminded interested parties that KP Advisory Commission makes recommendations to the Hearing Examiner who is not, however, obligated to consider their counsel. 

In 2012, the Pierce County Hearing Examiner approved Camp Seymour’s Major Amendment to their 2001 Master Plan to allow additional development of the camp. Booth noted there was no public testimony in 2012 at the examiner’s hearing. In fact, the KP Advisory Commission voted 5 to 1 to recommend approval of Camp Seymour’s development plans in 2012. 

In the time since that approval the YMCA was informed by the Pierce County Fire Protection Board that the water flow requirements increased since that 2012. Camp Seymour’s existing 50-year old reservoir provides insufficient volume and pressure to meet the code requirements.

The Pierce County Hearing Examiner’s approval of the camp’s master plan amendment in 2012 was subject to compliance with county codes in place at the time of application for a building permit. For YMCA Camp Seymour to proceed with the projects outlined in their amended master plan, they must first address the issue of water volume and pressure. 

Beginning in January 2018 Camp Seymour had conversations with Pierce County planning staff about the need to add a reservoir and were directed to file a Minor Amendment, since the tank was not addressed in the 2012 Examiner’s approval. Minor Amendments are usually approved or denied administratively and do not require a review before the KPAC or the Examiner. Minor amendments only require public notices. In May 2018, the Minor Amendments application was created after the fees were paid. 

Booth reported that, upon further review by different planning staff and consideration of comments received from the public, it was determined that YMCA Camp Seymour’s proposal did not qualify for a Minor Amendment. On June 29, 2018, the application was converted to a Major Amendment, subject to review from KPAC and the Pierce County Hearing Examiner.

According to information provided by YMCA Camp Seymour to Pierce County Planning and Public Works, the camp’s goal was “to meet all the fire flow requirements and not be a long-term financial burden on camp operations as the proposal represents a large expense.” 

“As part of the proposal 800 feet of new water main would be installed to connect to the existing water system. The tank would be filled from a well(s) with existing water rights. Besides providing water for fire protection to the camp, the camp’s fire system would also provide high capacity fire hydrants at which fire tankers can refill in order to reduce refill transit time needed to more rapidly combat a fire,” according to documentation provided by YMCA Camp Seymour on file at Pierce County. 

In correspondence with Pierce County, the camp explained how they arrived at the current water tank proposal: 

“Many options were considered without having a large expensive pumping system that will cost a lot of time and money to maintain. Seeing that a gravity system is currently in place and has worked flawlessly for over 50 years, a new gravity tank is the most economical and has longevity and reliability. The chosen location is necessary in order to provide sufficient head pressure to supply the hydrants at the required flow, pressure and duration.

“An alternative plan the camp explored was installing the tank on a parcel just north of Thomas Road. This option would provide gravity fire flow, however the reservoir would be more or less ‘in the backyard’ on an existing home to the east and for that reason the alternative was not pursued.

“Utilization of fire pumps to provide fire flow would still require a new reservoir, though two shorter reservoirs could be used in order to be less than 40 feet tall. Unfortunately, sufficiently level ground is not generally available in the upper area of the camp, as all level ground of sufficient size to accommodate the tanks is utilized by building or by the camp’s drain field. These reservoirs would likely be installed in the same location as the proposed reservoir, the only difference being two 20-foot tall reservoirs rather than one 60-foot tall reservoir. A fire pump station is also required, though this might be able to be located further from Thomas Road.” 

According to testimony given by the YMCA’s agent, Doug Piehl of Northwest Water Systems, during the KPAC meeting, Camp Seymour looked into pumps as alternatives but concluded that pumps were neither cost-effective to install nor economically efficient to maintain and operate. 

Consistent with comments made by nearly every member of the KP Advisory Council, all of the concerned neighbors expressed fondness for the camp, its mission and its having been a good neighbor in the past. 

“The primary issue here is the visibility of the structure,” said Dave Ward, who lives adjacent to Camp Seymour. “The entire point of a conditional use permit is to ensure compatibility with surrounding land uses. In this case, all of the surrounding land uses are rural residential and not a single property in this rural residential community could build a 60-foot-tall building.”

According to staff comments included from Planning and Public Works staff in the Initial Project Review presentation to KPAC, the “YMCA has considered the comments received from the public and is now proposing to paint the water tower green and plant additional trees. In this case it does not appear the tank would block any view but simply boils down to whether a large tank visible along the road is an impact or not.”

According to Pierce County Fire Marshall Warner Webb many camps throughout Pierce County whose buildings or cabins may be nearing replacement still want to keep camps in a rustic and natural environment. It can be very expensive to comply with fire code in areas that lack municipal fire protection and said his department works with all the camps to explore the variety of options available to achieve compliance with fire code. 

“YMCA Camp Seymour is right in line with what we would normally see throughout Pierce County for how you can comply with fire requirements given to a project,” Pierce County Fire Marshall said via telephone interview.

Camp Seymour’s current application is scheduled to go before the Pierce County Hearing Examiner Aug. 8 at 2 p.m. in Pierce County Annex in Tacoma.

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