The Federal Way property’s new owners plan to build more than 1 million square feet of warehouses, including a frozen-fish processing plant, but neighbors say they were blindsided and think the proposal stinks.

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Neighbors near Weyerhaeuser’s vast Federal Way campus have enjoyed an unusually scenic corporate neighbor for nearly half a century: Office buildings largely concealed on a mostly undeveloped property with 100-foot-wide rows of trees, walking trails along a quiet lake, and wildlife ranging from herons to turtles.

But now, with the company moving to Seattle next month, the developer that bought the site for $70 millionplans to build at least 1 million square feet of new warehouses on the property, including a fish-processing plant.

Nearby residents have given City Hall an earful, saying the changes would transform an idyllic campus into a noisy, smelly, truck-filled industrial site with low-paying jobs.

Public can weigh in

The public will have a chance to comment at a Federal Way City Council hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday in City Hall’s council chambers. City officials and the developer will present plans.

News of the projects galvanized neighbors and some local businesses to form a new opposition coalition, which is already rumbling about a possible lawsuit.

“We’re not just here for ‘not in our backyard’ — it affects the city,” said Lori Sechrist, president of the North Lake group of homeowners next to the site. “If this area is destroyed, there’s no going back.”

Norm Fiess, president of the Lake Killarney neighborhood group south of the site, complained that residents have gotten very little information from the city or developer. They learned of the plans only when a sign about the proposed development went up on the campus earlier this month, giving residents a couple of weeks to comment on the plans.

“It’s mind-boggling how it’s being developed,” Fiess said. “We’re just kind of wondering what’s going on with those people.”

In response, the city has called for a special public hearing on the project on Thursday with the Los-Angeles based developer, Industrial Realty Group.

Part of the residents’ frustration is the lack of a full plan for the 430-acre site, despite its potential for several projects across 330 undeveloped acres.

Instead, two projects — a 314,000-square-foot Orca Bay seafoods plant with parking for 345 cars and trucks, and a 721,000-square-foot warehouse for an undisclosed user — were quietly and separately introduced this month.

The developer says more, unspecified projects are likely coming.

Industrial Realty is also looking for a new corporate tenant to fill Weyerhaeuser’s unique greenery-covered, steplike building. The world-renowned campus has won architectural awards and been lauded as a quintessential Pacific Northwest work site.

Mayor Jim Ferrell concedes a lack of active outreach to the residents has resulted in miscommunication over the projects. He said the community’s fears may subside once they hear the full details — especially on the seafood site.

“It conjures up this idea of people opening up fish, and the smell. Most people living in the area were probably repulsed by it,” Ferrell said.

But the fish will be frozen the whole time, and the facility would be “state of the art.”

Ferrell said the city must balance the need to “preserve the beauty and integrity of the area” with the reality that the huge swaths of vacant land next to Interstate 5 present a rare opportunity: to bring many new jobs and considerable tax revenue to Federal Way.

Tom Messmer, senior vice president for Industrial Realty Group, said that even with the two projects, more than half of the developable land on the site will still be undeveloped.

He said Industrial Realty plans some kind of public access on the 40 acres in the site’s North Lake area, while the 50- to 100-foot-wide tree buffer mandated under the original Weyerhaeuser agreement will remain intact.

“You’re not going to see (the majority of) this building. You’re going to have to look past 70 or 80 trees to get to it,” Messmer said.

He added: “I don’t know how you’d know it’s a seafood-processing plant,” because the materials processed there “might as well be ice cubes.”

Messmer said the company is also on a global “whale hunt” for a large company to replace Weyerhaeuser, which sold the site to Industrial Realty in February.

Weyerhaeuser expects to open its new headquarters in Seattle’s Pioneer Square in the next several weeks but will continue to lease a portion of one building on the Federal Way site for its technology center.

A key wrinkle in the battle between neighbors and proponents of the projects is the 1994 deal Weyerhaeuser signed with the city, under which the property was annexed into Federal Way.

The city and residents disagree over what types of projects can be allowed on the site under the deal, and whether it’s ripe for potential rezoning. The neighbors have had lawyers review the plans and are already evaluating options over a potential court case should the city approve the development.

“We’re going to take it all the way,” Sechrist said. “If it has to go to the Supreme Court, we’re ready to do that as a community.”

Another potential complication: The state has asked for a study on the historical significance of the site, and the findings could limit development on the property.

Gregory Griffith, deputy state historic preservation director, wrote to the city last week, saying the property has been “highly acclaimed for its architecture (and) landscape architecture.” He urged the city to consider how the projects might impact “the character and quality” of Federal Way’s “heritage as well as its future.”

Among other points of disagreement: how many trucks will be piled onto the busy I-5 offramp next to the site, whether some of the wetlands being developed are worth saving, and how loud the work at the warehouses will be.

But the broader issue — what kinds of business uses to put on scenic lands next to single-family homes — remains the biggest question.

“It kind of defies common sense to put a fish warehouse across the street from a neighborhood,” said another neighbor, Erik Robbins. “It’s urban planning 101.”

Ferrell says the zoning spelled out in the 1994 Weyerhaeuser agreement allows for the warehouses, and noted that rejecting plans based solely on the type of buildings might be illegal.

“We’re going to follow the letter of the law,” the mayor said. “Our job is to see if it fits the zoning. It’s not for the city of Federal Way to put our thumb on the scale and be unfair to private-property owners.”