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Tollgate land preserved

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NORTH BEND - The debate over the future of Tollgate Farm's "central meadow" is over, and just about everyone is happy with the result.

North Bend Mayor Joan Simpson announced at the City Council meeting Oct. 16 that the Trust for Public Land (TPL), an environmental conservancy organization, had completed successful negotiations to buy the central meadow, which rests near State Route 202, just inside the western edge of the city.

The council unanimously agreed to issue $1.6 million in councilmanic - or council-only approved - bonds needed to close the deal on the purchase of the central meadow, and council members repealed an ordinance that had placed a $3.56 million bond levy on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

"This is a historic day," said Councilman Mark Sollitto. "The western edge of town will be preserved to welcome everyone who comes into our city."

Simpson said the purchase was made possible by a donation to the TPL, the organization that helped buy 330 acres of the 410-acre farm earlier this year.

Kent Whitehead, project manager for the TPL, said he couldn't disclose any information about the donor, who wished to remain anonymous, but he did say the donor had been interested in preserving the farm and had been following the issue since development of the land was first proposed in 1996.

When a primary election last month failed to obtain the public support needed for the $3.56 million levy, the donor and TPL entered into negotiations and were able to work out a deal. Whitehead said the purchase was one of the biggest his group has ever made.

"This speaks to the importance of the property," he said. "This [a purchase the size of the central meadow] rarely happens."

The final price paid for the central meadow to the Miller family, who owned Tollgate Farm, is unknown, but it is less than the original $7.2 million asking price, said North Bend Treasurer Elena Montgomery.

Though the deal was made possible by the donor, much of the total cost will be paid with public money, with $1.6 million coming from the bonds passed by the council and another $500,000 made available through sewer utility bonds.

The bonds carry with them an interest rate of 4.9 percent, the lowest rate since the early 1970s. The 25-year bonds will be paid for with money from real estate excise taxes, which place a 0.5 percent tax on every home bought and sold in North Bend.

That money, which totals about $130,000 a year, should cover the $114,617 a year that will be needed to pay back the bonds, Montgomery said.

The central meadow will be purchased with the help of a $200,000 grant and various county sources that are funded through property taxes. They include $2.9 million from King County - which used additional funds to help buy the 330 acres this summer - $750,000 from King County Conservation Futures and $200,000 from the King Conservation District. In all, $6.15 million in public money is being spent on the central meadow.

Should the real estate excise taxes fail to generate enough money to make payments on the bonds, Montgomery said they will be backed by money from a city park fund and from the city's general fund.

Even those who opposed the primary and general election bond levy said the price was right for the central meadow, including Councilman Jim Gildersleeve, who voted to approve the councilmanic bonds.

"There will be no tax increase, and this is a lot less money," he said.

Not all of the funding sources are guaranteed, and Simpson admitted there was some hesitation to buy the land with public money in these lean times. But she said she was convinced the purchase price was something that couldn't be passed up.

"I wouldn't have done this if I thought it would put the city in financial crisis," Simpson said.

For supporters of the central meadow purchase, the bonds close the chapter on the most disputed part of the farm, recognized for its rural character as well as its history.

"I don't see anything here to frown at at all," said Friends of Tollgate President Ron Pedee. "That [the central meadow purchase] was certainly part of the original preservation plan."

Council members who supported the purchase said North Bend had completed a momentous chapter in its history.

"This is the most important meeting we've been through," said Councilwoman Elaine Webber. "We're going to have a legacy, and that is what this has been all about."

The only land left of the Tollgate Farm that has not been preserved is a 30-acre patch zoned as a business park. The plans for it are being reviewed by the City Council, and although the TPL has an option to buy it until as late as next October, city officials have said the land would likely be developed.

"That parcel makes the most sense to develop," Simpson said. "Frankly, I've always been for developing that part."

You can reach Ben Cape at (425) 888-2311, or e-mail him at ben.cape@valleyrecord.com.

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