Opinions differ on whether to support Tollgate Farm levy

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NORTH BEND - For the supporters of the upcoming bond issue on the Tollgate Farm property, 485 is the magic number.

That is the number of yes votes needed to pass a bond levy placed on the Sept. 18 primary ballot by the city of North Bend to buy Tollgate.

The number was derived by the King County Department of Records and Elections, which factored in the minimum turnout needed for a valid vote, 808, and the minimum percentage of that needed to pass the levy, 60 percent.

The number was shared at an informational meeting held Wednesday, Aug. 29, by Friends of Tollgate, a group against the commercial and residential development of the farm.

"There is a reason everyone in North Bend lives here," said Ron Pedee, a member of Friends of Tollgate. "We believe there is a uniqueness to living here. We don't want to become another Bellevue, Issaquah or Kent Valley. We know what they are like and if we want to live like that we can go there. But we want to maintain our city."

Not everyone agrees that preserving all the land is in the best interests of North Bend. Debate about the levy has caused one North Bend city councilman, Jim Gildersleeve, to abstain from future Tollgate Farm deliberations and come out publicly against the proposed property tax increase.

"It just costs too much," Gildersleeve said.

The Tollgate Farm property, a 410-acre plot of land located between North Bend and Snoqualmie that is almost cut in half by State Route 202, has been hotly contested ever since the plans to develop it into a housing development and employment park were first presented back in 1996.

Although 330 acres of the property were purchased this summer by King County and the Trust for Public Lands; the "central meadow," a 50-acre parcel of land to the north of SR 202, is what Tollgate Farm supporters are really fearful of losing. They see the meadow as the most scenic and visible part of the property.

The Miller family, which has owned the farm since 1905, offered to sell the land for $5.5 million. The bond up for a vote will provide a little more than $3.5 of the money needed for the purchase, with the rest of the money coming from other sources.

It was numbers like these that gave Gildersleeve pause. Gildersleeve said that although Friends of Tollgate maintains the cost of the purchase is only 61 cents for every $100,000 of assessed property value, that increase would amount to a more than 35 percent tax hike.

"These are misleading figures they are giving," Gildersleeve said.

He said the cost becomes even more acute because the city is still paying off the $300,000 it used to buy Meadowbrook Farm.

At last week's meeting, North Bend Mayor Joan Simpson reiterated the support North Bend residents showed for paying and maintaining open spaces in a poll conducted by the city in 1999. Simpson said between 80 to 85 percent of the residents that responded to the poll supported the preservation of open space and that the upcoming vote will give North Bend residents a chance to say, once and for all, what they want to do about a big government issue.

"We always hear about people wanting their voice to be heard by their government," Simpson said. "This (the vote) is an opportunity for their voice to be heard."

As for the land's history, Friend of Tollgate member Mary Norton explained it was used by the Snoqualmie Tribe for hunting and was the site of the first dairy farm in the Valley. The property was also the site of a toll gate that collected fares from travelers heading through the Snoqualmie Pass, giving it its name.

"It's the first and last farm in the Valley," Norton said.

Friends of Tollgate said the property is also located on a flood plain. They contended that any development on the land would eventually be flooded and also cause problems to further developments down stream.

Supporters also countered opinions that keeping the property undeveloped would cause the city to miss out on potential tax revenue for the city.

Simpson admitted there would be a loss of property tax revenue if the land remains undeveloped, but she added the costs would be small compared to those needed to upgrade utilities, transportation and services for such a large complex.

"We have always seen the opposite happen," said Kent Whitehead of the Trust for Public Land. "Development always cost more in the long run over preservation."

Even if the Friends of Tollgate is successful in gathering the support necessary for North Bend to purchase the land, there are still 30 acres planned for development that remain near the west end of the property.

Tollgate Farm supporters said they would like to see the whole property purchased, but have their eyes set on the central meadow at the moment.

"We're just taking this one step at a time," Whitehead said. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

Gildersleeve said he can appreciate the desire to keep open space in North Bend, but funding another purchase is too much for city taxpayers.

He said the Miller family has already bent over backward to accommodate the city by changing its development plan to be more environmentally friendly, and a compromise can be reached.

"They don't get enough credit in all this because they are trying to be good neighbors," Gildersleeve said of the family. "The city has nickel-and-dimed them."

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