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Sims: Everyone wins in SPI agreement

SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - The year 2001 has been a benchmark one in terms of preserving land in the Snoqualmie Valley.

In North Bend, voters will decide in September whether to approve a $3 million bond measure, which, combined with money from King County and other sources, would keep the 419-acre Tollgate Farm property from being developed.

But the most dramatic news came earlier this year, when the city of Snoqualmie, King County, the Cascade Land Conservancy, Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Co. and Puget Western Inc., owner of the controversial Falls Crossing development site, announced a sweeping series of agreements that - if everything goes according to plan - would preserve nearly 10,000 acres of land in and around the city of Snoqualmie, including 145 acres near Snoqualmie Falls.

Ron Sims was there to help announce what is now called the Snoqualmie Preservation Initiative (SPI), just as he was there to herald the deal to preserve Tollgate Farm. The county executive is in the middle of a re-election campaign, and he is facing the thorny issue of a projected budget shortfall for 2002. But despite those obstacles, talking about the SPI is enough to bring a smile to his face.

"I think it serves a multipurpose," he said of the plan during a recent interview with the Valley Record. "It protects the viewshed, and that was absolutely critical. That was [Snoqualmie] Mayor [Fuzzy] Fletcher's No. 1 priority."

The county had its interests, as well. It wanted to protect land along the Raging Rivers, specifically near the headwaters, which could have been developed. "We really wanted badly to put those into forestry," Sims said.

"What we really wanted to do was to lock away in perpetuity areas and keep them green, keep them in forest. And these are working forests. We're not saying they're going to [serve as] open space. We've said, "Here's the forests, and they're going to be working forests."

At the same time, Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Co. (WRECO) was looking to develop Phase II of its master-plan community on Snoqualmie Ridge. By leveraging all three of those interests, the city of Snoqualmie was able to limit the Falls Crossing development to land south of Snoqualmie Parkway, and the Cascade Land Conservancy helped in the transfer of development rights from the Raging River lands.

For its part, WRECO will begin Phase II expansion, while paying the bulk of the SPI's $13 million price tag.

"Everybody won. Weyerhaeuser got what it wanted. We got what we wanted, which was to reduce the urban imprint in this area and to increase the amount of forestry. And the city of Snoqualmie got what it wanted, which was protection of the viewshed."

Because of the different parties involved in the SPI, the agreement is exceedingly complex; the final funding agreement document is about two inches thick. Sims said some people from other areas of the country have questioned why the SPI was constructed the way it was. His answer to them is, that's the way it had to be.

"It's interesting because there was no other way to make this work than to serve the multiple interests that were here," he said.

"If you look at it, in the end, there's very little money being transacted, in terms of public funds. It's basically allowing a lot of private funds," Sims continued. "There was no question the city of Snoqualmie had to put up money, but if you look at it in the long run, we got a considerable amount of acreage protected, and we got that protected for very little money being put forward." Out of the $13 million cost, the city of Snoqualmie's portion is relatively small at $1.65 million, and the City Council recently agreed to issue general-obligations bonds in order to pay for it.

As the county grows, Sims said it's becoming increasingly important to contain that growth within designated areas. Phase II of Snoqualmie Ridge is one of those areas.

"We [created the SPI] in a way that, obviously, we were concerned about the extent of what we call 'unbridled development,' and now we know that we are going to be able to contain the development within the footprint that already has sewers, already has roadways and has businesses nearby," he said.

That concern extends to the rest of King County, and Sims said his staff is working to protect rural areas of the county while keeping development contained in more urban settings.

He said as more and more rural land is preserved, "You're going to have views all over this county. You're going to have forests all over this county, and you're going to have extraordinary protections of watersheds, rivers, steams and creeks.

"You're going to have wildlife. You're going to have salmon in our rivers. You're going to have clean water, all because of the structures that we're putting in place today.

Following the announcement of the effort to preserve Tollgate Farm, an editorial in the Valley Record warned that staving off development could limit family-wage job opportunities in the Valley. Sims said those job opportunities will be there, but they may be in more urban settings.

"People will commute into those job centers," he said. "So people are not going to be denied employment.

"An individual that says, 'We're missing out on jobs,' is an individual that says, "We want growth to come out here,'" Sims added. "We have not heard the majority of voices in this community, whether it's North Bend or Carnation or Duvall or Fall City, saying to us: "Bring out urban development." We have never heard that." That level of consensus may be more difficult to reach when it comes to next year's budget. With officials projecting a shortfall of a whopping $35.8 million in 2002, county programs and departments are facing cuts, although Sims was quick to say the Si View Pool and Community Center would keep its funding.

The executive said his staff has identified a way to save $25 million so far, and by the time his budget is submitted to the County Council in October, he hopes to have the rest earmarked.

"We've not had this kind of budget cut ever," Sims said, adding that the county has long since stopped trimming the fat from the budget and is now reduced to cutting off entire limbs. The reason for the shortfall is twofold: The county is losing money as cities incorporate or annex land, and the stateOs tax system is out of date.

"The county is under a tax structure created in the 1800s," he said. But since then, the Legislature has mandated that counties provide services - such as those for the mentally ill - without providing the necessary funding. Sims said that practice has to stop, as more shortfalls are expected over the next few years.

Other issues facing King County are compliance with the Endangered Species Act, fully implementing the two-tenths sales-tax increase approved by voters last year for Metro services by building more park-and-ride lots, dealing with non-point source pollution and bringing affordable housing to the region.

Sims' GOP challenger in the November election is Santos Contreras, a Kirkland City Council member and former director of union relations for the Boeing Co. Sims said his endorsements from both Republicans and Democrats and urban and rural residents show he has the ability to bring people together.

"My opponent is going to have to out-work me and out-idea me," he said.

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