Tollgate plan wins support

NORTH BEND - A proposal to preserve 409 acres of Tollgate Farm land from development has the support of Metropolitan King County Council members, as well as those who opposed building a 1 million-square-foot office complex and 34-lot residential subdivision on the site.

Councilman David Irons, who represents much of the Snoqualmie Valley, said keeping the site free of development was the right thing to do.

"I think we need to do these things. I think we need to step up and preserve open space," said Irons, a Republican.

Last week, city and county officials announced an initiative to buy Tollgate Farm from its owner, Miller Land and Timber LLC, to keep it from being developed. An exact appraisal of the property is not known, but it is estimated to be worth $12 million to $14 million.

The Trust for Public Land has secured a purchase option on the property. To help pay for the land, King County will spend $3 million this year and $2 million over the next two years.

For its share, the city of North Bend is asking residents to approve a $3 million bond measure, which will be placed on the Sept. 18 primary-election ballot. To pass, the bond needs 60 percent of the vote, and under state law, 40 percent of those who voted in the last general election - last November's presidential election - are required to vote in the primary.

Irons said getting enough people to vote could be difficult.

"It's a tough row to hoe," he said. "That's not going to be an easy thing to do because it is an off-year election."

Funding for the rest of the plan would come from grants, private donations and other sources.

Ron Pedee, a member of Friends of Tollgate Farm, a citizens group that was formed to protest development of the site, believes the North Bend community will support the bond measure, but he added, "It's still going to take a lot of education."

"I think that there will be lots of people willing to dig in and help," he said of a citizens committee that will oversee the bond campaign. "Certainly the people who were associated with Friends of Tollgate Farm are committed to this new [proposal]."

A chairman for the committee has not yet been selected.

Pedee said until last week he was unaware of any deal to preserve the farmland from development. He said his group had been concerned about potential flooding and other environmental impacts from Miller Land and Timber's plans to build on the site, which sits next to the Meadowbrook Farm property that was jointly purchased by the cities of North Bend and Snoqualmie.

The Miller family has owned Tollgate Farm since 1908, and plans to develop the office park and subdivision were first submitted in 1996. Construction of the office park was expected to last 10 to 15 years, and Miller Land and Timber predicted it would create 700 to 3,125 new jobs.

Pedee said the controversy that ensued over developing Tollgate Farm boiled down to one thing: location.

"This was one of the most environmentally sensitive pieces of property in North Bend," he said. "This was just not, in our view, the right project. [It is] too large and in the wrong place."

Snoqualmie Mayor Fuzzy Fletcher said keeping the land as open space would reduce the threat of flooding in his city. He said currently, the land helps retain water, but if it were developed, flood waters would more quickly reach the river, increasing the danger to Snoqualmie residents downstream.

"While some folks may dispute this, especially those folks whose livelihood depends on the science they pretend to speak for, until you have had water up to your waist and watched your family's possessions float down the river, you have no idea what water retention is all about," he said.

He said the Tollgate Farm proposal and the Snoqualmie Preservation Initiative announced earlier this year created a "benchmark" for other communities to emulate.

"I'm very pleased that North Bend was able to make this work. It is a very important piece of the Valley," Fletcher said. "I applaud Mayor Joan [Simpson], along with the North Bend council and the conservancy groups for their efforts on this critical issue.

"Snoqualmie had a part in this, although a minor part, and we stand ready to help as North Bend goes through the rest of the process to save the farm."

Another County Council member, Democrat Larry Phillips of Seattle, said he had been waiting for last week's announcement for a long time.

"When I got the call that it was going to happen, I was just elated," said Phillips, chairman of the council's Natural Resources, Parks and Open Spaces Committee.

Like Irons, he thinks the County Council will support paying a total of $5 million to keep the farm as open space. Purchasing the farm property is divided into three phases, with the county's commitment of $3 million this year going to complete the first phase. Phillips said that money had been set aside in previous years and was specifically targeted for Tollgate Farm.

"I'd be very surprised if the council turned away from this acquisition," Phillips said.

"It's been a landmark that citizens in the immediate area and the region have been anxious to preserve for some time," he added.

While he's in favor of the project, Irons said would like part of the property remain as farmland.

"We're losing our farmland left and right," he said. "That, to me, [keeping part of the site as farmland] would be a wonderful asset to the community."

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