October 2, 2008 · Updated 2:08 PM
NORTH BEND - City and county leaders on Monday unveiled an ambitious plan to save the historic Tollgate Farm property from development, and they called on North Bend voters to approve a $3 million bond measure in September to help guarantee that the land would continue to be open space for future residents.
"We now have an opportunity to save the Tollgate for posterity," said North Bend Mayor Joan Simpson. "For the cost of a latte a week from each of us, we can save the historic Tollgate property for all our community to enjoy for generations to come."
Last week The Trust for Public Land, a national non-profit organization dedicated to land conservation and building livable communities, secured an option to purchase the 409-acre farm site on the northwestern edge of North Bend from Miller Land and Timber LLC. An exact appraisal of the property has not been completed, but officials estimate the farm's value to be from $12 million to $14 million.
To help buy the land, the city will place a $3 million bond measure on the Sept. 18 primary ballot. King County will contribute $3 million this year, said Executive Ron Sims, adding that he will ask for an additional $2 million in 2002 and 2003. To fund the balance, the city is applying for grants and The Trust for Public Lands is soliciting private donations.
Sims said once the county learned there was a possibility to preserve Tollgate Farm, it acted aggressively.
"The reason why King County is putting in the $3 million immediately is that we think that this is an incredible opportunity, and a purchase that must be made," he said. "Generations from now, people will look back and think that it was an incredibly prudent and wise decision to do.
"If we can't accomplish it, it would be a real tragedy," he added.
The land acquisition is divided into three phases. In the first phase, which must be completed by July, 300 acres of environmentally sensitive land east and west of North Bend Way would be protected, including an area that was slated to be developed into a residential subdivision. The county's immediate infusion of $3 million will go toward that first step.
In the second phase, the city of North Bend would pay $3 million to protect 50 acres, mostly comprised of a meadow in a parcel of land near where Boalch Avenue meets State Route 202, and on which sits the Tollgate farm house. The city has until Sept. 30 to complete this phase, which is why officials placed the bond measure on the primary election ballot.
The Tollgate Farm property was to be the site of a 1 million-square-foot office complex that would be built over several years and create 700 to 3,000 new jobs, according to the Miller family. That project, and the proposed 34-lot subdivision, is now before the city's Planning Commission.
Those proposed developments lay at the heart of a five-year-long controversy over whether the Tollgate Farm land should be developed. Opponents said building on the land would harm the surrounding environment, as well as increase flooding risks. But after going through a lengthy environmental-review process, North Bend city staff signed off on both projects, providing Miller Land and Timber mitigate any potential harm to the land.
At public meetings, the subject has drawn the ire of many Valley residents, including neighboring landowners, Snoqualmie Mayor Fuzzy Fletcher and the Snoqualmie Tribe.
Michael Kenyon, North Bend city attorney, said sometime between now and Sept. 30, the Miller family will likely submit a letter to the Planning Commission, asking commissioners to put both applications on hold. However, Miller Land and Timber will continue its plans to develop the land until all three phases of acquisition have been completed.
The third and final phase would protect the remaining acres on a triangle-shaped piece of land on the north side of North Bend Way. The deadline to preserve it is December 2002. If all the phases are completed, the city of North Bend and King County would jointly own the land.
Officials with North Bend and The Trust for Public Lands stressed that the proposal to buy the Tollgate Farm property is not a done deal. Simpson said the Sept. 18 primary election could pose a significant hurdle for the city to jump.
Two important criteria must be met: The city needs 40 percent of those who voted in the last general election to vote in the September primary election. And in order to pass, 60 percent of those voting need to approve it. The stumbling block could come from the first requirement. In the 2000 presidential election, 75 percent of North Bend voters made their way to the polls, which means the city needs an unusually high number of voters to cast ballots in the primary.
It's possible that if the bond measure fails, it could be placed on the November general election ballot, Simpson said, but city officials would rather it pass on the first try.
"If the community really wants to save the farm ... they've got one shot," Kenyon said.
Simpson said the City Council will be asked to pass a bond resolution in June, and a citizens committee will be formed to oversee the bond campaign. The timeline to have the bond approved by September, she admitted, was "tight."
"We have our work cut out for us, for sure," she said.
But she believes the community will support the effort. In a 1999 community survey, 64.4 percent of people asked said they would be willing to pay additional taxes or fees to protect river and stream corridors. She said North Bend residents have long held to the idea that the city should keep its rural character.
"I have consistently had the people tell me for many years that [support for] purchase of open-space acquisition is there," she said. "We believe that with the $3 million open-space bond will not be a major burden to any of the property owners inside the city limits."
Monday's announcement was the culmination of an on-again, off-again effort to preserve the Tollgate Farm. Kent Whitehead, project manager for The Trust for Public Land's regional office in Seattle, said his organization has been eyeing the land for some time.
"We've had an interest in the property for quite a while, and our progress had kind of gone in fits and starts," he said. "We had reached a lull about a year ago, and about nine months ago we began talking again with the Miller family to see if there might be a solution for all or part of the property.
"It's just been a lot of hard work on everyone's part over the past six months to come up with a package that meets the Millers' goals and needs, and meets The Trust for Public Lands' needs and is responsive to what the city and county are interested in doing," he continued. "We think it's going to be a great deal."
Mark Sollitto, North Bend city councilman, said preserving Tollgate Farm would be the final piece in a green-space puzzle that includes the Mount Si Conservation Area, the Snoqualmie National Forest, the Snoqualmie Tree Farm and the Cedar River Watershed.
"It represents, in my mind, a truly unique open-space system unrivaled anywhere on the West Coast, in my opinion," he said.
The councilman credited the Miller family for its willingness to find common ground on preservation efforts.
"I think the key thing to remember here is the family ... has given North Bend an opportunity to get over this far," Sollitto said.
"Thank you for having the vision to work in cooperation with the community to help give us a chance to protect what I believe also is a tremendous resource," he said to Lock Miller, who had attended Monday's announcement, and to Campbell Mathewson, a lawyer for the family.
Mathewson said like city officials, the Miller family is waiting to see what happens this summer.
"We're anxious to watch the process go through," he said.
This year is turning out to be a historic one for land preservation in the Snoqualmie Valley. In February, Snoqualmie, King County and Cascade Land Conservancy officials announced they had created the Snoqualmie Preservation Initiative, which would save about 10,000 ac