Initiative required creativity

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SNOQUALMIE - Snoqualmie's sweeping land-swap proposal appears to be well on its way to becoming a reality following the Snoqualmie City Council introduction of a memorandum of understanding between the city, King County, the Cascade Land Conservancy (CLC) and the Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Co. (WRECO) at its Monday night regular meeting. The document outlines the general terms and intent of the proposed agreement, along with timelines for payments and actions to achieve the goals established for each party.

Adoption of memorandum is scheduled for a vote March 12. Following the council action, an OK from the Metropolitan King County Council would save the land near Snoqualmie Falls from development.

But now that the big picture is framed around the huge, multijurisdictional, multimillion dollar Snoqualmie Preservation Initiative, city officials are filling in the blanks around details, such as where the money is coming from, and who sought whom for the eleventh-hour rescue.

If everything goes according to plan, the $13.3 million purchase price breaks down like this: On July 1, WRECO will pay $3.3 million. On June 30, 2003, the city of Snoqualmie will pay $1.65 million, and WRECO will pay another $350,000. On June 30, 2005, WRECO will pay $2 million, followed by a $6 million payment on June 30, 2007. These figures account for the total purchase price to be paid to Falls Crossing landowner Puget Western Inc. (PWI).

According to city officials, Snoqualmie's $1.65 million will come out of real-estate excise tax funds. About $1 million each year is generated through real-estate transactions and related business conducted within the city limits. The money is used to fund city services, buy equipment and pay for other municipal expenditures.

"There are two, separate real-estate excise tax programs," said City Administrator Gary Armstrong. "Each has very specific funds uses associated with them, but both allow this type of expenditure. We have until 2003 to make the payment, and we can defer other acquisitions if we need to."

As partial mitigation for the 268 homes that will be added to Phase I of Snoqualmie Ridge, WRECO would kick in an additional $1 million toward the estimated $2.1 million needed to build a pedestrian/equestrian bridge across the Snoqualmie River, just east of the Parkway. The city of Snoqualmie has already secured $330,000 in grant money to add to the pot, and it will seek further grant sources to complete the bridge project. King County has also made a funding commitment for an unspecified amount.

But pulling together the partners and financial commitments to meet the purchase price was no simple matter, city officials explained. The effort to find a conservation buyer was led by a three-person team consisting of Armstrong, Planning Director Nancy Tucker and City Attorney Pat Anderson. Despite efforts to involve the Trust for Public Lands, state parks, citizens' groups and corporate preservation organizations, the negotiating team was unable to get commitments for the large blocks of money needed to fund the acquisition.

"On one hand, we were trying to protect the viewshed through the strict conditions developed by the Planning Commission, but at the same time we were talking with others to find a way to buy out (PWI's) interest. At some point last year, staff approached WRECO," Armstrong said. "We were trying to find the value for them."

Following initial discussions with the city's negotiating team, WRECO contacted the CLC. The first meeting between CLC Executive Director Gene Duvernoy and city staff occurred in early December.

"We talked about what we needed to have and what we were willing to deal with or bargain for to make this happen," Armstrong explained. "At this point, all ideas were thrown on the table. This is when we started thinking outside the bureaucratic box - we knew that we had to be very creative if there was to be any chance at all."

Encouraged, Duvernoy quickly contacted King County, asking the executive staff if there was interest at the county level for a land swap or for the removal of development rights from the Falls Crossing property. The CLC had already been working with the county, seeking a conservation acquisition of about 6,800 acres along the Raging River.

"We had to keep Puget Western at the table and give them a purchase and sale agreement they could accept," Armstrong said. "Each of the parties knew what they wanted and what they had to have out of these negotiations. The problem was how to get there."

The answer came through combining the Raging River conservation proposal with the Falls Crossing effort, thereby bringing King County, along with its commitment for contingency funding, directly to the table in full partnership. The parties held two to three negotiation meetings each week, logging more than 100 hours in just over two months.

"Negotiations fell apart at least five times," Armstrong said. "Things would start to fall off. Whenever that happened and the discussions went sideways, we talked by telephone at night and on the weekends. We knew that we had to find the value for everyone and look at regional issues to make the deal come together."

The value for the county comes in accomplishing the Raging River conservation sought by King County Executive Ron Sims. For WRECO, the ability to add 268 more homes to Phase I at Snoqualmie Ridge, coupled with rezoning in an acre-for-acre land swap in the urban area, satisfies its investment in the agreement. For its part, the city of Snoqualmie gains a six-acre municipal building site, already planned for in future city expenditures. PWI receives fair compensation for the property and retains its ability to develop the Falls Crossing project on a smaller scale, and on less sensitive land south of the Snoqualmie Parkway.

"Things looked pretty bleak from time to time," Armstrong concluded, "but I never gave up hope. Even in the worst of times, I believed that if we worked hard enough we would find a way."

So far there has been no strong opposition to the proposal. City officials said that they believe the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks, they expect the initiative will win broad support in the community and the region.

Next week, the Valley Record will look at the different land uses associated with the property involved in the Snoqualmie Preservation Initiative.

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