'An incredible opportunity'

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SNOQUALMIE - In what is being touted as "the deal that saved the Falls," the Cascade Land Conservancy provided a first look at the plan to keep the area free from development at a Feb. 14 news conference held at the Salish Lodge and Spa. The plan, called the Snoqualmie Preservation Initiative, represents a multijurisdictional agreement between the city of Snoqualmie, King County, Puget Western Inc. (PWI) and the Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Co. (WRECO).

Featured speakers included Cascade Land Conservancy Executive Director Gene Duvernoy and Snoqualmie Mayor Fuzzy Fletcher, along with King County Executive Ron Sims and County Councilman Larry Phillips, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.

"This is an incredible opportunity," Fletcher said. "The importance of the Falls goes beyond our community and our region. It is a national treasure and worth any effort we can make to save it."

A representative from the Snoqualmie Tribe said it has not yet reviewed the details in the agreement, but would begin the process soon. The Tribe considers Snoqualmie Falls sacred, and has voiced strong opposition to development near the site.

"We're looking forward to going over the plan," said tribal spokeswoman Kathy Barker. "Snoqualmie Falls is for all people, for all time."

If the City Council approves the deal, the proposed Falls Crossing mixed-use development will be significantly reduced in size. Residential, office and retail construction would be limited to 11 acres on the south side of Snoqualmie Parkway. The proposal requires council approval of the initiative by March 15.

In order to secure the Falls Crossing site, about 9,000 acres of undeveloped land in Snoqualmie and along the Raging River will be affected in a complex set of land trades and mutual concessions. Of the $13.3 million purchase price, WRECO would pay $11 million spread out over six years, beginning with a $3 million down payment in June. The company would also donate 12.5 acres to the city of Snoqualmie for construction of 25 to 30 Habitat for Humanity of East King County homes.

In exchange for its investment, WRECO would be allowed to add 268 dwelling units to Phase I of Snoqualmie Ridge. The concession by the city is a density increase to the existing 2,000-home development cap, which has already been reached. The homes would be constructed on property previously approved for building in the Snoqualmie Ridge master plan, but left vacant because the maximum number of allowable dwelling units had been met by concentrating density in other areas.

In addition, the urban growth area (UGA) would be extended to include about 500 acres adjacent to the Phase II section of Snoqualmie Ridge, located along Snoqualmie Parkway just north of Interstate 90. The property falls within the city of Snoqualmie-King County joint planning area. An additional 200 acres of WRECO land would be incorporated into the UGA between two separate parcels. Referred to as the "northwest parcels," the majority of the land lies north of Lake Alice, with a small plot to the east near State Route 202.

Although the deal creates the potential for an expanded Phase II section at Snoqualmie Ridge, the initiative contains several opportunities for WRECO to opt out of the agreement if zoning conditions and time constraints set forth in the agreement are not met, or if they are significantly changed in the City Council or King County Council approval processes.

"We feel very strong, very solid about this deal," said WRECO spokesman Frank Mendizabal. "It is a comprehensive plan involving several parties, and there are performance levels for all parties. But we feel very good about it. We're confident that we will meet our performance measures and the other parties will meet theirs."

If the expectations are not met at any point and WRECO does not follow through with the payment schedule, King County would have the option to pick up the tab. However, with a projected $32 million budget shortfall in 2002 and more than $20 million in both 2003 and 2004, the county is already faced with significant layoffs and deep program cuts.

"We don't think there will be a problem (with the WRECO payments)," Sims told the Valley Record, "but we are prepared in any case. If necessary, we would issue bonds and deal with it through the annual debt service process. We may also defer other open-space acquisitions or parks.

"We're confident the deal will work, but even if it doesn't it is much cheaper to purchase the property now than it will be in the future with the incredible restraints and pressures to develop that will be placed on it down the road."

Sims also addressed provisions that allow expansion of the urban growth area, an issue currently embroiling the County Council in angry debate as amendments to the county's comprehensive plan come under review. The executive has taken a firm stance in opposition to any urban growth encroachment into the rural areas.

Explaining that the city of Snoqualmie will swap land that is currently designated as urban growth reserve area and return it to rural zoning, Sims said there is a net gain of about 700 acres that will be removed from potential urban expansion.

"We are wholly committed to this project," Sims concluded. "This opportunity is so extraordinary, it should not be passed up."

City Administrator Gary Armstrong said the land-use reconfiguration in the initiative will not change Snoqualmie's projected maximum population of about 10,000 by 2014, based on build-out within the urban growth area.

Next week, the Valley Record will follow the money and take a look at the making of the deal.

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