It will be both a farm and a college in the next few years, say supporters of a plan to restore Mountain Meadows Farm in North Bend to agricultural production.
It will be a traffic nightmare, accompanied by water and septic system problems and wildlife habitat loss say opponents.
When the two sides came together last Thursday, Aug. 31, for an open house to discuss the project, still years from being a reality, things started off quiet, but got loud and angry, fast.
As staff members from Washington Technology University, a private college scheduled to open in Bellevue in January, introduced the idea of the agricultural branch campus in North Bend, some of the 200-plus audience members talked over them. They expressed opposition to various components of the idea: Water issues because of the property’s being on a private well with a septic system; the traffic demands on the neighboring homes since most traffic will have to come up North Bend’s Ballarat Ave. NE to reach the farm; the potential impact to the deer, elk, bear, cougars and birds that use the property; and even the small likelihood of local students who graduate from the program finding jobs on local farms.
“We’re going to have to answer these questions for King County,” spokesman Brad Owen told the group, before they could get approval to proceed with the idea. “We would be required to do a traffic impact study before we can do anything on the property.”
Owen, Washington’s former Lieutenant Governor and now vice president of Washington Technology University, assured the group that the meeting had been called specifically to hear community members’ concerns, to help the staff in its planning process.
“We didn’t have to do this,” he said, “This is something that we came up with for you to talk to us.”
Several in the audience, though, complained that this meeting was the first time they’d heard from anyone on the project. Staff had said they’d knocked on many doors, contacting neighbors, elected officials and other community members, but when one woman asked for a show of hands of people at the meeting who’d been contacted in advance, only two hands went up.
Project spokeswoman Alexis Hujar had earlier set a welcoming tone for the evening, introducing farm owner Chunlai Hou as a longtime developer of educational institutions, who fell in love with, and now lives in North Bend.
“I believe it’s an incredible commitment from Mr. Hou,” she said.
Hujar also tried to quash some of the rumors that have been circulating about the proposal, including proposed dormitories for 2,000 people and the information about a possible bond for the college on an outdated and unofficial website.
There would be no bond, she said, and staff were working on getting the imposter website taken down. As to the rumors of 2,000 students, she said, “The campus for North Bend is actually going to be about half that size.”
It is also at least two or three years down the road, said Steven Olswang, president of the university. The institution, now online only, is expecting approval of its application to open the physical Bellevue college soon.
“We’re starting in Bellevue, for at least two years,” Olswang said. “So this is a long-term plan for North Bend.”
As to the programming, Olswang said the group wanted to meet the immediate needs of the communities the college campuses were, and would be, in.
“We’re looking at environmental and related programs in agriculture, horticulture, agri-business, recognizing that our specialty is technology,” Olswang said. Viniculture and viticulture, the making of wine and the growing of wine grapes would likely be added, he said, because currently, “There’s only one program on the eastside that has anything to do with winemaking now.”
Ultimately, he also saw the college “moving toward graduate degrees some time down the road, again related to agricultural management.”
Also among the college’s possible future plans is a community education program offered at the North Bend campus, he added.
Several community members questioned how the campus could be established at all, since former owner Raymond Damazzo sold off nearly all of the property’s development rights to King County in 1986.
Putting the farm back to work
Owen answered these questions with a brief history of agriculture in King County, and the emphasis on restoring existing farmland to agricultural uses, as described in the King County Comprehensive Plan updated in 2016.
“There’s a constant reference throughout to … putting farms back to work,” Owen said, particularly highlighting sections R-673, calling on the county to adopt innovative incentives to keep farm land in production and affordable and R-651, adjusting protections for wildlife to allow farms to operate.
Further, Owen cited King County Code section and 21A.08.090, which list agricultural training facilities as a conditionally-permitted use of agricultural land, and section 21A.06.042, which specifies that “Agriculture training facilities may include overnight lodging, meeting rooms, and educational activities.”
Subsection 10 of the permitted uses code restricts the amount of impermeable surface that the facility could create and further specifies that (g) the site will not be required to have sewer extended to it, (h) the traffic generated from the facility won’t require improvements to rural roads; and (j) meals and housing can be provided on the site only in relation to the agricultural training facility.
“So we believe that an educational facility and an agricultural college program is an innovative method of putting this farm back to work,” Owen said.
Following the presentations, audience members were invited to ask questions and raise their concerns. In addition to the traffic effects, water and septic impact and wildlife habitat questions, people asked a variety of questions about whether part of the property would be set aside for park land, whether international students would be welcome at the school, whether park and rides might be used to collect students and bus them to the campus to minimize the traffic, why housing would be needed at all, and so on.
Owen emphasized that many of those questions can’t be answered just yet, since they have only begun the application for a conditional use permit — the first step in a length process.
“Remember, we are at the very beginning of the process,” he said.
‘Fantastic use of the farm’
The final speaker of the night was audience member, and former owner, Ray Damazzo, who recalled buying the land 45 years ago “in the middle of a flood,” and clearing acres of blackberries. He talked of his deep love for every inch of the property, but said, “There’s almost nothing you can do on this farm, that you can make a living off of as a farmer. I think that what is being proposed here tonight is one of the most fantastic uses of Mountain Meadows. If they accomplish 25 percent of what we saw tonight I still would be much in favor and think it’s a great deal. At this point everything is speculation and they have a lot of homework to do and I don’t think anybody needs to be worried about what’s happening. King County is in charge of this property… they control the use of the property and I will tell you they watch it very, very closely.”
An audience member interrupted Damazzo to argue against the project, calling the staff “liars,” which triggered a debate among many members of the group. Rather than shout over the noise, Damazzo simply concluded his comments with “Good night,” and left the meeting.