Trouble lurks in proposed Tollgate Farm plan

Guest Columnist

Preserve or pave? The question permeates the Valley.

Ridge Phase II, more Salish, electricity and blasting at the Falls, more septic tanks in our aquifer, granting sensitive area variances. This is smart growth? Well red alert! Tollgate Farm is next.

I know you thought it was saved. Wrong! The new draft plan is putting a more than 130-car parking lot, storage shed, backstops, trash cans, storm drains, five ball fields, sewage pipes and bulldozers on the central meadow! The plan destroys forever, as we know it, the last remnant of our 12,000-year-old historic prairie. It will curtail, if not put out of business, Ron Crouch’s 30-year-old cattle farm, the last in the Valley.

It severely compromises an icon, pollutes our view shed and references extensive grading so the adjacent industrial park and downtown businesses can bring in fill and build in the floodway.

The 100-year-old farmhouse saw the first white woman in the Valley, an heirloom apple orchard and the Wyrsch’s dairy farm. In 2000, the Miller Land and Timber Company (ML&TC) were planning on paving the farm with one-million square feet of industrial park. At the eleventh hour, both old and new Valley residents united to form Friends of Tollgate Farm, held countless meetings, testified at public hearings and when the Miller family generously agreed to sell the farm, ran a bond campaign.

The bond failed by 22 votes, due in part to last-minute falsehoods spread by a former North Bend City Council member. An anonymous donor came forward with a huge check and the city and county bought the farm without new taxes, preserving it forever as open space. End of story? Wrong again!

The current plan contains three farm-destroying elements.

The first is compensatory flood storage. Part of the deal was that not all of the farm was sold. A piece on the south side of North Bend Way was retained and developed by, you guessed it, ML&TC! Easements were attached to the sale granting the right to use specific tracts of the sold parcels to mitigate the environmental and flood impacts. Councilman Sollitto wisely attached a section in the final approval of the Master Site Plan preventing storage ponds on the central meadow. What does this have to do with the Tollgate plan?

Curiously, the first plan shows over a third of the farm being bulldozed for flood water conveyance and compensatory storage. More curious, the former mayor, administrators and a ML&TC representative showed up at an advisory committee meeting and incorrectly instructed them to stop questioning the issue of compensatory storage and refrain from talking to council members due to a law suit, yet research shows none then or now. Why was the committee shown an ordinance purporting to mandate ball fields, when in actuality it is simply language from the failed bond ordinance and carries no legal or legislative weight? Why do recently acquired staff memos continually reference ML&TC, compensatory storage and contain things like: “… avoid stirring up the council while the Tollgate Master Site Plan is pending …” and “once the preferred master plan is selected by the city, the Miller’s are clear to pursue owner approval for a storm/flood conveyance and/or compensatory storage plan … ?” Beware! The bulldozing forces are still at work. We shall see how much backbone the new council and mayor have.

The second issue is ball fields. Baseball and soccer are great, played and coached them myself. But not on Tollgate, please! They require paving a parking lot, running sewer, garbage, vandalism, noise, lights, bulldozing, non-native grass, mowing, fertilizing, weed control pollution, water and sewer bills, etc. Maybe, if we’re desperate, but we aren’t. The Little League board, whom I have tremendous admiration for, are, of course, advocating for more fields. However, the league stretches beyond North Bend city limits.

According to the national standard ratio for cities, we already have enough fields for our population. It is dead wrong to sacrifice any of the irreplaceable history, wildlife, flora, or environmental beauty of Tollgate Farm to facilitate ratios exceeding 200 percent of the established local level of service set by national standards. Oh, did I mention the construction cost for the fields and supporting features is over half a million dollars and $55,000 annually? Instead repair existing unused fields and collaborate with the schools, Valley and county.

Then there’s the third issue. “We spent millions of dollars to buy this land and we need to use it for something.” We already are. Leasing it as a cattle farm is a revenue generator and significantly reduces maintenance costs. Preserving a wildlife corridor is a use; preserving view sheds, protecting wetlands, respecting Native American artifacts, culture and 12,000 years of history – all uses. Just simply keeping a rare, beautiful place for weary eyes and tired souls to rest for a moment as they pass by is a critical rural use.

The plan should challenge us to: return native plants, increase wilderness, recreate history, walk instead of drive and rehabilitate ecosystems. Good people, good intentions, incorrect assumptions, inaccurate figures, a poor plan.

Jack Webber is a former North Bend City Council member and Web master for