A deal between Bellevue and King County allows developers to build more densely in the city's Bel-Red neighborhood, in exchange for payments that allow the county to preserve between 3,000 and 6,000 acres of rural land.

Bellevue and King County have reached a complicated deal that allows developers to build more densely in the city’s Bel-Red neighborhood, in exchange for payments that will permanently preserve from 3,000 to 6,000 acres of rural land in the county.

The deal is also the last hurdle in a long process to open up Bel-Red to complete redevelopment. Now that all the legal agreements are in place, the stage is set for developers to begin submitting their plans and redesigning the area.

City plans call for the 900-acre Bel-Red corridor — an area of sprawling warehouses and steady truck traffic — to be turned into the region’s first development of 12- to 15-story office buildings and apartments, designed from scratch around planned light-rail stations.

And it’s become a darling of smart-growth advocates, who often cite it as a visionary plan.

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“This is smart growth in action,” said Jeff Pavey, a program director for the Cascade Land Conservancy, a land conservation and stewardship organization.

The transfer of development-rights agreement between the city and King County means Bellevue will allow a developer to buy the right to build more densely in the Bel-Red area in exchange for saving land outside of the city. Even though the property saved won’t be in Bellevue, city officials decided it was part of good regional planning.

Under the agreement, in exchange for being allowed to build more units, a developer would buy development credits to preserve farmland and woods in specific areas of rural King County.

For example, a farmer could offer to sell the development credits on his farm. The developer would make an offer to the farmer to buy those credits, which would preserve the farmland. In the past, some credits in the region have sold for $20,000 each, but the dollar value is variable — it’s determined by negotiations between the rural landowner and the developer.

Each credit purchased allows the developer to build an additional 1,333 square feet, or about one residential unit, in the Bel-Red corridor. The program is limited to 75 credits, or 100,000 square feet of development area, whichever comes first.

“We’re acting in a regional manner,” said City Councilman John Chelminiak.

Bellevue is giving something up by transferring the development rights to rural King County. But the money will preserve land in the White River watershed, for example, where Bellevue’s drinking water comes from. In the long run, that may save money the city would have to spend treating drinking water, he said.

The city will direct developers to purchase development rights in a couple of specific areas that are outside the city but have a close connection to Bellevue, including farms in the Snoqualmie Valley that supply the Bellevue farmers market; the Mountains to Sound Greenway along Interstate 90; and the White River watershed.

As part of the agreement, King County also will pay Bellevue $750,000 to buy 1.3 acres of open space in the Bel-Red area. The gravel parking lot that’s being purchased will one day become part of a restored stream tributary.

With the economy still in the doldrums, no new development is likely to happen in the near future, said Paul Inghram, comprehensive planning manager for Bellevue. But with all the agreements in place, everything is ready to roll when the economy picks up.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com