Black Diamond is in an uproar over two planned communities that would bring 6,000 new homes and 16,000 residents to a small city connected to major employment centers by two-lane roads.
Amid a lush forest of ferns and moss-draped Douglas fir, Brian Ross explained why folks in Black Diamond shouldn’t fear the two developments he’s preparing to build on more than 1,500 acres.
Parts of this forest will remain standing, wetlands will be protected and trails will connect the old coal-mining town with the new communities.
“You see these old stumps? They’re amazing,” said Ross, owner and CEO of Kirkland-based YarrowBay Holdings. “When I was a kid in the ’60s, we would disappear into the forest and play all day. We want people to have that kind of experience here.”
Ross is raring to break ground but has been frustrated by the lengthy hearings and appeals that have come with a storm of controversy.
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Many vocal residents say the developments are too big for a sleepy town at the far edge of King County’s urban-growth area, many miles from freeways and major job centers.
YarrowBay’s projects, The Villages and Lawson Hills, would bring as many as 6,050 homes over 15 to 20 years, roughly quintupling the city population to more than 20,000.
Similar in concept to Redmond Ridge, Snoqualmie Ridge and Issaquah Highlands, the Black Diamond developments would be the largest planned community in King County, both sides say.
“They call it ‘rural by design,’ ” said Bob Edelman, one of the residents who has appealed the city’s preliminary approval of the projects. “It’s really plunking a city down on top of Black Diamond.
“This is creating a city of 20,000 at the end of a two-lane highway that isn’t going to get any wider. There’s no money to improve the highway. Where are the jobs going to come for these people? They’re not going to be here. Traffic’s going to be a nightmare.”
By the numbers
YarrowBay and city officials say the developments will create jobs, although projecting an accurate number isn’t easy.
“All people think about is the number of homes there could be,” Mayor Rebecca Olness said. “They don’t think about how much open space there will be and parks and trails and retail. We don’t have a grocery store. We don’t have services. We need that.”
Citizens packed hearings last year to speak against the projects and argue that Olness and some City Council members were biased in YarrowBay’s favor.
“There were personal attacks, and it was very unpleasant,” Olness said the day after someone spray-painted on the side of a vacant house in the center of town, “Mayor / Council Whores for Yarrow Bay!!”
The message was removed by neighbors.
The City Council last year gave preliminary approval to the developments and set conditions intended to soften the impact on roads, noise, schools and Lake Sawyer water quality. Opponents appealed to the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board, which ruled the city violated its laws by revising its comprehensive plan without referring it to the Planning Commission.
While the courts review the board’s decision, YarrowBay has submitted plat applications for the first 1,000-plus homes, hoping to “vest” its right to build under the laws now being challenged in court.
Opponents question the city’s ability to impartially review proposals from a company that pays the salaries of virtually all employees involved. Under the principle that “growth pays for growth,” YarrowBay this year will pay the city $1.6 million, or 35 percent of the general fund, underwriting 12 of 27 staff positions. This money reimburses the city for costs associated with reviewing and processing the development plans.
“In Chicago, you call it a bribe,” said Cindy Proctor, an opponent of the projects.
Olness said it is “absolutely untrue” employees are influenced by the source of their paychecks. The developer, she said, is not receiving special treatment.
Howard Botts, whose family moved to Black Diamond in 1933 and who saw it change from a community of miners and loggers to one of long-distance commuters, said he knew when he became mayor in the 1980s that the town needed to grow.
“There wasn’t the tax income coming in to really support the town, to have the services the town needed. I knew we had to grow,” Botts said. “I guess I didn’t realize it was going to grow to the degree that’s talked about now.”
Even with sizable “greenways” of forest and wetland, the developments won’t look much like the one-time company town where coal miners worked, and sometimes died, as deep as a mile underground.
The Villages and Lawson Hills would wrap around the western, southern and eastern sides of town, with areas designated for commercial use, single- and multifamily homes, possibly a retirement community, four schools, wetlands and parks. Developers say the homes would sell for $200,000 to $1 million, at today’s prices.
The new communities would “weave in” to older parts of town, company officials say.
“We’re trying to complement and increase business in downtown, not take away from it,” said Colin Lund, the company’s chief entitlement officer. “We would love to see a 200 percent increase in bakery patronage,” a reference to the popular Black Diamond Bakery.
The stage was set for the developments in 1996, when King County agreed to let Black Diamond expand its boundaries in exchange for property owners preserving 4 acres of forest for every acre added to the city.
The largest landowner, Plum Creek Timber, later sold much of its land to YarrowBay in 2006.
County Councilmember Larry Phillips called the deals that allowed the city to expand “a monumental victory” against uncontrolled sprawl.
YarrowBay this year backed out of a separate, $51 million agreement to buy the county’s unincorporated, 156-acre “Donut Hole” in Maple Valley, saying there was too much uncertainty about how the property could be developed.
If all goes according to plan, Black Diamond will become an employment center attracting workers from nearby Covington and Maple Valley “once we can get Black Diamond on the map,” YarrowBay’s Ross said.
No one knows how many jobs The Villages and Lawson Hills would bring. “We’re guessing,” Olness said, noting traffic impacts would be measured after 850 homes are built, to determine if more road improvements are needed.
YarrowBay would pay most of the cost of Black Diamond’s 20-year road plan, and a share of road work in Covington and Maple Valley.
Even with that help, Maple Valley City Manager David Johnston said, congestion will worsen on Highway 169, where residents already spend up to an hour and a half traveling each way to jobs at Boeing in Renton and Microsoft in Redmond.
Traffic on pastoral Green Valley Road is expected to increase 300 to 400 percent.
City Councilmember Craig Goodwin said he voted in favor of the development proposals — even though he thought The Villages’ density of nearly nine homes per residential acre was “poor public policy” — because the projects were consistent with city law.
The YarrowBay communities could be the last of their kind to be permitted in King County for a long time, said Johnston and King County Development and Environmental Services Director John Starbard.
Vision 2040, a long-range plan adopted in 2008 by the Puget Sound Regional Council, renounced “fully contained communities” separated from cities and recommended that no more than 5 percent of future population growth take place in small cities such as Black Diamond.
King County officials have objected to YarrowBay’s plan to locate up to three public schools and a large stormwater pond on the rural side of the urban-growth boundary.
Edelman, a retired Boeing engineer, said he isn’t opposed to development — “I’m a Republican,” he whispers — and could live with a scaled-down proposal.
“Slow down,” he said. “Start with a small pace and scale. Expand as demand builds.”
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105