Joshua Freed was cleared of ethics violations in his purchase of the Wayne Golf Course back nine, but signs urging his impeachment have mushroomed around town. How does he balance the roles of mayor and private developer?
Standing in the middle of Verde, a new, upscale subdivision, Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed is more interested in looking forward than back.
He grew up on this seven-acre property, caught frogs in the two ponds, planted the cypress trees now lining the property’s edge. Until three months ago, he, his wife, Lindie, and their five children lived here.
But Freed is also the subdivision’s developer, and in March he bulldozed the 1928 farmhouse, barn and water tower — without the required city demolition permits or a signoff from the historic landmarks board — to make way for 26 five- and six-bedroom homes that will sell for $850,000 and up.
He paid a $2,000 fine for what he said was an “unfortunate misunderstanding and not skulduggery” and seems surprised at the anger that has enveloped him over the past few months as his roles of elected official and homebuilder have collided.
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This month an independent investigation cleared Freed of allegations of a conflict of interest and ethics violations over the purchase, with a group of investors, of the 38-acre back nine of Wayne Golf Course, after a city option to buy the land lapsed. He said he’s proceeding with plans to build 50 houses on the fairways, while also in discussions about a possible sale to the conservation group Forterra.
He’s not up for re-election until 2017, but Mark Lamb, his real-estate attorney and City Council colleague, is up this fall and could bear the brunt of the outrage reflected in the “Impeach Joshua Freed” signs that mushroomed around town when the ethics investigation was ordered in March.
Freed, elected mayor by his fellow council members in 2014, can’t actually be impeached. And with the ethics investigation clearing him of wrongdoing, it’s unlikely a judge would find legal grounds for a recall.
Still, the signs haven’t come down and the anger in many quarters seems unabated.
Some residents argue that Freed’s purchase of the golf course is further evidence that developers hold too much sway in the city. Some of Freed’s council colleagues are dismayed about what they see as a lack of candor. And many residents of Bentley, his first Bothell subdivision, are fuming over what they say is poor construction quality and an unresponsive builder who also happens to be their mayor.
“There was quite a lot of rejoicing in the neighborhood when the ‘Impeach Freed’ signs went up,” said homeowner Justin Rockwood.
“I haven’t felt any conflict”
On a tour of Bothell, Freed, 41, repeats what he said when the results of the ethics inquiry were announced: “I did nothing wrong. It was private property sold by the owner of private land. They have a right to sell it to whoever they choose.”
His manner is friendly and straightforward. He explains that he’s raised his kids with the same Christian values of honesty, integrity and service to others by which he’s tried to live his life.
And he said the roles of developer and City Council member have often complemented each other.
“I haven’t felt any conflict,” he said. “If anything, I’ve gotten more scrutiny from being a developer in Bothell and being the mayor. It took three years to get the plans for Verde approved. I think the staff wanted to make sure that everything was done properly and to code.”
Freed grew up in a strongly Christian family. His parents attended Seattle Pacific College, now a university. He graduated from the same school, with a degree in business management, and ran an online party-supply company with his wife. Later he got a master’s degree in counseling from Mars Hill Graduate School (no relation to the former church of that name) and was a private therapist for several years.
His Seattle Pacific political-science professor, Reed Davis, who has kept in touch over the years, said Freed was both intensely spiritual and a political junkie.
“All my colleagues knew him as a person of remarkable character,” said Davis, a former chairman of the King County Republican Party. “I wasn’t at all surprised when he got involved in politics. He had community service in his blood.”
Even in the midst of the ethics uproar, Freed was thinking about service.
In late March he sent an email to Bothell Christian leaders inviting them to meet and talk about how they could help city residents with marital problems, financial worries, addiction and abuse.
“I have a deep desire to see the City of Bothell have a rekindling of faith in Jesus Christ, a vision you all share,” Freed wrote. He signed the letter: Joshua Freed, Mayor, City of Bothell.
Asked about the letter, Freed said he didn’t see any conflict between state and religion, between public office and private belief.
“A lot of people who need help won’t walk through the church doors. This was a way to think about how we might reach out to them,” he said.
Freed, a Republican, was just 29 when he ran for state representative in 2002. He narrowly lost that election, and a subsequent one, to two different Democrats and then won a seat on the nonpartisan Bothell City Council in 2005.
A nonelected city manager runs Bothell’s daily operations. The mayor presides over council meetings and at ceremonial events.
Freed started homebuilding, he said, the same year he ran for City Council, when he was unable to sell some lots he’d developed and decided to build the houses himself. Over the past decade, he’s built a dozen subdivisions, from 16 homes to 139 and selling from $350,000 to over $1 million, most on the Eastside.
He took over the final 48 lots of the 126-home Bentley development, just across 100th Avenue Northeast from the Freed Farm, after another homebuilder lost them to a bank in 2008.
“Through the grace of God and my team’s hard work we continue to build on past success,” he said in an email about how he got started as a developer.
Many Bentley homeowners say they’ve encountered problems during construction and since they’ve moved in over the past two years. The houses feature four and five bedrooms, three-car garages and sales prices of $750,000 and more.
The buyers point to cracks in the foundation, unstable decks, rolling floors and interior doors that will no longer close because of uneven settling. One buyer, Robert Headlee, hired an independent structural engineer after he said his garage dropped about two inches and a large crack opened in the concrete slab.
The engineer’s report, forwarded to the city building department, found that a supporting beam was installed over fill dirt and not atop a concrete column, which the report said “could not be used due to its improper location.”
Other issues with the Headlee home, including bowed walls, cracks and compressed door frames, the report concluded, were due to the normal shrinking of the wood framing and were “not structurally significant.”
Freed said the problems encountered in Bentley are typical for new home construction. Element Residential, his company, doesn’t have its own framing or plumbing crews. One new home may require 30 to 40 subcontractors, he said.
“It’s not unique. All homebuilders hire different trades. I would call them the normal range of issues,” he said, adding that his firm continues to follow up on residents’ complaints.
Last August, the state Department of Revenue issued a warrant to Element Residential for $165,000 in unpaid taxes for 2010 to 2013. The outstanding debt was paid last November. Freed said he had four housing developments going at once and taxes on some services, such as architecture and web design, were improperly billed to just one development.
“It was a painful lesson for my accounting department, but no one was trying to skirt taxes,” he said.
Freed is now overseeing construction of the 26 new homes on his family’s former land. He’s proud of the environmentally friendly features of the subdivision, Bothell’s first under a green planned-development ordinance that he said he helped get approved by the City Council. Bioswales and rain gardens collect and filter stormwater runoff. Porous concrete covers some parking areas, to reduce impervious surfaces.
“We’re dedicated to doing things the right way,” says the marketing copy for the Verde homes.
Freed said he’s happy the ethics investigation cleared him of wrongdoing. He wants to continue his passion for green development. He’d like to finish out his third term.
Said Freed, “I’m ready to focus on the good things going on in Bothell.”