The owners of a 45-acre parcel of land next to Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park say a proposed development would leave most of the property as open space, but neighbors want the land to be part of the park.
On a forested hillside above Newport Way in Issaquah last month, trails advocate Dave Kappler bushwhacked across a steep, slippery slope with several neighbors, using hiking poles for balance.
Periodically, he paused to pull out a topographic map and point to the landscape’s features: a steep cliff here, a tributary of Tibbetts Creek there.
A developer has proposed putting 57 houses on this property, owned by longtime Issaquah residents, the Bergsmas, who once ran the town’s dairy.
But developing this land will require shearing off and regrading the parcel’s steep slopes, and removing 80,000 cubic yards of dirt. To get rid of all that, residents calculate it will require 70 dump truck trips a day, five days a week, for six months.
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Developers would need to clear-cut 22 acres of forest and build more than a thousand linear feet of retaining wall, some of it as high as 20 feet, Kappler said.
But the plans also call for 12 acres, or about a third of the property, to remain untouched. And a public hiking trail would cut through the 45-acre parcel, joining up with popular trails in Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park.
In a city that’s experiencing growing pains, where steep slopes have slumped and shed dirt and rocks, is that enough?
Kappler, a veteran of environmental fights for 41 years and a former Issaquah City Council member, says no. He believes the land is too steep and too hard to develop. He thinks it should be purchased for public use and added to adjoining Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park.
Lee Bergsma, one of the owners, disagrees. He says that when all of the open space is put together, about 70 percent of the site will be undeveloped.
“Essentially the Save Cougar Mountain folks, and anyone else who enjoys recreating in the park, will be able to do so under the development plan without having to raise any money,” Bergsma said via email. “That’s a ‘win-win’ for the neighbors and for our family.”
The opposition to developing this chunk of hillside reflects angst about how fast Issaquah’s remaining forested hillsides and valleys are turning into houses and apartments, and how bad traffic is becoming as a result.
Last September, the Issaquah City Council put a moratorium on most new development, in part because the council believed new construction being proposed was not in line with the city’s vision and codes. The moratorium is set to expire at the end of this year.
Meanwhile, about 300 people formed Save Cougar Mountain to try to stop an earlier proposal by Windward Real Estate Services to develop the Bergsma property, putting 78 homes on the property — more than city regulations would normally allow. That proposal would have included a road connecting the site to a big subdivision to the south called Talus.
The first Windward proposal was turned down by the City Council in the summer, in part because of neighbors’ fears that the new road would become a shortcut between Talus and Newport Way for drivers trying to get around traffic snarls on Highway 900.
So earlier this year, Windward returned with a new proposal for a 57-house development. It is scheduled to be reviewed by a city hearing examiner early in 2018.
Bergsma said Windward’s plans include improving a quarter-mile stretch of Newport Way, where a 4-year-old was killed crossing the road two years ago. As for the environmental concerns, Bergsma called them a nonissue because the development would have to adhere to state-development laws.
The family has owned the property for about 30 years, he said, paying taxes on it all that time, and no one has ever offered to buy the property for park land — although Kevin Brown, the King County Parks director, said he believed the county made an offer for it about 10 years ago.
The family now is considering developing it to give them more financial security, and because they think they’ve found a development company “that does things the right way,” Bergsma said.
But Kappler says “the highest and best use for that land is park.” If it’s developed, he said, “it’s more and more impacts, more problems — it’s just not worth it.”
Money for park purchases is limited, and the Bergsma property isn’t on the county’s short list of land it wants to acquire, said Brown, the parks director.
The Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, a nonprofit that works to conserve open space from Seattle to Central Washington — particularly along the Interstate 90 corridor — wants at least some of the site to be preserved through “thoughtful development” — a compromise solution, said Amy Brockhaus, deputy director of the Greenway.
“We certainly would like to preserve the ecological character of the site and view shed,” she said. “It’s a very prominent side of hillside, right alongside a national scenic byway, and a beautiful part of the Northwest.”
In November 2015, a 5.4-acre parcel in the adjoining development called Talus started to slide, sending mud and rocks onto a city road. The city spent several million dollars to fix up the road and repair damaged utilities. The hillside has been swathed in plastic for two years — neighbors call it “plastic hill.”
Although it’s close to the Bergsma property, that hillside has a different geology and different soils. Still, it was considered a low risk for a slide.
The concern about landslides “is a big trigger for a lot of people in Talus,” said Susan Neville, who lives in Talus and is one of the organizers of Save Cougar Mountain. What assurances do we have, she asked, that a similar slide won’t happen on the Bergsma property?
The other concern is traffic — both the short-term impact of dump trucks carting away the soil, and the long-term impacts of more traffic on busy Newport Way.
That concern extends beyond the Issaquah city borders. Marina Subbaiah, who lives on Southeast May Valley Road, said residents along that unincorporated stretch are especially concerned about dump-truck traffic.
Construction traffic from other developments has been rerouted to the narrow, two-lane road — which has blind curves and missing guardrails — and there have been a series of near misses with students, school buses and cyclists, she said.
Subbaiah said she’s talked to truckers, and they don’t like using May Valley Road either, but Issaquah has banned them from using most city streets.
“Issaquah needs to take responsibility for their own development and not punish rural neighbors for their own mismanaged growth,” she said.
Because of its location on Newport Way, the Bergsma property could be used to achieve a longtime goal of having an Issaquah Alps trailhead that could be easily reached by frequently running, short bus routes from downtown Seattle. That’s been a vision of trails advocates since the 1970s. The property is sandwiched between Cougar Mountain and the busy Issaquah transit center, a few blocks away.
Hikers could take any number of Metro buses that stop at the transit center, cross Highway 900 and walk a short footpath along Tibbetts Creek to a trailhead that would start at the Bergsma property, and link up to Big Tree Ridge Trail, Kappler said.
“We’d certainly like to see a beautiful non-car way to get into the Issaquah Alps,” said Brockhaus, with the Greenway.
But it’s also possible that a careful configuration of the development’s trails could achieve the same thing.
Lee Bergsma said the development that’s now proposed would do that, because a trailhead would start on the property itself, on Newport Way. But Kappler said the proposal, as it stands now, doesn’t go far enough.
“It is such a key parcel to allow everybody to get to wilderness areas,” he said.