It helps that the core group has organizing skills and includes energetic retirees and a stay-at-home mom, who can devote hundreds of hours to the effort.
ISSAQUAH — It was a multimillion-dollar housing development that looked like a done deal, carved out of what’s called “the Issaquah Alps.”
If over the years you have driven on Interstate 90 past the town, you’ve seen the rows of homes sprouting where there used to be woods. The proposed development of 57 homes on 46 acres on the lower slopes of Cougar Mountain would be one more addition.
The paperwork from the developer was well on its way through the bureaucratic channels, including a 137-page Critical Areas Evaluation and Geotechnical Engineering Report that deemed the site suitable for the proposed development if “carefully designed and constructed.”
But the done deal was undone.
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The Bergsma Development, named after the family that ran a dairy here and had bought the land, was stopped with an Issaquah City Council vote on Dec. 3.
And it all happened because of a core group of three residents with no previous background in political activism. For them, it all started with a simple belief: “It did not seem right,” says Kay Haynes.
How they did it could be a template for would-be activists.
Spoiler alert: It helps a lot if all in that core group have organizing skills and include energetic retirees and a stay-at-home mom, who can devote hundreds of hours to the effort.
The development was proposed for property owned by some two dozen Bergsma descendants.
The Bergsma name has a long history in Issaquah. From 1922 to 1969, the family owned the Issaquah Valley Dairy. A 1960s picture shows Bill Bergsma Sr., dressed as Santa Claus, riding in a horse-drawn wagon down Main Street.
By 1986, all that was left of the dairy was an old white barn — “a landmark for people entering the Issaquah Valley,” says the caption on a Issaquah History Museums photo.
The Bergsma descendants entered into an agreement with Windward Real Estate Services of Kirkland, which on its website says it specializes “in difficult transactions and sites that are difficult to develop and build.”
With more families moving to Issaquah, “There’s a need here and we’re just responding to a need,” Jim Tosti, head of Windward, told the Issaquah Reporter in late 2017.
Haynes, 75, was executive director of the nonprofit Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing. She lives next door to Susan Neville, 63, a retired buyer for Macy’s, whose background includes helping launch drugstore.com.
Their homes are in a cluster of three dozen on Cougar Mountain’s lower slopes, the same area that has 1,000 other homes as part of the Talus Development.
Initially, they weren’t trying to stop the Bergsma Development, just a connector road proposed from Bergsma to Talus and then to the Newport Way Northwest arterial.
No, no, Haynes and Neville decided.
Neville remembers talking to a couple with two young boys. “They had moved to Issaquah for the green space. This is not the Issaquah people had planned to move to.”
Haynes and Neville emailed about three dozen neighbors about the changes about to take place and set a meeting at Haynes’ home. Nine neighbors showed up on Feb. 9, 2017.
Haynes and Neville recruited another area resident, Julie Clark, 55, a stay-at-home mom who had worked as an executive assistant at tech startups.
How to start? A petition opposing the connector road should be presented to the city, the group decided.
The petition said traffic would go through narrow streets not designed for high volumes. “Safety of families and children MUST come first,” it said.
Says Clark, “I went door to door, talked to people. It was great meeting people. We collected over 200 signatures.”
The women kept expanding their email list, eventually reaching 2,000 people. The hours they spent kept adding up.
For the core group, over the past 1½ years, that meant attending 36 regular Issaquah City Council meetings; 15 face-to-face meetings with one of the Issaquah council members; four with city planners; five with Issaquah Parks; nine with Metropolitan King County Council members; and four with various other government types. Neville knows this because she kept careful track.
In June 2017, the City Council voted unanimously 7-0 to deny the connector road — and the Bergsma Development.
“It was standing room only,” Clark says of the meeting.
Mary Lou Pauly, mayor of Issaquah, says about why the council voted down the development, “Seeing the challenges with grades, wetlands, slopes, it didn’t seem suitable for subdivision … It was not a mutually beneficial proposal.”
That, however, was just another round in the match.
Windward had needed the City Council’s approval for their development, because at 78 homes it would “cluster” more units on smaller lots than was allowed in city land-use codes.
Windward returned with a plan for a smaller development, of 57 homes, and no connector road, that did not require such a development agreement.
The women decided to seize the momentum.
They would push to have the city buy the 46 acres as a park.
And so the group Save Cougar Mountain was born.
84 feet of signatures
It was about then that they asked David Kappler to join the core group. He’s 70, a retired middle-school teacher and former Issaquah City Council member. On the board of the Issaquah Alps Trail Club, Kappler had been part of a successful effort to save 226 acres of forest on Squak Mountain.
At The Trust for Public Land, which raises funds to acquire parkland, they knew Kappler.
“He was crucial to making this project happen,” says Sam Plotkin, the nonprofit’s project manager for the Northwest.
The trust began working on how to acquire the property.
The group called and sent emails to the media, which in their case gave them credibility exactly because theirs wasn’t a professional PR effort. Stories ran in The Seattle Times, the Issaquah Reporter and the online publication Crosscut.
They thought up a clever publicity stunt. On Oct. 15, during the public-comment session of the City Council meeting, the group dramatically unfurled an 84-foot scroll with 2,500 signatures asking the council to explore acquiring the 46 acres for parkland.
An agreement was reached among the city and Windward and the Bergsma heirs to sell the property for $11 million. On Dec. 3, the City Council approved the plan.
Lee Bergsma, 78, one of the trustees of the property, says there are 28 cousins who have a share in it. Of the Bergsma land, he says, “It’s probably coming to an end. We’ll just move on.”
With a $3 million loan from the Trust for Public Land, $7.6 million of city money and $355,000 from the county, the deal is set to close at the end of February.
The city says it “has a high degree of certainty” that it’ll be able to secure county and state grant money, so that in the end, the city will have to pay only about $3.9 million.
If the city can’t obtain grant money, the agreement allows the city to sell all or a portion of the acreage.
Tosti, head of Windward, says his company spent five years on the project. About selling the land, he says: “We have some feelings both pro and con. We have no animus.”
Pauly says buying the Bergsma land “was always a possibility,” but that it wasn’t on the city’s radar until this core group formed.
She says, “What they did was show there was a broad base of support for purchasing it. It wasn’t just a neighborhood, or a couple of neighbors, it wasn’t a NIMBY, ‘Don’t build on my backyard.’ ”
Says Tosti about citizen activists, “The system is set up so that anybody with $75 bucks and a heartbeat can file an appeal.”
And, he says, “Most importantly, they have the ear of the council. These are the last people to talk to council members.”