The sale of a 104-acre park by Snohomish County to the Northshore School District for a future school is raising the ire of neighbors and the city of Woodinville, who have filed lawsuits saying the public didn’t get a chance to weigh in.
For the past three years, neighbors of the former Wellington Hills golf course just north of Woodinville have fought Snohomish County’s plans to create a park out of the 104-acre property, arguing that the proposed four lighted sports fields with a big parking lot would create a “Costco on the hill,” with noise, traffic and an end to their rural peace and quiet.
And they don’t like the alternative, either.
Last month, the county announced it was selling the land to the Northshore School District as a potential site for future schools. That has drawn anger — and two lawsuits — over the secrecy surrounding the negotiations and concerns about development in the unincorporated area that’s just outside the Urban Growth Boundary, the line that is supposed to limit sprawl by keeping dense development inside it.
The Northshore School Board is scheduled to vote on the purchase at its meeting Tuesday afternoon. It delayed the vote two weeks ago after the city of Woodinville filed suit against Snohomish County over the planned sale. Last week, Neighbors to Save Wellington Park filed its own lawsuit, arguing that state laws require public notice, public hearings and an environmental review when publicly owned lands change hands or uses.
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“They (Snohomish County) have yet to explain how they could be concealing a plan to sell a public park,” said Peter Eglick, attorney for Woodinville.
County parks officials say they worked with the neighbors and the city on plans for the proposed park, and agreed to limit development to about one-quarter of the total size of the site, which is now rolling hills with stands of mature trees and views of the Olympic Mountains. But the neighbors and the city sued over that proposal in 2013, and officials last month approved the purchase of 65 acres on Highway 9 instead, for which the county is paying $9 million.
The County Council also approved the sale of the Wellington Hills site to the school district for $11.2 million.
“We listened to the neighbors as long as we could. We reasoned with them as long as we could. At some point, we have to say we’ve found the best solution we can,” said Tom Teigen, director of parks and recreation for the county.
He also defended the secrecy surrounding the sale, saying that land transactions are one area for which public agencies are allowed to hold confidential negotiations. He also said that land can be sold from one public entity to another “without extensive public process.”
Snohomish County originally acquired the former golf course for almost $10 million from the University of Washington, which at one time considered it for a North End satellite campus that was ultimately located in Bothell.
That purchase grew out of a $70 million mitigation agreement with King County related to the Brightwater sewage treatment plant in Snohomish County, built just north of the King County line. That agreement dedicated about $17 million for active recreation facilities within four miles of the treatment plant.
In addition to four lighted fields at Wellington Hills, the county proposed building three grass fields, an off-leash dog park, playgrounds, walking trails, a mountain-bike course and picnic shelters on the site. It said a second phase could include a 50,000-square-foot community center and a 60,000-square-foot indoor mountain-bike facility run by a private operator.
Neighbors said the plans were out of scale for the area, where the zoning limit is one house per every five acres, and would have overwhelmed the area’s two-lane roads.
“A lot of people who moved here expected that a rural area would remain a rural area,” said Janet Littlefield, who has horses on her seven-acre property near Wellington Hills and is opposed to any development there.
“We got Brightwater,” she said. “We were supposed to get mitigation, not a regional sports complex.”
But sports boosters in the fast-growing Bothell and Woodinville area supported the park, saying they need more lighted, turf facilities, especially at this time of year.
“We have 5,000 kids who play soccer in the Northshore School District,” said Tom Campbell, a board member for Northshore Youth Soccer. “It’s dark; we can’t play on grass fields because they’re so wet. We’re competing with football for what lighted fields there are.”
He called the neighbors’ and the city of Woodinville’s opposition to the sports fields “a classic case of NIMBY-ism.” With the land now being sold to the school district, he said, they could still end up with sports fields, parking lots and traffic. “I think they blew it. They could get two schools instead of 75 acres set aside as open space,” Campbell said.
Northshore officials say they have no immediate plans to build anything on the Wellington Hills site but want it because the district is growing and they may need more schools in the future.
Superintendent Larry François said acreage within the urban-growth area is four to six times more expensive than land outside it. He said it’s increasingly difficult to find parcels large enough for new schools, and it’s hard for the district to compete for those parcels with developers who can pay more for the land.
“The Wellington property presents the rare opportunity for the district to acquire a large parcel that is suitable in size, structure, location and affordability resulting in great long-term flexibility for any potential future need,” Francois said in a statement released by the district.
The Wellington Hills neighbors say they don’t regret fighting the proposed park and vow to continue to fight any school construction.
Bill Stankus, who lives just east of the former golf course, said the land now serves as a buffer from commercial and manufacturing activity, including the Woodinville Costco just down the hill.
“Why can’t there be a quiet place where the public can go?” he asked. “This place is worth protecting.”