Neighbors are trying to save Winterbrook Farm and its 80 acres on May Valley Road from development. But the Issaquah School District has authorized the sale of the land to developer William E. Buchan, Inc.
Chad Richardson drove through May Valley outside of Issaquah for two decades, but it wasn’t until he moved into the neighborhood, across the street from an abandoned dairy farm, that he saw elk. A herd of about 30 grazes in the pasture and beds down in a meadow behind a stand of trees.
“It’s amazing to see elk,” Richardson said. “I never get tired of it. The neighbors come out in the evening and line up along the fence to watch.”
But residents say the elk herd and the wildlife corridor through which they travel is threatened by plans to build 16 luxury homes on the 80-acre property known as Winterbrook Farm.
The Issaquah School District, which owns the land, entered into a purchase-and-sale agreement with Bellevue developer William E. Buchan, Inc., in October. The developer is currently conducting feasibility studies of the property, which includes two seasonal creeks, wetlands and the resident elk. Buchan has until early May to decide whether to go forward with the development.
King County is interested in preserving the land. But its initial offer on the property in 2016 was less than the school district paid for it a decade ago, and half of what Buchan later offered.
County officials now say they can make a more competitive offer, but they won’t get that chance unless Buchan backs out of its deal with the school district.
That’s spurred neighbors to pressure all the parties to save the farm, its 1930s dairy barn and its upland forest and meadow. They argue that the land could become part of a county network of trails for people and animals stretching from the Cedar River to Squak and Cougar mountains.
“This is our chance to connect those trails. If Winterbrook is developed, we’ll lose that corridor forever,” said Val Moore, part of a group organized to save Winterbrook Farm.
A missed opportunity
Issaquah Schools purchased the property in 2006 for $3.3 million and planned to build a middle school and an elementary school on the site, said District Superintendent Ron Thiele. The fast-growing district has about 20,000 students, the same size as neighboring Bellevue School District, and is growing by 400 to 500 students a year, he said.
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But Issaquah’s plans were upended when the county redefined what could be built outside the Urban Growth Boundary, meant to protect the county’s rural areas from sprawl. Thiele said that while the county previously helped the district locate schools in rural areas, a county school-siting task force in 2012 concluded that high-impact development, such as new schools, should be built in existing cities or rural towns.
The county offered to purchase the 80-acre property before it was listed for sale last year, but Thiele called the county’s offer of $2.1 million “embarrassing.” He said the district had a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers to not lose money on the deal. And its real-estate agent was confident the land was worth more.
Buchan offered $4.16 million.
“The person who came in with the real offer was Buchan Homes,” Thiele said.
The superintendent, who grew up in rural King County, said he understands the desire to preserve open spaces. But he said his job is to buy land for new schools. A $533 million school-construction bond approved by district voters in May will allow the construction of four new schools, all within the urban-growth area, where land is significantly more expensive, Thiele said.
“The Winterbrook property is no longer useful to us. I really don’t care who buys it,” he said.
County officials say they are required by law to base an offer for real estate on the appraised market value. Its 2015 appraisal came back at $2.1 million, early in the county’s negotiations with the school district and before the property was listed for sale.
After the school board approved the deal with Buchan, the county authorized a new appraisal. That put the value of the 80-acre farm at $3.4 million, still much less than Buchan’s offer, and too late to affect the pending sale.
Plans not finalized yet
Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who has met both with the neighbors and with Buchan, said he’s confident the county could put together a coalition of interested organizations to purchase the farm and preserve it as open space.
“If for whatever reason the developer decides not to pursue it, I hope we’re the first phone call they make,” Dunn said.
Buchan’s conceptual plans for the property call for two clusters of homes: nine along May Valley Road and seven on the property’s upper forest and meadow. The wetlands would be left undeveloped. Greg Nelson, director of land development for Buchan, said the project would impact only 25 percent of the site.
He said that because the developer didn’t yet have results from the feasibility studies, he couldn’t say what measures might be required to protect the wetlands and streams and whether there would be any impact on the elk.
“It may turn out that we can’t do what we want to do, or it may get too expensive. We just don’t know yet,” Nelson said.
Bob Burns, deputy director of King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, said the county would like to purchase a conservation easement for the entire 80 acres, partner with a private buyer to maintain part of the property as a working farm, and preserve the remainder for habitat and trails.
David Kappler, vice president for advocacy of the Issaquah Alps Trails Club, supports the vision of an extended trail network connecting the Cedar River to Squak and Cougar mountains. And he thinks it can be done. He said only 40 acres of land were preserved on Cougar Mountain when the association got started in 1979. Today, he said, there are more than 3,500 acres. Winterbrook Farm is directly across May Valley Road from the Squak Mountain State Park trailhead.
Worries about wildlife
Kappler worries that a housing development at Winterbrook Farm would destroy the pasture where the elk now graze and level the wooded stand that gives them cover.
“The existing forest would be cleared with significant impacts on wildlife and stormwater,” he said.
Mike Smith, a wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the May Valley herd is one of many bands of Rocky Mountain elk that live in the Cascade foothills. And a new housing development that left much of the property untouched wouldn’t necessarily doom the elk.
“There are a good many elk living in close proximity to development,” he said.
He said the Issaquah herd is a subgroup of the North Rainier herd whose range includes Enumclaw, Maple Valley, North Bend and the Snoqualmie Valley as far north as Monroe.
Neighbors say that in the fall, the bull elk bugle to protect their harem of females and warn away competing males. Juvenile males prance and spar with lowered antlers. Females give birth to their young in late spring and nurse the calves in the pasture.
In addition to the elk, neighbors say, bobcats, bears, coyotes, deer, eagles and owls hunt the property. Coho salmon swim up the two creeks in the fall.
With the Issaquah area rapidly developing, Squak Mountain resident Cathy Brandt said she hopes Winterbrook Farm can be spared.
“I would love to see the farm preserved. I would love to see the creek restored and the wetlands enhanced.” If 16 homes are built on the land, she asked, “Where are the elk going to go?”