Bothell residents hope to preserve Wayne Golf Course for recreation and salmon recovery.

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Bothell residents mobilized quickly this winter when they learned the owners of the Wayne Golf Course along the Sammamish River were considering turning the clubhouse and parking lot into 76 townhomes and selling the back nine to developers.

In a series of City Council meetings in January and February, neighbors urged the city to buy the entire golf course and preserve the 4,500 feet of riverfront for recreation and habitat restoration for threatened chinook salmon.

It wasn’t until March that they learned a group of developers had already acquired the rights to purchase the back nine — and that their mayor was part of the winning group.

Mayor Joshua Freed is a well-known homebuilder in Bothell. Business records show he is associated with more than 20 limited-liability corporations and other development companies. Over two terms on the City Council, Freed has been credited with helping lead an ambitious redevelopment of downtown.

But many residents and some elected officials say that in negotiating to buy the golf course’s back nine, Freed has violated the public trust and put his own business interests before the good of the city.

“This is a one-time opportunity to protect not only recreational opportunities but salmon habitat along the Sammamish,” said King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski, who has joined with the citizens group, OneBothell, to try to raise public funds to buy the golf course.

“If it were me, I would find a way to step aside and preserve it for the community,” said Dembowski, who represents North King County. “The mayor is an impediment right now.”

After some residents and City Council members questioned whether Freed had a conflict of interest when he sought to acquire the rights to the golf course, City Manager Bob Stowe ordered an independent investigation.

According to Bothell’s ethics code, employees should avoid “the reality or appearance” of using a city position for private gain or adversely affecting public confidence in the city’s integrity.

Freed says he has done nothing wrong. He said he has a minority interest in the purchase option and only joined the effort to acquire the back nine after the City Council in December 2013 did not act to buy it.

And he said he had no duty to tell colleagues about his involvement in the deal for the back nine until discussion of that specific property came before the council, which he said wasn’t until March.

“Until that point, I had no obligation to disclose a private transaction,” Freed said. “The investigation will show there was no conflict of interest. I’ve done nothing unethical or illegal.”

He suggested that people questioning his role are motivated by opposition to the downtown-redevelopment plans.

“I’m a developer. People don’t like to see that success as we move forward on a project that will provide for a high quality of life and a vibrant downtown.”

In addition to Freed, Councilmember and former Mayor Mark Lamb, a Bothell attorney, is listed as the legal representative on a number of the mayor’s corporations. Freed has recused himself from future discussions about the golf course.

Lamb wouldn’t say whether he was involved in the bid to buy the back nine but said the investigator did ask about his business relationships.

“It’s not appropriate to comment while an investigation is pending,” he said.

The report could be completed this week but will become public only if a majority of the council waives confidentiality.

Decades old

The front nine of the Wayne Golf Course was built in 1931 when Bothell was still a rural town on the north end of Lake Washington. Long vistas of its greens and fairways are familiar to commuters on Bothell Way Northeast and the Burke-Gilman Trail, which both run along its northern boundary.

In 1996, with county conservation-futures money, the city paid the golf course’s owners $890,000 for the development rights to preserve 46 of the front nine’s 50 acres. The remaining 4 acres, surrounding the clubhouse and parking lot, were not included.

The owners of the front nine, the Richards family, can sell the land within the conservation easement, but can’t build on it. The clubhouse property can be sold or redeveloped.

Under the agreement, the city retains the right of first offer if any part of the course is listed for sale.

Calls to family members and a family spokesman were not returned.

For the next decade, the city has included acquisition of Wayne Golf Course in its Parks Action Plan and its Comprehensive Plan, which guides future development. But Stowe said the property was never added to the Capital Improvement Plan, which includes projects the council funds in its annual budget.

In December 2013, Stowe said, David Richards notified the city he intended to sell the back nine, about 39 acres, which includes a wooded hillside in addition to the golf course.

Parks staff presented the potential purchase to the City Council in executive session, Stowe said, but recommended the city not buy the back nine because it didn’t have the money.

“Any council member could have made an offer (for the city) to buy the land. None was made,” he said.

Councilmember Andy Rheaume, serving his first term, said he felt bound by the confidentiality rules of executive session, where real-estate deals are discussed, and could not tell residents. If he were more experienced, Rheaume said, he would have reconvened the public portion of the council meeting and announced that the back nine was for sale.

“If I knew I had that authority, I absolutely would have said, ‘Can’t we at least alert the public?’ ” he said.

Opposition gathers

In January, after the Richards family submitted its rezone proposal for the clubhouse property to the Bothell Planning Commission, residents organized OneBothell, which now has more than 1,700 members, said one of the founders, Jonty Barnes.

The group has enlisted support from county and state officials, including Dembowski and state Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, and applied for $5 million in county and state funds to help purchase the golf course. OneBothell organizers have also rallied environmentalists to the cause of preserving an unbroken stretch of Sammamish riverbank.

“This is a rare opportunity to protect and restore the habitat,” said Jason Mulvihill-Kuntz, coordinator of the Lake Washington/Cedar/Sammamish Watershed, a salmon-recovery collaboration of Snohomish and King counties as well as 26 cities.

He said the Sammamish has lost much of its tree cover along its banks to development as well as its connection to cold groundwater sources. That’s made the temperature so warm that the threatened chinook no longer migrate to their native spawning grounds.

Salmon populations on the river, already low, he said, dropped precipitously in 1999 from about 800 chinook migrating up Bear Creek to 150 last year.

OneBothell organizers are confident that a project to buy and protect the golf-course land will rank high on the list of state and county conservation and salmon-recovery projects. They note that if the mayor’s development group fails to finalize the deal for the back nine, the right to make a purchase offer reverts to the city.

“We would like to save this land in perpetuity,” said Jonty Barnes. “The right thing for the mayor to do would be to walk away from his deal with the golf-course owners and let us buy it for the community.”