Kent now is backtracking on selling off a city park to be bulldozed by a developer. But how did the sale happen in the first place, with nobody knowing?

Share story

When I was a newbie reporter about to cover my first city council meeting, one of the veterans at that now-deceased daily gave me an exhausting tip.

No matter how boring the meetings get, he said, always stick it out ’til the last gavel falls.

Rarely has that proved truer than at the Sept. 15, 2015, meeting of the Kent City Council. The meeting was by all appearances a routine municipal snoozefest. Only one citizen showed up to give public comment. The agenda featured such grabbers as “76th Avenue South drainage improvements” and “2015 asphalt grinding.”

An hour and half in, though, the council landed on the last item, a mysterious bit marked only as “Property Negotiations, as per RCW 42.30.110(1)(c).” The mayor announced the council was going into a closed executive session: “I will ask everyone in the audience to please leave.”

So everyone left. But a half-hour later, the council reconvened in a now-empty chamber. With no public discussion and nobody looking on, they agreed to sell a 10-acre public park to a developer to be turned into a housing subdivision.

Selling a park to be bulldozed is obviously a highly controversial move. But to do it with no public notice or debate has some Kent residents now questioning their system of local government.

“Shady,” “unethical,” “secretive,” “robbed of our due process” — these were just a few of the choice terms used by angry residents this past week at a packed City Council meeting about the selling of Pine Tree Park.

Longtime Seattle land-use attorney Rick Aramburu has another term for what happened: illegal. It’s also a growing trend in the swath of cities around Seattle, places that no longer receive much scrutiny from the press.

“It’s becoming a cancer,” says Aramburu, who was hired by some Kent residents. “I’m seeing more land deals and other land use issues sailing through these places with no public notice.”

The way people learned about this sale is when signs went up for a 64-home subdivision on the site. That was in January. The lone newspaper left in the area, a weekly with only two reporters covering a city of 125,000, broke the news. That was nearly four months after the council had signed a contract with the developer, Kirkland-based Oakpointe Communities.

“People ask me all the time: ‘How could this happen? How could they sell a public park with nobody knowing?’ ” says Kristy Herrick, of Kent, who discovered the sale. “It’s pretty simple: They didn’t tell anybody.”

Aramburu wrote to the council that, in his view, the park sale violated two state laws, both of which require public hearings. As I wrote in a column in January, the sale also appeared to violate the park’s underlying deed and covenant, which says it can only be exchanged for more park land.

“I remain deeply concerned about the process behind the sale of this property,” weighed in King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, in a letter to Kent officials this week.

Because of the backlash, Kent now has scheduled a public workshop for 5 p.m., March 15 on whether they can unwind the sale (the purchase is under contract but won’t close until June.)

They have been apologetic in meetings. But still they seem clueless as to why the tiresome public process they ignored actually matters.

For example, they say they simply got bad advice from King County about the meaning of the park’s deed. Perhaps so, but that’s exactly the sort of issue that would have been raised in a public vetting. Public scrutiny isn’t just to humor people, it makes the work product better.

That year I was a rookie reporter, for the now-dead Valley Daily News, I was assigned to cover Auburn and this same Kent City Hall. At council meetings I’d often see three or four other reporters there. All those newspapers or news bureaus now are defunct.

Today, hardy citizens are left to pick up most of the slack. As a result, “transparency in many of these cities is disappearing,” Aramburu says.

So how could a city sell a public park and nobody knows? The short answer is they didn’t tell anybody. That’s on them. But the longer answer is that we — the press and a society that no longer feels it needs the press — we’re no longer staying ’til the last gavel falls.

Information in this article, originally published March 4, 2016, was changed March 9, 2016. A workshop to consider whether to unwind the sale of a Kent park to a developer is scheduled for March 15 at Kent City Hall.