Highlands residents protest plan to preserve Tiger Mountain
August 24, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
Despite opposition from Issaquah Highlands residents, City Council members decided last week to take steps to add more residences to the community and breathe life into the moribund effort to bring businesses to the hillside neighborhood.
City leaders intend to allow up to 550 more residences in the highlands in order to preserve 102 forested acres on Tiger Mountain near Issaquah High School. The deal, part of a complicated transfer of development rights, aims to set aside about 140 acres — the Park Pointe land and another 43 acres adjacent to the highlands.
The council OK’d the measures in a unanimous decision after members offered a forceful defense of the plan to preserve Park Pointe.
Port Blakely Communities, the developer responsible for the highlands, owns 78 acres in unincorporated King County near Central Park. The proposed transfer calls for Port Blakely to preserve 43 acres and open the remaining 35 acres to construction. The city then intends to annex the 35-acre parcel.
“This is about crafting a very complicated piece of machinery to try to benefit all these neighborhoods, all these parts of the city,” Councilman Joshua Schaer said during the Aug. 16 council meeting.
But the proposal has galvanized highlands residents. Fliers encouraging highlands residents to attend appeared on the neighborhood’s communal mailboxes in the days before the council meeting.
Homeowners packed City Hall South to raise concerns about clearing additional land for residences, increased traffic congestion and, especially, potential strains on crowded Grand Ridge Elementary School.
“I know it’s nice to save some trees on the other side of town, but my kids’ education is vastly more important than that,” highlands resident Matt Barry said during the 90-minute hearing.
Before the council could decide on amendments to the documents outlining development in the highlands, members listened to statements from 20 people — most of them, like Barry, neighborhood residents opposed to the changes.
Grand Ridge had about 895 students last school year; the district projects about 680 for the upcoming year.
Issaquah School District Finance and Operations Chief Jacob Kuper consulted Port Blakely executives about a potential development timeline. The most elementary school-aged students the 550 potential residences could produce is estimated at about 200.
District officials estimate the school has the capacity to handle even the maximum number projected.
But the information — offered by city Major Development Review Team Program Manager Keith Niven — did little to assuage opponents.
Tina Becker, another highlands resident and the parent of a Grand Ridge student, said the school could not handle additional children.
“The playground, for lack of a better example, is like ‘Lord of the Flies,’” she said.
Some highlands residents, like Mary O’Cleary, said the city faced a difficult choice in the opportunity to preserve Tiger Mountain or limit growth in the highlands. But she urged the city to find another solution, and put council members on notice for the 2011 and 2013 elections.
“I’m going to be watching and we’re all going to be watching to see how the votes go,” O’Cleary said.
Councilman Mark Mullet, the only highlands resident on the seven-member council, faced a difficult choice. Mullet — proprietor of Zeeks Pizza and a forthcoming Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop in the urban village — said customers, friends, neighbors and even his wife disagreed with his decision to support the amendments.
Mullet said the school district estimates mollified concerns he had about the proposal.
“I feel, if in 2013, that I have been wrong, and that if something were to have happened that were to have really damaged that school, then I think I would be responsible,” he said, referring to the year he is due to face voters.
Park Pointe plan
Council President John Traeger thanked highlands residents for offering input — and recalled the days before the city approved construction of the neighborhood.
“The highlands has always been controversial, from the very beginning,” he said. “If you thought it was a full house tonight, you should have been here when we decided to build the highlands in the first place.”
Port Blakely executive Judd Kirk, a longtime member of the highlands team, said additional residences should help attract more businesses to the community.
“We’re not losing the vision,” he said. “We would not, for 500 units, do something like this.”
The council referenced the untold hours spent on the rule changes and the transfer of development rights since Mayor Ava Frisinger proposed the plan in late 2008.
Councilwoman Maureen McCarry said Council Major Planning & Growth Committee members spent 75 minutes combing and scouring the amendments at a meeting the previous week.
City officials and staffers have spent years trying to discourage development at the forested Park Pointe site.
In the mid-1990s, the former Park Pointe developer intended to build a hillside urban village similar to the highlands or Talus. The proposal folded amid public outcry about possible consequences to the environment and surrounding neighborhoods.
The defunct developer, Wellington Park Pointe LLC, collapsed into bankruptcy late last year, and a Seattle bank foreclosed on Park Pointe in March.
“There’s nobody here tonight from Park Pointe. Why?” Schaer said. “Because nobody lives there. And if this progresses the way that the city administration wants it to, there will never be anyone coming here to this City Council from Park Pointe and speaking to us about their community, because there won’t be one.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.