Issaquah milestones from 2012 reflect challenges, changes

December 25, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Backhoes from Santana Trucking & Excavating dig June 26 at the southeast corner of the intersection of Northeast High Street and Highlands Drive Northeast, as construction starts on the Issaquah Highlands retail center. By Greg Farrar

Challenges — whether economic, political or social — defined the year.

Construction started on a long-awaited retail center in the Issaquah Highlands as city leaders eyed redevelopment elsewhere. Residents rallied to help one another after crippling snow and ice storms hit the region. The community came together to confront a threat against Skyline High School students.

Milestones from the past 12 months show how the community rose to face challenges.

Issaquah bans plastic bags at most retailers

Issaquah joined a string of cities along Puget Sound to outlaw plastic bags at local retailers June 4, after months of acrimonious debate about adverse impacts to the marine environment and the regional economy.

In the end, concerns about the environment led the City Council to decide 5-2 to eliminate most retail uses for plastic bags. The legislation — and a 5-cent fee on paper bags — go into effect next year.

The council listened to advocates from environmental groups and the plastics industry in public meetings throughout April and May, and then again before the decision.

The plastic bag ban sponsor, Councilman Mark Mullet, presented the legislation as a way to reduce the estimated 10 million plastic bags the city sends to the King County landfill each year.

Proponents said plastic bags pose problems at recycling facilities and use up space at the local landfill needed for nonrecyclable items. Opponents said outlawing the bags could hurt businesses in the region, including plastics manufacturers and mom-and-pop stores.

Most-read articles

Throughout the year, readers turned to for updates about local events and issues. The most-read articles from 2012 reflect a thirst for details and news breaks, as well as a strong appetite for entertainment tidbits.

  1. Mouseketeer Ginny Tyler, voice artist and Issaquah resident, dies — July 23
  2. Skyline High School to close over mass shooting threat — Sept. 20
  3. Student dies on Skyline High School campus — Dec. 14
  4. Quarterback Jake Heaps glad to be at Kansas, out of spotlight — Aug. 28
  5. Lindzi Cox, Liberty High School graduate, is still in the hunt for ‘The Bachelor’ — Feb. 28
  6. Issaquah residents confront power outages amid icy conditions — Jan. 19
  7. Facebook clues led police to suspect in Skyline shooting threat — Oct. 3
  8. Maker of Excedrin, Bufferin announces recall — Jan. 23
  9. TV’s ‘The Bachelor’ meets local contestant’s parents — Feb. 20
  10. Costco looms large in race between Barack Obama, Mitt Romney — Oct. 30

Next: Retailers plan to roll out the plastic bag ban and a 5-cent fee on paper bags in March, under the legislation adopted by the council.

Threat prompts Skyline High School closure

Skyline High School closed Sept. 20, after a former student threatened to unleash a Columbine-style attack and shoot students on campus.

Issaquah School District administrators characterized the decision to close the Sammamish school as a precaution, and the school reopened the next day, albeit at a later time and as extra police officers, parent volunteers and counselors greeted students.

The decision to close Skyline for a day rattled the tight school community and spurred a far-reaching investigation encompassing local and federal authorities.

Investigators spent the days after the discovery attempting to pinpoint the user behind the threat posted Sept. 19 on the online bulletin board 4chan. Police traced the post to a proxy server in Sweden — a common technique to mask computer users’ identities — and hit a dead end.

Police said a trail of Facebook comments led investigators to a suspect in the threat. Facebook taunts directed at Skyline students and information from friends linked the incident to a 16-year-old Edmonds boy, a former Skyline student.

Next: The boy pleaded not guilty to felony harassment, and is scheduled to go to trial next year. In the meantime, a King County Juvenile Court judge ordered electronic home detention and restricted computer access as punishment.

Construction starts on highlands retail center

Finally, after years of plans and promises, developers and officials gathered in the Issaquah Highlands early June 26 to launch construction on a $70 million retail center in the neighborhood — a long-awaited amenity for residents and, in recent years, a symbol for the anemic economy and rebound.

Fields ceded to grasses and wildflowers as a difficult economy slowed plans to build a retail center in the neighborhood should transform in the months ahead to accommodate stores, restaurants and a 12-screen multiplex.

The effort to add more retail options to the neighborhood stretches back to the mid-1990s — and leaders from the city, highlands developer Port Blakely Communities and Florida-based retail center developer Regency Centers treated the groundbreaking ceremony as a watershed moment.

The planned retail center, Grand Ridge Plaza, encompasses 10 blocks and 15 buildings spread across 280,113 square feet. The announced tenants include a Regal Cinemas multiplex, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Marshalls, RAM Restaurant & Brewery, Safeway and more.

Next: Expect the initial offerings — Regal Cinemas and some restaurants — to open at about the same time in the spring. Construction is poised to start on Safeway early next year.

Storms, and then blackout, cripple Issaquah

In the days after a snowstorm pummeled the region, blackout chased whiteout, as residents uneasy about thorny commutes and missed meetings instead confronted sinking temperatures and toppling trees — all sans electricity.

The major snowstorm dropped 3 to 6 inches across the Issaquah area Jan. 18, but the struggle started the next day, as a rare ice storm led to widespread power outages and caused trees to send ice- and snow-laden branches earthward.

The harsh conditions tested road crews, prompted spinouts and fender benders around the region, and led Issaquah School District administrators to cancel school for almost a week.

Ironically, snowfall on the ground early Jan. 18 came from a less-severe-than-predicted snowstorm. Still, the snowstorm left deep snow in local neighborhoods, especially areas at higher elevations.

The toughest challenges came in the days afterward, as ice encased power lines and tree branches fell to the ground.

The recovery effort lurched into gear before snow and ice melted, but city residents and officials continued the daunting cleanup for several weeks.

Next: Issaquah, King County and state emergency planners gird for extreme weather and natural disasters.

Issaquah Salmon Hatchery marks 75 years

The iconic Issaquah Salmon Hatchery opened along Issaquah Creek 75 years ago and, in the decades since, developed into a symbol for the community and a lifeline for fish species.

Community and Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery leaders celebrated the milestone throughout 2012.

Conservationists and longtime Issaquah residents credit the hatchery for restoring the historic Issaquah Creek salmon runs after decades of logging and mining damaged the creek and surrounding watershed.

Works Progress Administration crews started to build the hatchery complex on a former city park and bandstand in 1936, and the hatchery opened the following year.

In the 1970s, as the Issaquah Labor Day celebration morphed into the Salmon Days Festival, the hatchery served as a focal point during the festivities.

Despite the success, officials confronted a grim future for the hatchery in the early 1990s. State leaders eyed the hatchery for closure amid a budget crisis. FISH formed in 1994 to preserve the hatchery, and spearheads educational programs in school classrooms and at the facility — the most-visited state-run hatchery.

Next: Crews plan to replace a problem-plagued dam upstream from the hatchery after securing more than $250,000 in city funds and $4 million in state funds for the long-envisioned project.

City adopts roadmap for redevelopment

Issaquah leaders adopted a long-term plan Dec. 17 to transform the business district from strip mall suburbia into a dense urban core punctuated by buildings up to 125 feet tall.

The roadmap to the more urban future is the Central Issaquah Plan, a far-reaching guide to development for the area stretched along the interstate from the Bellevue city line to Northeast Gilman Boulevard.

In a decision reached after years spent re-envisioning the business district — about 1,000 acres stretched along Interstate 90 — a relieved City Council adopted the Central Issaquah Plan, but delayed action on a key piece.

Supporters said the change outlined in the Central Issaquah Plan is not going to occur overnight, and noticeable changes could require years to come to fruition.

The document could act as a guide to a future Issaquah or, as some critics suggest, invite more sprawl to the community, further clog already-congested roads and mar the mountain panorama.

Next: The council is likely to reconsider Central Issaquah Plan design and development standards — rules for buildings, community spaces, landscaping, signage and more — in April.

City creates groundbreaking marijuana rules

Months before Washington voters approved marijuana for recreational use in November — and imparted a different meaning on the nickname Evergreen State — Issaquah pioneered rules for medical marijuana operations.

GreenLink Collective opened in late 2010 at a former daycare center near Issaquah Valley Elementary School in a neighborhood not zoned for commercial operations. Officials ruled against GreenLink’s initial application for a city business license.

The ruling started a monthslong process to establish rules for medical marijuana operations.

In December 2011, after listening to emotional testimony from medical marijuana users — and only a handful of complaints from opponents — the City Council adopted rules to limit such medical marijuana operations near schools, parks and other collective gardens.

GreenLink opened at a storefront along Northwest Gilman Boulevard in early 2012.

Other cities studied the successful process Issaquah used to craft the ordinance, but the voter-approved measure to legalize marijuana for recreational use, Initiative 502, led officials statewide to prepare for additional changes next year.

Next: State officials plan to spend up to a year to establish rules for growing, processing, selling and possessing marijuana.

Voters decide bitter, surprising Senate bout

The candidate no longer in the race loomed over the contest for the 5th Legislative District’s state Senate seat.

Cheryl Pflug, a Republican former senator and erstwhile candidate, lingered as a constant presence in the acrimonious contest between Issaquah City Councilman Mark Mullet, a Democrat, and Snoqualmie Republican Brad Toft.

In May, Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed Pflug to a $92,500-per-year spot on the Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. Pflug unexpectedly withdrew from the race and later resigned from the Senate, setting up a head-to-head contest between Mullet and Toft.

The actions opened a rift between Pflug and other Republicans.

The race turned increasingly bitter in the closing weeks, as Democrats seized on Toft’s past legal troubles and Republicans attempted — and failed — to link Mullet to a deal between Gregoire and Pflug to claim the seat for the Democrats.

Mullet came out on top in the unexpectedly ugly contest to succeed Pflug in the Senate, 54 percent to 46 percent.

Next: Mullet assumed office in the Senate last month. Once he resigns from the Issaquah City Council in January, members intend to move quickly to appoint a successor.

Sting nets former bus driver for child porn

Issaquah School District and Eastside Catholic High School officials sought to reassure parents and students May 11 after federal agents arrested a substitute bus driver for the Issaquah district and former Eastside Catholic teacher for possession of child pornography.

Andrew Bernard Rekdahl, 29, faced child pornography charges after federal prosecutors said the Carnation resident shared explicit images and videos of boys online from his home computer.

Department of Homeland Security agents arrested Rekdahl at a school district facility May 10 after a monthslong sting operation.

Federal agents arrested Rekdahl and 189 other suspects in a nationwide sting dubbed Operation Orion. The sting targeted the possession, receipt, transportation, distribution, advertisement or production of explicit images or videos.

Before the case went to trial, Rekdahl — a popular teacher at Eastside Catholic — succumbed to cancer Aug. 29.

In 2010, Eastside Catholic students and parents had raised more than $17,000 to support Rekdahl as he underwent treatment for aggressive duodenal carcinoma, or intestinal cancer.

Next: Officials at the school district and Eastside Catholic said no complaints occurred against Rekdahl at either organization.

Salmon Days Festival sets attendance record

The ode to salmon migration, Issaquah’s iconic Salmon Days Festival, lured a record crowd in early October — more than 180,000 attendees.

Salmon Days Festival attendees packed like sardines on downtown Issaquah streets in early October, as sunshine and balmy temperatures attracted a record crowd to the event.

Salmon Days reeled in attendees for a parade, carnival games, street snacks, arts and crafts, and, of course, a chance to see migrating chinook and coho.

Crowds jammed the bridge across the creek on the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery grounds and pressed close to portals to see the fish up close.

Salmon Days is a community celebration rooted in a long-ago Labor Day parade. In the 1970s, as the former celebration morphed into Salmon Days, the hatchery served as a focal point during the festivities.

Since locals established the festival, Salmon Days transformed from a small-town celebration into regional festival — and a major draw for out-of-towners and tourism dollars.

Next: Organizers started planning the 44th annual festival, a salmon-centric celebration set for Oct. 5-6, not long after the last Salmon Days concluded.

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