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Dodging development pressure, Issaquah expands Cougar Mountain

The $11 million, 46-acre privately owned parcel was slated to be developed with 57 homes. 

a trail on cougar mountain

A trail at Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park in Issaquah. The park will soon expand, thanks to the purchase of 46 acres of private land. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crossccut)

The battle at Cougar Mountain has come to an end. For the past two years, a grassroots group of Issaquah residents has been fighting residential developer Windward Real Estate Services over one of the largest privately owned pieces of undeveloped land left in Issaquah. The Eastside suburb has seen new housing creep into the surrounding hillsides as the population has grown.

Windward had planned to develop 46 acres known as the Bergsma Property into 57 homes, with a new road connecting the neighborhood to Newport Way, a main east-west thoroughfare. But a group of neighbors, environmentalists and trail advocates, uniting under the banner of “Save Cougar Mountain,” argued that the land should be added to the adjacent, 3,115-acre Cougar Regional Wildland Park. At the beginning of this year, officials with the City of Issaquah, King County and nonprofit conservation group Trust for Public Land (TPL) sided with Save Cougar and entered into negotiations with Windward.

In early December, the Issaquah City Council voted 5-1 to authorize the purchase. The city will buy 33.5 acres of the parcel and manage it as a city park. King County will own the remaining 12.5 acres, which will be added to Cougar Regional Wildland Park. The city is on the hook for more than $10.6 million, with King County paying about $330,000. It’s a steep price tag, but one city and county officials say is outweighed by the environmental and recreational benefits of conserving easily accessed, semiwild open space within an ever-more-crowded metro region.

“Having this big piece of land that people will be able to come to and hike and relax and breathe and be a part of nature while being just minutes away from the chaos of the city and everyday life, that means a lot,” said Save Cougar member Julie Clark.

It’s a sentiment shared by many of the people involved in the conservation effort.

“When we think about development and growth, one of the greatest challenges we face as a community is deciding down the line what we want our home to look like,” said Sam Plotkin, TPL project manager. “What do we want to do with the natural spaces that still exist that are vital to our emotional well-being, to our environment, to the sense of place that we feel?”

Cougar Mountain, Squak Mountain and Tiger Mountain surround the flat valley floor in which most of the city of Issaquah sits. Nicknamed the Issaquah Alps, the mountains are crisscrossed with popular hiking trails that provide Seattleites and suburbanites with easy access to nature. The forested hillsides are home to deer, bear, cougar, birds and other wildlife. Creeks cascade off the mountains into salmon-bearing streams.

Windward’s proposal to build 57 houses fell within Issaquah’s existing zoning for the area, meaning it only needed to clear a final environmental review before moving forward. President Jim Tosti told Crosscut in May that he was confident it would pass and confident that the homes would sell. "We respond to markets. The demand [for housing] in this region is huge and the supply in this region is small,” he said at the time. But he also said in May that he was open to selling the land for conservation.

Preservation of the Alps in the face of growth has been a priority for the city. In 2012, the city council adopted the Central Issaquah plan, which aims to keep population growth concentrated on the valley floor.

Conserving the Bergsma property “is certainly a priority within a number of our planning documents,” said Issaquah Parks Director Jeff Watling at the December city council hearing. “This property really serves as a gateway from our central Issaquah area up into Cougar Mountain.”

The Bergsma land — named for the prominent Issaquah family that owned it for decades — sits near the intersection of Newport Way and State Route 900. Its southwestern corner butts up against King County’s Cougar Regional Wildland Park. It is also just across SR 900 from the Issaquah Transit Center, a factor in drawing support for conservation.

“The proximity to transit is exciting,” said David Kappler with the Issaquah Alps Trails Club, an advocacy group that’s been working on conservation of the Alps for 40 years. “Over 30 years ago, the Trails Club had an event where people took a bus to get to Tiger Mountain. It’s always been a priority to get people to open space without cars.”

King County got involved in the conservation effort because the Bergsma Property fits into County Executive Dow Constantine’s Land Conservation Initiative, which sets a goal of conserving the “last, best” 65,000 acres of land in the county over the next 30 years. Adopted by the county council last summer and funded by bond sales, the initiative increases the size of the existing Conservation Futures Fund and essentially doubles the county’s pace of land conservation.

“We want to ensure there’s access to green space for every resident in King County,” said Bob Burns, deputy director of King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks. “Proximity to greenspace improves quality of life. Mental and physical health is better. Our ecological function depends on these lands. They provide fish and wildlife habitat. With climate change it’s also important we protect our forests, which store carbon.”

TPL’s Plotkin said the extra funding provided by the initiative makes projects like this possible. “$11 million is a lot of money for 46 acres,” he said. “It took some time to wrap our heads around the idea that this is the cost of conversation in our region today. [The Land Conservation Initiative] means we can make projects like the Bergsma property happen.”

Conservation of the Bergsma property isn’t quite a done deal. TPL has entered into a purchase agreement with Windward that must close by the end of February 2019. The nonprofit is providing the City of Issaquah with a $3 million, interest-free bridge loan to help cover the $10.6 million the city has to pay upfront. The city will then apply for county and state grants to cover around $7 million of the total purchase price. King County will pay TPL $330,000 for its 12.5-acre portion next year.

Issaquah Alps Trail Club’s Kappler said the city has a contingency plan if, for some reason, it does not get the grant funding it expects to receive. The land will retain its development rights until all the money comes through, so the city could recoup its costs by selling the land back to a developer someday.

Plotkin is confident, however. “I have no reason to think that anything is going to go south at this point,” he said.

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Dodging development pressure, Issaquah expands Cougar Mountain