Redmond land-use dispute continues - Farmland advocates will ask appeals court to reconsider decision


by Chris Winters
Eastside Journal Reporter

REDMOND, WA-- A farmland advocacy group says it will ask the State Court of Appeals to reconsider last week's decision to let Redmond zone two plots of land for urban recreational use.

If the court agrees, the effort will extend a legal battle that has lasted more than six years and pits advocates for an Eastside that's quickly disappearing against those who would hasten its transformation.

On Dec. 30, the court ruled that the state's Growth Management Board had erred when it said the city could not rezone agricultural land for recreational uses. The city and the Lake Washington Youth Soccer Association appealed the case and won.

``We're going to ask the court for reconsideration, that's the first thing we're going to do,'' said Marguerite Sutherland, president of Protect Agricultural Land Now.

PLAN and former Redmond Councilman Richard Grubb have led the fight to keep the contested lots in northern Redmond rural.

Sutherland said the Court of Appeals failed to take into account a state Supreme Court decision from 2000 that said farmland and recreational uses are incompatible.

``If this decision is allowed to stand,'' Grubb said, ``more and more communities will try to convert agricultural land to other uses.''

At issue are two parcels in Redmond, the 32-acre Benaroya property and the 37-acre southeast corner of the former Muller Farm, that lie within city limits. The two lots are next to each other, between Willows Road and the Sammamish River just north of Northeast 116th Street.

The case has bounced between the Growth Management Board and the courts since 1996, when Redmond zoned the two lands as agricultural.

Grubb and PLAN sued to reverse the city's decision in 1999 to zone the land for urban recreational use. They prevailed before the Growth Management Board and the Superior Court, but the Appeals Court ruled Dec. 30 that procedural errors made in 1995 invalidated the city's designation of the land as agricultural in the first place, and therefore the land cannot ``revert'' to something it never was.

Robert Young, president of the Lake Washington Youth Soccer Association, said he was pleased with the ruling.

``I think we felt we were correct in our interpretation all along,'' Young said.

Tim Trohimovich, planning director of 1000 Friends of Washington, said he also agreed with the ruling, even through 1000 Friends typically supports farmland preservation.

Trohimovich said the Appeals Court ruling was on technical matters: the Growth Management Board had placed the burden of proof on Redmond to show it had complied with the Growth Management Act, when the board should have had the burden of proof; and the land could not be ordered to revert back to a status it never held.

What the ruling doesn't do, Trohimovich said, is allow soccer fields on protected farmland.

Do the twist

There have been numerous reversals and twists in a case that turns on whether two former pieces of farmland are still considered as such, and whether soccer fields can be built on them.

For one, when the youth soccer association bought the Muller Farm property in 1994, it knew it would have to change state laws before it would be able to build soccer fields there.

The Muller Farm is deed restricted under King County's Farmland Preservation Program, prohibiting any kind of development other than for agricultural or open space uses. King County bought development rights for the property for $400,000 in 1986, with the money coming out of its taxpayer-funded Farmland Preservation Program bond.

``That deed restriction says it can't be used for exactly what the city and the soccer organization want to use it for,'' said Peter Eglick, an attorney representing PLAN.

Reversing its position, the city of Redmond in 1998 bought the Benaroya property with the intention of building a park and athletic facilities there. This came after the city won in court the right to zone it for agricultural use. The ongoing legal case has blocked further development.

The city and the soccer association have an interim agreement in place allowing soccer practice on the parcel but no fields.

``The (soccer association) has a critical problem,'' said City Council President Richard Cole. ``They've got more and more and more kids, and the fields that they have are becoming overused.''

But in another twist, the Redmond City Council last May had to rezone both plots for agricultural use in order to avoid possible tax sanctions from the state because the city had defied a previous order from the Growth Management Board. Cole said he expects there will soon be a move to bring the zoning -- once again -- back to urban recreational use.

That won't remove the deed restrictions on the Muller Farm. Young said the soccer association is working to change or remove the restrictions through the King County Council and county staff.

``We're trying to educate and talk with people to see about getting that restriction modified,'' Young said.

That won't come easily.

Stephanie Warden, the county's director of development and environmental services, said because those restrictions were put in place through a taxpayer-funded bond issue to acquire development rights on the land -- the 1979 Farmland Preservation Act -- the public would be unlikely to remove them.

``It's always been the county's position that in order to change those covenants you would have to go back to the voters,'' Warden said.

For his part, Grubb said the most recent decision was a blow, and he didn't know if he would continue the fight.

``This thing has taken the last two-plus years of my life,'' Grubb said.

Chris Winters can be reached at chris.winters@eastsidejournal or 425-453-4232.


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