Northwest NEWS

September 20, 1999

Local News

City buys Sorenson; public hearings heat up

by Marshall Haley, staff reporter

   WOODINVILLE--Woodinville's City Council unanimously voted to finalize the $6.4 million purchase of the Sorenson property from the Northshore School District on Monday, Sept. 13. On Sept. 14, the Northshore School Board voted to approve the sale.

   In a classic study of public process and of political patience, the Council and City staff listened to a string of impassioned pleas by youth sports supporters that a stipulation should be written into the sale contract to guarantee perpetual use of the ballfields area for youth sports.

   But before that public hearing session was opened, Mayor Don Brocha gave a brief history of the city's efforts to purchase the property: Northshore declared the property "surplus" five years ago and offered to sell it to the City of Woodinville. Although two bond issues gained a majority vote to buy Sorenson, they failed to reach the required sixty-percent majority. Next, the City unsuccessfully asked Northshore to separate the ballfields from the deal.

   Noticing the presence of a room full of youth sports supporters, Brocha anticipated their concerns.

   "If we finalize this purchase agreement, we will open to public process the question of what to do with the fields," said Brocha. "We have to give all of our citizens a chance to say how they would like to use that property. We can't use our residents' tax money to buy the property, then set aside, in perpetuity, fields for one particular group, such as the Sports Association."

   Councilmember Barbara Solberg agreed, citing the risks and responsibilities the purchase puts on the Council to make decisions on behalf of the public majority.

   Councilmember and former mayor Bob Miller noted the City's prolonged efforts to keep the property free from commercial development. "Although the bond issues didn't pass, the survey we sent out a few years ago showed that 70-80 percent of the respondents wanted us to buy Sorenson, but not by them paying more money," he said. "This purchase will accomplish that, and will ensure that the property will stay in the public domain."

   Deputy Mayor Scott Hageman applauded the flexibility shown by both the City negotiation team headed by City Manager Pete Rose and the Northshore negotiators to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.

   Councilmember Randy Ransom cited the "unique opportunity" to keep such a large downtown property in the public domain, compared to the development history of most cities.

   Hollywood Hill resident and youth sports supporter Jorge Barrera expressed gratitude for the purchase, and was the first speaker to suggest a stipulation for mitigation, in the event of any future loss of the fields to other city use. He said he was concerned that the sale agreement made no specific timeline for mitigation to replace the fields with other property.

   City Attorney Wayne Tanaka responded that City statutes ensure that the City Planning Director must comply with the law regarding mitigation timelines, at such time as any development was proposed. He stressed the importance of avoiding speculation, in that hypothetical situations are not addressable. He also stressed the advantage the City's purchase will give the public.

   "The City is obliged to listen to the public," said Tanaka. "Private owners are not so obliged."

   When sports supporters complained that Tanaka's statements didn't give them any assurance that children would have replacement fields to play on before, and if, the Sorenson fields were taken from them, Brocha asked Planning Director Ray Sturtz to comment on such mitigation.

   "City and SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) officials in most cities generally require that a mitigation plan is in place before any project is approved," said Sturtz. "Mitigation replaces affected property or compensates for any impact on the environment or community. As Woodinville's SEPA officer, impact and mitigation reports are the first things I look for to be in place on any project."

   Soccer and baseball coach Ted Tollefson thanked the City for the purchase and voiced his support of maintaining the sports fields, as did one of his two sons who play on them, Corey Tollefson.

   Gail Neubert also thanked the City, and pointed out that the youth sports groups should not be viewed as a special interest group, since they represented some 1,200 children in the soccer program and many more in the baseball program. She spoke of the vital role the fields play as a unifying social arena, where she has met many people she might not have otherwise.

   Sports Association secretary Diane Clayton said she and her son both learned to play soccer at the fields, when her son, now a high school senior, was just five. She said the fact that the soccer association has paid the field's $8-10,000 water bill for the past several years gives them a vested interest in its future.

   Former Planning Commissioner Jim Clayton questioned the Council's judgment in spending $6.46 million for the Sorenson property, suggesting that the Council and City staff need to look at their tax increases of recent years and try to determine how they will pay for the property with their existing and projected funds.

   Brocha responded that the Council and City staff did thoroughly study those figures before agreeing to buy the property, and suggested Clayton review them with City Finance Director Jim Katica (if he had doubts about their judgment).

   Jim Vordale, representing youth baseball, agreed with Barrera that the sale agreement needed stronger language to specify a timeline limit for replacing potentially lost fields. He and Jeff Cox, who followed him, all but demanded that the Council write up such a stipulation before they voted to finalize the purchase. Cox indicated he intended to stand at the microphone until the Council did just that.

   Tanaka, responding to Brocha's request for an answer to Cox's proposal, repeated that the Council is not empowered to act on such a hypothetical scenario.

   Parks & Recreation Commissioner Carol Schmidt seemed to finally burst the sports associations' bubble of fear by saying that, from her legal experience, any stipulation adopted to lock in any intended use of the sports fields had nothing to do with the sale contract, and would have to be addressed in a separate ordinance. But the City had no power to do that until after they owned the property, she said. Tanaka concurred.

   Councilmember Marsha Engel said she was amazed at the apparent lack of faith some citizens seem to have in the desire of Councilmembers and City staff to determine the best case scenario for the property, as fellow residents and representatives of the people of Woodinville.

   After the meeting, several spectators wondered out loud how none of the concerned sports supporters had ever heard the Council's stated wishes--voiced during numerous meetings with the City Hall architecture design team--that the fields remain, to allow unobstructed public view of Wilmot Gateway Park from City Hall.

   Brocha said he was encouraged by the public testimony as vital to the public process. The Council was to discuss process ideas at a retreat held over the weekend of Sept. 17-19. "Whatever process is established will be communicated to the Woodinville community and Sorenson stakeholders," said Brocha.

   "We are excited about finally being able to move forward with our plans to build a new school for the Sorenson students; it's long overdue," said Dr. Karen Forys, Northshore Superintendent.