A King County Superior Court judge gave the Providence Heights campus a new lease on life on Friday, just one day before the one-time nuns’ college was scheduled to be demolished.
Judge Ken Schubert officially granted local nonprofit Preserve Providence Heights’ motion to vacate the Oct. 24 lawsuit settlement that had been reached between the city of Issaquah and the campus’ owner, Churchome (formerly The City Church) of Kirkland. That judgment had allowed Churchome to immediately proceed with demolition of the campus.
According to Bryan Telegin, attorney for PPH, Schubert’s decision sets the clock back to last October, before a settlement was reached in the lawsuit.
Churchome had filed the lawsuit against the city after the city of Issaquah Landmarks Commission’s decision to name the entire campus a landmark, and Issaquah Hearing Examiner Ted Hunter’s subsequent ruling — largely based on this landmark designation — that the demolition permit the city granted to Churchome must be revoked and a new examination of the property carried out.
Churchome stated in its lawsuit that it was not appropriate for Hunter to have based his decision solely on a landmark designation that had not even existed at the time the demolition permit was granted. Churchome has argued that its First Amendment right to freedom of religion grants it the right to decide to demolish its own piece of property, and that any attempt to stop this through a landmark designation is an infringement of its constitutional rights.
However, David Bricklin, attorney for Preserve Providence Heights, said that in the appeal before the hearing examiner, the preservationists had not only pointed to the historical and cultural value of the campus, but had highlighted other items on the SEPA checklist that would be negatively affected through demolition, such as energy (specifically the large amount of pollution that is released during demolition) and affordable housing (emphasizing that the campus could be used as low-income housing).
“The First Amendment claims that the church has can override the historic resource [aspect], but they can’t necessarily override these other issues,” Bricklin said.
Schubert said that if the hearing examiner had based his decision only on the historic and cultural portion of the SEPA checklist, then the matter should have gone back to him so that the other aspects of SEPA could have been included in his decision.
It was inappropriate of Churchome and the city, Schubert said, to settle the suit before an ex parte commissioner without informing the commissioner of all of the moving parts of this case — such as the fact there were other relevant aspects of the SEPA checklist to be discussed other than historic preservation.
“If the commissioner had known, I feel confident he would not have signed,” Schubert said.
An ex parte commissioner, Bricklin explained, is “meant for minor proceedings, not meant for issues like that that are complex, where it’s important for the commissioner to understand that there are multiple issues involved.”
“The more and more this is coalescing in my mind … you guys overreached in your judgment … You pushed your luck. You got greedy in your judgment and order,” Schubert told Churchome.
Schubert told the lawyers for Churchome and the city that they were close to violating the Rules of Professional Conduct.
“That is very close to saying you have lied to the court,” Bricklin said. “It is very serious.”
Preserve Providence Heights formed out of members of the Sammamish Heritage Society soon after the lawsuit settlement was reached in October and filed a motion to intervene with the King County Superior Court in the case.
The motion to intervene in the case was granted by King County Judge Julie Spector on the basis that the city and the church “collaborated in secret to develop a proposed order and judgment and gave no one else any notice that the collaboration was underway or that a proposed order and judgment were being proposed for entry,” and that “the existing parties were well aware of the interests of the community, including the applicant’s members, to preserve the subject property, yet provided them no hint that the city was not going to defend the plaintiff’s claims,” according to documents obtained from the court.
City attorney Wayne Tanaka claimed in his declaration to oppose the motion to vacate that the City Council authorized the settlement in open session at its Oct. 16 meeting, pointing out that the meetings are televised. However, the discussion took place during executive session, which was not televised, and the filmed portion did not specifically mention Providence Heights.
The preservationists have argued that the campus, built by the Catholic church to help even the academic opportunities for female and male members of the clergy, holds significance in the history of women’s education in the Pacific Northwest. Additionally, they underscored the chapel’s 14 stained glass windows, each 30 feet high, which were designed by late, world-renowned French artist Gabriel Loire, as a valuable community treasure.
Churchome stated that the campus’ estimated $40 million value would significantly decrease with a landmark designation that prevented demolition of the buildings.
The Issaquah School District has said that it would like to purchase the Providence Heights property and use it for a new high school. Churchome had also in the past been in talks to turn the property into a housing development.
In court documents for Friday’s hearing, Development Services and Economic Development Director Keith Niven stated that “the evidence presented at the hearing, relating to non-cultural issues, did not provide any new information or justification to change my original [State Environmental Policy Act] determination.”
In its response, PPH argued that Churchome did not bring its claims under Washington’s Land Use Petition Act, which would preclude the court from having the jurisdiction to enter a judgment. Additionally, PPH stated that the church did not include the necessary parties — specifically the Sammamish Heritage Society — in its settlement and reached the decision without notifying all of the interested parties.
“We’re in a process of discussing it with the city. We will analyze very carefully the judge’s ruling today,” said city of Issaquah attorney Michael Walter after the hearing.
Bricklin and Telegin said that because of the motion to intervene, from now on, PPH, rather than the city, will take on the role of defending the landmark designation and hearing examiner’s September ruling.
“It’s a great decision and means that whatever happens next, everyone will be informed,” Telegin said.
If the lawsuit continues, Bricklin said, it will now be against “a legitimate opponent.”