King County is entirely supportive of preserving Winterbrook Farm as farmland, despite the Issaquah School District’s decision to sell the property to a Bellevue developer.
Bob Burns, the county’s deputy director of Natural Resources and Parks, said that the county is actively looking for ways to keep the 80-acre tract of land off of Southeast May Valley Road from becoming another housing development.
“We’ve been very interested in preserving the land for farm use, animal habitats and possibly [as a site for] a trail,” Burns said.
He continued, “We’ve had a variety of folks from the county go out to look at it. We determined it is a really great animal habitat and could make a great farm.”
Winterbrook Farm is home to a variety of different animal species, including a herd of 30 elk, eagles, salmon, hawks, deer, ducks, owls, bears, coyotes and bobcats. Additionally, the land presents the unique opportunity to connect trails on Squak and Tiger mountains with the Log Cabin Reach Natural Area and Cedar River Trail, according to Save Winterbrook member Val Moore.
“If it’s developed, that’s it,” she said. “That’s our only opportunity … to preserve that [recreational] corridor.”
Save Winterbrook, a group of 40 Issaquah, Sammamish and Renton residents, formed after the school district authorized the sale of the property to Bellevue-based builder William Buchan Homes in October 2016.
The district originally bought the farmland in 2006 for $3.33 million with the intention of putting an elementary and middle school there, according to Issaquah School Board President Lisa Callan. However, Callan explained, the Growth Management Act quashed the idea of building any schools on the property by “[defining] the urban growth boundary.”
When it became apparent that the school district would not be able to use the Winterbrook Farm property for schools, Burns said that the county “expressed its interest” in purchasing the farmland many times.
“We had a lot of conversations with the district,” he said. “But we were not on the same page [as the district] on valuation.”
Despite this setback, the county said that it is far from giving up the fight to preserve Winterbook.
“The county is supportive of the ongoing efforts to preserve the historic farm for agriculture,” said Logan Harris, the Department of Natural Resources and Parks’ public affairs manager.
Harris and Burns said that saving the Winterbrook property aligns perfectly with the county’s Farmland Preservation Program and Local Food Initiative.
“Consistent with the goals of the Local Food Initiative and the Farmland Preservation Program, King County is continuously looking for opportunities to preserve farmland and/or keep farmland in production,” Harris said in an email.
The King County Farmland Preservation Program, established in 1979, has preserved over 14,7000 acres of farmland in King County, making it “one of the most successful farmland preservation programs in the country,” Harris said.
Additionally, the Local Food Initiative was started in 2014 to grow the local food economy and help people from all income levels attain healthy, local produce at an affordable price. One of the initiative’s goals is to add 400 new acres of food production in the county every year.
“We prefer to see land farmed rather than in subdivisions,” said Michael Lufkin, the county’s local food economy manager.
He explained that growing the local food economy protects the environment and benefits the local economy. King County produce generated $121 in 2012.
“Those are dollars that stay in our economy,” he said.
Additionally, Lufkin said, expanding the food economy has a cultural benefit in that it preserves the “long tradition of farming in King County,” which was once one of the leading centers of dairy farms in the nation.
To preserve the farmland, Burns explained that the county would “buy conservation easements that remove the development potential” for the Winterbrook property. He said the county would be interested in partnering with a local farmer and sees multiple options for the Winterbrook Farm, such as farming, a wildlife habitat, a recreational area and an agricultural education facility for local students.
“We’re exploring, trying to talk to folks in the community to understand the community’s interest,” he said. As long as the land is preserved, he said, “We remain open to a number of different possibilities.”
King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who has been out to the Winterbrook property and has met with Save Winterbrook, Buchan Homes and the district, said that if Buchan decides not to go ahead with the purchase after its feasibility study is concluded in May, the county has a good chance of being able to purchase and preserve the land.
“Should the developer decide not to move forward, I think we could get it conserved,” Dunn stated. He said that the feasibility study “could go either way,” as the land has potential development problems due to the creek that runs through the middle of the property and the beaver dams that are located there.
If Buchan backs out, Dunn said his job is “to put us in a strong second position.”
“I’d rather have it in open space, if given the chance,” he said.
“We the county have been and continue to be interested in preserving Winterbrook Farm,” Burns stated firmly.
To learn more about the Save Winterbrook effort, visit http://winterbrookfarmfriends.org.