A group of residents is fighting to stop a housing development that they say would impact Issaquah’s mountainous backdrop.
Over 300 locals formed the group Save Cougar Mountain to protest a proposal by the Windward Real Estate Services to build 57 new homes on a sloped piece of land known as the Bergsma property.
Windward has submitted a land-use application to the city of Issaquah to create the housing development.
Owned by the Bergsma and Rech families of Issaquah, the land sits above Newport Way Northwest and State Route 900, just north of the Talus neighborhood.
The Issaquah City Council unanimously denied a previously proposed development agreement between the city and Windward for 78 single-family lots at its June 19 council meeting, contrary to city staff’s recommended approval. Council members stated at the meeting that they opposed the development agreement for a variety of reasons, including the increased density being proposed, the lack of affordable housing in the development and landslide hazards.
City of Issaquah Development Services Project Oversight Manager Christopher Wright explained in an email that “the process for the revised plat does not require City Council approval” unless there is an appeal, and that “city staff are now reviewing that application, pursuant to the processes and standards identified in the city code.”
After an updated critical areas variance review and SEPA determination, the application for the housing project proposal will go before Issaquah Hearing Examiner Ted Hunter in a public hearing, likely in early 2018. Anyone who wishes will be able to give public comment at the hearing or submit their comments in writing to the city beforehand.
Only if Hunter’s ruling is appealed will the matter go before the City Council.
Wright said that during a neighborhood meeting the city held on Oct. 30, Windward “heard feedback and questions on geotechnical analysis, heights of the retaining walls, truck traffic from soil and tree removal, [and] visual impacts.”
According to Save Cougar Mountain, 60 percent of the proposed 45-acre development includes critical areas, with wetlands, streams and steep slopes.
Issaquah resident and Save Cougar Mountain member David Kappler called the development “high-impact development,” noting that the property includes six wetlands and three streams. To fit the houses in, two of the wetlands would be filled in and 22 acres of trees would be cut down. Kappler said this could have a negative impact on the nearby Tibbetts Creek, a salmon-bearing creek.
“The highest and best use of that property is a park or open space, not a development of homes,” Kappler said.
Noting that the property borders the King County Cougar Mountain Park, the group suggests a partnership between the city, King County Parks and conservation groups to create a park for everyone to enjoy.
Kappler pointed out that the land’s proximity to the Issaquah Transit Center would make the park easy to reach for hiking enthusiasts from Seattle who catch the bus to Issaquah. Susan Neville, who started the Save Cougar Mountain movement, said that she already received an email of thanks from a Seattle resident who buses into Issaquah and spends the entire day hiking.
However, Jim Tosti, president of Windward Real Estate Services of Kirkland, stated that providing badly-needed housing would be far more beneficial for the rapidly-growing city of Issaquah.
“There’s a need here and we’re just responding to a need,” Tosti said.
He said that in addition to building housing, Windward is working to help the city with another of its needs — road improvements. Windward is “working with the city for significant improvements to Newport Way … and these are huge safety improvements to that road that have been needed for years and years.”
“This is a huge plus for the city and for that road,” Tosti said.
Save Cougar Mountain members still believe that the cost for the city is too high, however; a chief concern is the effect that the development would have on the unique, mountainous backdrop of Issaquah.
Issaquah resident and Save Cougar Mountain member Kay Haynes called Cougar Mountain “the gateway to the Issaquah Alps and the Cascades.” But if the mountainside becomes a tableau of cookie-cutter houses, “it’s going to be a major scar.”
“It’s just so sad because once it starts, then what’s next and what’s next and what’s next?” Haynes said. “There should be a line in the sand drawn that you don’t cross.”
Geri Potter of Issaquah described the look of a mountainside that has been cut into as “gouged-out” and declared that it would be “a terrible thing to look at.”
“We’re at that place where we can do it right,” Neville said. “I think that this is a beginning to show what we can do and put the things in place to have the development that we do need to sustain us but yet retain our canopies and our beautiful land.”
Besides the issue of nature preservation, group members are worried that the development poses a serious risk of landslides. For the new residents to be able to drive up the mountain to their homes, a 12-percent-grade road would be cut into slopes with a grade of 40 percent or higher. This would require the removal of 80,000 to 85,000 cubic yards of soil, Kappler explained.
“To try to out-engineer Mother Nature on these steep hillsides” is a dangerous idea, Haynes said.
In multiple reports, the most recent of which was conducted this autumn, geotechnical studies of the property found no risk of slides.
Save Cougar Mountain members are concerned by an initial study by The Riley Group from April 2015 that identified “potential landslide hazards downslope of the proposed development” for slopes greater than 40 percent.
Residents point to the November 2015 Talus landslide to contend that when a hillside is cut, there is always the potential for erosion and slides.
“You can engineer anything theoretically, but I don’t know that it takes into account what we’re facing now, the seriousness of the weather patterns and what’s happening,” Haynes said. “You saw the slide area in Talus on a slope that was not considered a very significantly dangerous slope, it had a low potential for slide. And … the area that is going to be engineered and developed here has a very high potential for slide.”
Tosti stated firmly that any initial issues have long since been resolved through extremely thorough and costly further studies, and that there is no risk at all for landslides.
“There are no issues on the geotechnical site remaining,” Tosti said. “It has been resolved with all of the technical people and staff involved at the direction of the city staff of Issaquah. We have used several Issaquah consultants to verify this.”
Tosti said that Windward has done “extensive additional research to answer any and all questions for the city of Issaquah” and “gone to extra lengths to answer all the geotech questions.”
He said that the property is ideal for homes because it is “within the city limits next to I-90, it has great view potential, it makes for a wonderful setting and the city of Issaquah needs more housing.”
The real problem, according to Save Cougar Mountain members, lies in the Issaquah Municipal Code, which they say does not line up with the values the city claims to have in the Issaquah Comprehensive Plan. The plan emphasizes “preserv[ing] the community’s natural resources, such as the creeks and forested hillsides.”
However, Kappler explained that the city’s codes “don’t really back that up.”
Haynes stated that the code “directly contradicts the Comprehensive Plan.”
“The codes have to match the vision, or [the vision] isn’t going to happen,” Kappler said.
Once a piece of nature is developed, Haynes said, there is no undoing the development and taking the land back to its days as a forested hillside.
“It’s forever,” Haynes said. “The stakes are really high. There’s no going back.”