For Bothell parks, housing bust means more forest

Dec 29, 2011

BOTHELL, Wash. — From the freeway, it looks like just another patch of woods ripe for new housing development once the economy revives.

From the air, the forested stretch along I-405 reveals itself as part of a green ribbon buffering an active salmon creek. The appearance of a "sold" sign in mid-December marked a 35-acre patch of western red cedar, western hemlock and Douglas fir as property of the city of Bothell.

"They were just getting ready to build on it when the housing crisis hit," said Jim Freese, the volunteer serving as interim director of the Friends of North Creek Forest group that helped the city buy the land.

The idea is to keep the woods as a nature preserve for the fast-developing area surrounding North Creek, which drains much of south Snohomish County and flows into the Sammamish River and Juanita Bay on the north end of Lake Washington.

Big discount

The woods, on a steep, eastern-facing slope, provide a nearly mile-long natural filter for water that drains into the salmon-spawning stream on the other side of I-405. The woods also provide habitat for an array of fauna that includes pileated woodpeckers, black-tailed deer, coyotes and salamanders.

"This is the biggest piece of the puzzle and some of the very best land," said Woody Wheeler, a consultant who has been working with the Friends group. "It's really an integral part of a much larger ecosystem."

The city paid the Boy Scouts of America $460,000 for the land. That's a steep markdown from its current appraisal of $700,000. The land could have fetched at least $1 million during the building boom a few years ago, said Bryan Zemp, a real estate agent who represented the Boy Scouts in the transaction.

"The Scouts took a big discount on this," Zemp said. "They felt it was the right thing to do."

Forest preserved

The Boy Scouts' local branch, the Chief Seattle Council, had owned the land since the late 1970s. A family originally donated the acreage so the Boy Scouts could raise money by developing it, Zemp said. Lately, however, the Scouts have been selling off properties to focus on its core mission of serving youth, rather than branching into property management.

The acreage the city just bought is part of an undeveloped, wedge-shaped tract of 64 acres. Friends of North Creek Forest hopes to buy another 6-acre piece with a $100,000 federal grant, Freese said.

Bothell intends to keep the woods as a passive park, meaning there are few plans to alter the landscape beyond trail building and interpretive signs.

"The Bothell City Council, city staff and our citizens worked for years to bring together the public-private partnership that has preserved this beautiful forest," Bothell Mayor Mark Lamb said.

Money for the purchase came partly from property taxes collected for Snohomish County's Conservation Futures program. There also was a grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce. King County's Conservation Futures program and parks levy covered the price for the portion of the woods south of the King-Snohomish County line. Bothell straddles both counties.

The woods stand about a mile northeast of downtown Bothell.

Living biology lab

One main asset is its close proximity to an estimated 9,000 students, Freese said. The goal is to turn the area into a living biology laboratory for students of all ages, "from K through Ph.D."

The woods border Canyon Park Junior High School to the north and a wetland-restoration project to the south maintained by the University of Washington's Bothell campus. Cascadia Community College and other schools are nearby as well.

The deal, closed Dec. 15, stems from a decade of work started by another grass-roots group, Help Our Woods. The Friends group, which shares many of the same members, formed in February and has since put in an estimated 3,000 hours or more of volunteer effort into research, grant writing and networking. Along with Freese, a retired electrician, active members include a junior high science teacher, a UW biology professor and a registered nurse, among others.