Mukilteo looking at Japanese Gulch options

MUKILTEO — With the deadline for placing measures on the fall ballot drawing near, Mukilteo officials again are weighing their options for preserving part of Japanese Gulch for recreation.

The city is negotiating with the owner of a 98-acre parcel in the gulch that’s zoned for light industry, but still does not have the money to buy the property.

A ballot measure last fall to increase property taxes to go toward the purchase fell just short of passing.

City officials haven’t ruled out a return to the ballot in November. They have until Aug. 6 to decide.

The city is applying for grants and considering council-approved bonds as well, said City Councilman Richard Emery, a preservation advocate.

The property owners, Metropolitan Creditors Trust of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, recently proposed a deal to the city.

The sum was not disclosed, in keeping with state law protecting potential government real-estate deals from public view.

Council members in the past have said the city might have to pay as much as $6.5 million.

The city has $1.8 million set aside for the property, including $1 million approved last week by the Legislature.

The city also is applying for a grant of at least $1 million through the Snohomish County Conservation Futures program. The city has hired Forterra, a Seattle land-use and conservation consulting company, to handle the grant application and negotiate with the property owner.

Forterra would be compensated only if at least part of the property is purchased, according to its agreement with the city. The amount paid would depend on the amount acquired.

If all of the property is bought, Forterra receives up to $200,000. If part of the parcel is obtained, the company would receive a minimum of $45,000 and a maximum of $120,000.

Sabrina Bolieu, a conservation program manager for Forterra, wouldn’t give an exact figure for the county grant being sought but said it is more than $1 million.

A $1 million grant would bring the city’s total in hand to $2.8 million, potentially still more than $3 million short.

Last year’s ballot measure would have raised $3.2 million. The measure would have raised property taxes 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — $60 per year for the owner of a $300,000 home — for five years.

More than 58 percent voted for the measure but as a tax levy it required a supermajority of 60 percent approval to pass.

Emery said if the city were to go to the voters again, he’d like to see a lower total, say $2.5 million, to increase the chance of passage. This would at least get the city close, he said.

“In any other election a 58½ percent plurality would be considered a landslide,” Emery said.

Councilwoman Jennifer Gregerson, a preservation backer who is running for mayor against incumbent Joe Marine and Councilman Steve Schmalz, expressed a similar sentiment.

“I’m still open to looking at it,” she said of going back to voters. “I think it’s important to preserve (the property) and I think the voters have told us that’s a priority.”

Schmalz, who voted to put last year’s measure on the ballot, in January expressed doubts about going back to voters again.

“When does no mean no?” he said.

Schmalz said the city now needs to nail down what it can get from other sources and reach a firm agreement with the seller before going to the ballot.

“We need to have an understanding of where we’re at before we make a commitment one way or the other,” he said.

He noted the property has been available for some time and has yet to sell.

“I would think we would be able to do something a little more competitive than we have been,” he said.

Emery said the city has an advantage over potential private suitors in that it doesn’t have to worry about working around the wetlands and slopes on the site. It also won’t have to come up with a plan to reduce the effects of traffic.

Just recently Metropolitan Creditors Trust posted a sign advertising the property for sale.

The sign is located at the corner of 44th Avenue W. and 76th Street SW, next to an area where many hikers park to go into the gulch.

The sign lists the company name, the phone number and reads “Private/Public Development Opportunity” and “Seeking Qualified Parties.”

Metropolitan Creditors Trust was created to handle the bankruptcy of a Spokane mortgage company. The trustee, Maggie Lyons, is under a deadline to sell the property, according to Emery. Lyons could not be reached for comment. Emery said his understanding is that the deadline is about a year away.

“She’s doing her due diligence,” he said.

He said the sign could help remobilize supporters of preserving the gulch.

“It got some people pretty excited,” he said.

The gulch’s trails are popular with hikers and mountain bikers.

Emery, Schmalz and Gregerson each said they’d welcome the thoughts of residents.

“I’m interested in hearing what people want,” Gregerson said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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