Tax levy would help Mukilteo buy Japanese Gulch

MUKILTEO — Preserving part of Japanese Gulch for recreation is worth paying more in taxes for five years, say proponents of Mukilteo’s Proposition 1.

An opponent of the plan says the property tax increase would unfairly benefit people who visit the gulch from outside the city, and would not guarantee that Mukilteo could buy the gulch property to prevent development.

Mukilteo voters will decide on the Nov. 6 ballot whether to pay 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — $60 per year for the owner of a $300,000 home — for five years.

The money would go toward buying 98 acres on the west side of Japanese Gulch currently owned by Metropolitan Creditors Trust, a bankrupt Spokane mortgage company. The city currently owns 25 acres, but Boeing and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad own most of the large ravine, which straddles the border between Everett and the north end of Mukilteo near the Boeing plant. The gulch takes its name from Japanese immigrants who lived there in the early 20th century.

The cost of the property targeted in Proposition 1 is estimated at about $6.5 million. The tax would raise about $3.2 million, a little more than half the cost.

The city is seeking the rest in grants, Mukilteo City Council president Richard Emery said. So far it has raised only about $500,000 from a Snohomish County grant and still needs $2.8 million. It has applied for two other grants but was turned down, he said.

Emery serves on the 12-member board of directors for the Japanese Gulch Group, a nonprofit organization that promotes conservation and recreation in the gulch. He’s not allowed to support ballot measures as a council member, but is supporting this one as a citizen, he said.

He said more options are available, including applying with Snohomish County for more grant funding.

“We’re hoping to get recurring awards for two or three years,” he said. “That would allow the cost to be spread out over time.”

The city also could buy the land it could with what it has, he said. If all else fails, the city would come back to voters with another measure, he said.

“We would pursue anything else we could think of that might be effective,” Emery said.

The city spent $1.9 million of its own money and $1 million in state money to buy the 25 acres it owns and can’t afford to pay any more from its general fund or reserves, Emery said.

Charlie Pancerzewski, who wrote the statement against Proposition 1 for the voters pamphlet, said the uncertainty is one of his objections.

“They don’t have a purchase agreement, they don’t have a firm price,” he said.

The alternative, proponents said, is losing the property to development. This would not only take away the recreation possibilities but could mean a lot more traffic running through nearby neighborhoods, they said. The property is zoned for light industry.

“The 100 acres that’s up for sale will be approximately the size of five Costcos,” said Todd Hooper, president of the Japanese Gulch Group. “That’s the amount of traffic that’s influxed into the Mukilteo community if it’s built as industrial.”

The land is in receivership and the owners are anxious to sell, Emery said.

The property manager “would rather work with the city because we don’t have to go through any environmental reviews or mitigation stuff,” he said. “If the levy fails, the trustee will begin to market the property more vigorously in the development community.”

Hooper and Emery wrote the statements in favor of Proposition 1 for the voters pamphlet.

Pancerzewski pointed out that the city spends money on other amenities that are used largely by nonresidents, such as Lighthouse Park and the new Rosehill Community Center, and Japanese Gulch would be another example.

Proponents respond that people from outside Mukilteo who visit the gulch will spend money at city businesses.

“That’s an interesting argument that’s made quite frequently when people want to spend taxpayer money,” Pancerzewski said. It wouldn’t raise nearly enough to make a difference in the city budget, he said.

“Where are people going to spend this money in Mukilteo? About all we have are bars and restaurants.”

In the voters pamphlet, Pancerzewski said other trail options are available in Mukilteo, such as in Big Gulch.

That trail, though, is steeper and more rugged than most of Japanese Gulch, Emery said. The Japanese Gulch property would offer opportunities to make trails that are more accessible, he said.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property that should be accessible to anyone,” he said.

Though people from outside the city would use it, and do use the gulch, plenty of people who live in the city use it as well and could use it more if the land is available, Emery said.

“This park is probably no more than 10 minutes away from anyone in Mukilteo,” he said.

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

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