Leo Gese stands in a pasture at his home on 174th Street SE in Bothell. He and his wife, Marla Gese, fought an effort by the Everett School Board to condemn their land for a future high school. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Leo Gese stands in a pasture at his home on 174th Street SE in Bothell. He and his wife, Marla Gese, fought an effort by the Everett School Board to condemn their land for a future high school. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Judge rules that school district may condemn 3 properties

Owners of affected properties say they understand, but they’ve been unable to agree on price.

MILL CREEK — The Everett School District can condemn property from three households in the North Creek area to make way for a future high school campus, following a Snohomish County Superior Court decision last week.

Judge Janice Ellis ruled Oct. 25 that the district showed adequate legal grounds for using eminent domain.

That forces Marla and Leo Gese, along with their five horses, to find a new home by next spring. They’ve been searching up to Skagit County and Camano Island, but say what the district’s offered won’t buy them an equivalent property anywhere nearby. They’ve owned their four acres with a barn for 15 years.

“I can’t stay in my community,” Marla Gese said. “That’s what I’m really heartbroken over.”

The Geses and two sets of neighbors say they understand why the district wants their land, but they’ve been unable to agree on price. Their rural properties are next door to the hottest housing market in the state. The affected homeowners believe it’s only a matter of time before their land is rezoned for urban density and can command double or even several times the district’s price.

For now, eminent domain procedures require them to accept the district’s offer and leave. How much their land is worth is a question likely to get resolved in court.

The affected properties are along 174th Street SE, in the far southeastern corner of the district. While the land has rural R-5 zoning, it borders urban areas full of new subdivisions.

District officials say they need a fourth large high school to serve an expanding student body. Enrollment hit 19,891 this fall and is projected to grow by another 1,600 students within a decade. Two of the district’s three comprehensive high schools are over capacity.

“To accommodate this growth, the School District must construct new schools immediately, including a new high school,” Mike Gunn, facilities director for Everett schools, said in court paperwork.

The school board on Sept. 12 moved to use eminent domain, with board members expressing sympathy for the homeowners. The vote was 4-0. Later that month, the district’s lawyers filed court paperwork to start condemnation.

The Geses petitioned the court to turn down the district’s request. They argued that school officials hadn’t explored all options for using urban property before turning to rural areas. As one possibility, they identified undeveloped land the district owns along the Bothell-Everett Highway next to Mill Creek.

Among other points, the district responded that the land along the Bothell-Everett highway is too small for a high school. While possibly suitable for an elementary school, the land sits too close to existing schools, district officials contend.

Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek now has 17 portable classrooms, some of the 115 portables used districtwide. That number would grow to 145 across the district in 2026, if no other schools get built, district officials have said.

The future school campus would cover about 44 acres, including an elementary school. The district bought nearly 30 acres north of 180th Street in 2008. In 2015, the district started negotiating with eight sets of property owners for another 14.5 adjoining acres. The district is using eminent domain on the three holdouts from that group.

To build the new high school, voters would have to pass an Everett schools bond in February. Construction costs are estimated at $220 million. If the bond passes, construction of the high school could start as early as 2019 with an opening in 2022.

Construction of the new elementary school could begin as soon as next spring and finish in 2019. Voters in the Everett district have already approved funding for the elementary.

Everett Public Schools officials said they last used eminent domain 25 years ago for land that became athletic fields at Jackson High.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald net.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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