Talk of splitting park causes headache in Felida

Cougar Creek neighbors hope county keeps 10-acre site whole, but land sale could benefit nearby areas

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

What’s better for Felida: one big park that draws people from far and wide, or two smaller parks that cater to local neighbors?

That’s the question Clark County staff and commissioners are exploring. Meanwhile, Felida neighbors are concerned that a 10-acre jewel purchased last year for parkland will get cut in half — with the other half sold off and developed as housing.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart reassured worried Felida residents during a Thursday morning meeting that a park will definitely get built at Cougar Creek Woods. The county is simply exploring “what other public benefit” might be realized by making it approximately 5 acres instead of 10, he said, and selling off the surplus — presumably to use to buy up more parkland nearby.

“We asked Parks staff to look into the possibility of using half of the 10 acres … as a neighborhood park … and surplus the other half to provide other neighborhoods in the area with similar opportunities,” Stuart said in e-mail.

Parks planners should have some ideas ready in about three weeks, he said.

Meanwhile, Felida neighbors have inundated Stuart and the other commissioners with e-mails and letters urging them to keep the 10-acre park whole.

Sweet deal

Last year, Clark County parks officials swooped in on what they thought was a sweet deal: Ten acres of foreclosed property at 11515 N.W. 16th Avenue. The land was going to be a 33-lot single-family development — builder Sam Vilhauer already had permits — but the plan fell apart and the land wound up sold at auction for $990,000, well below the appraised value.

The community was informed that the erstwhile Cougar Creek Woods subdivision had become the site of the future Cougar Creek Community Park. Parks officials love the way it both provides more green space in an underserved area and adds a trailhead and missing link along the Cougar Creek Greenway, a protected area and tributary of the Salmon Creek to the north.

“This would be an extension of that trail system,” said parks planner Jean Akers. “We’re trying to do that all over, make connections between trails and build a trail network. This piece of property furthers that plan.”

Plus, she added, there would be a stormwater facility, street improvements and — perhaps best of all — preservation of the western wahoo, a threatened species of understory shrub.

“It won’t wow anybody that it’s there, but it really is there and it real ly is an endangered species,” said Akers.

What has wowed Felida neighbors in recent weeks is the discovery that Clark County received an offer from developer Bill Huyette to buy back some of the Cougar Creek land for single-family housing development, after all.

Huyette offered to swap, or otherwise include in some sort of land deal, two undeveloped parcels that he owns where Northeast Salmon Creek Avenue passes under I-205. They don’t have a street address but are directly behind — west of — 12602 N.E. Salmon Creek Avenue and the Crosswater Townhomes gated development. Combined, the parcels are 6.86 acres. They are mostly within Salmon Creek’s floodplain and are largely protected from construction by environmental and wetlands constraints.

They’re near — but definitely outside — the park district that contains Felida and Cougar Creek. According to the county, the assessed value of the combined parcels is $225,000.

On Thursday Stuart dismissed a one-to-one land swap as simply impossible. An unequal swap, or one where the public doesn’t get full market value, is barred by state law, he said — and, county code prevents the county from exchanging parkland in one district for parkland in another.

But the idea of developing a smaller Cougar Creek park, selling the leftover land for housing development and realizing some other public benefit from that sale within the same park district is one the commissioners found interesting, Stuart said.

Why? Partially because the 10-acre Cougar Creek Woods site isn’t quite big enough to fulfill the standard role of a community park — providing parking, restrooms, sports fields and other infrastructure. The county usually wants its community parks to be at least 20 acres, Stuart said.

A neighborhood park that draws nearby pedestrians would only need to be 3 to 5 acres.

Stuart said he expects neighborhood controversy when, years from now, plans for parking and other heavy-use improvements are planned for the park. Maybe it would make more sense, he suggested, to keep Cougar Creek a smaller park, take the money from a surplus land sale, and go looking for additional park acreage elsewhere in the vicinity?

Neighbors at the Thursday meeting were slow to warm up to the idea. Heather Calhoun — proving Stuart’s point — said she would happily forego a parking area and keep more parkland green. Michael Fraser said he loves the idea of a big park there and is eager to help the process along. He believes the park could easily accommodate parking, he added.

And Milada Allen, leader of the Felida Neighborhood Association, questioned Stuart’s pulling Cougar Creek from a list of local parks for which the county was going to seek $500,000 in state reimbursement grants. Stuart pointed out that the grant cycle is a routine biannual matter, so money is still available; Allen objected that missing this cycle still means foregoing money that could have been used for other parkland acquisitions sooner — while the market is sluggish and real estate bargains are available.

By law, Stuart said, there will be plenty of public process before any decisions are made regarding Cougar Creek — declaring it surplus property, selling it off or sticking with the original plan to develop it as a 10-acre park.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525 or scott.hewitt@columbian.com.