Plot of land fuels conspiracy talk

Mielke rebuts claim, says he has no use for acreage designated for Cougar Creek park

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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At last week's Clark County commissioner meeting, more than 20 people showed up to ask commissioners not to sell a 10-acre plot of land in Felida designated to become a future county park. Some took the issue so far as to claim Commissioner Tom Mielke was involved in a possible real estate development deal on the land.

Several county sources say those claims aren't true.

Mielke was put in the position of defending himself for nearly an hour of public testimony over an accusation he looked visibly surprised by.

"Everyone's been coming up with things I don't know about," said Mielke, who was de facto chair of the meeting as Commissioner Steve Stuart was absent. In his role as chair, he allowed the commenters to go past the five minute time limit to speak their piece against him.

Finally, Mielke told one commenter who connected him to an unknown developer that he was incorrect in his claim.

"You insinuated I was going to buy this park or develop it," Mielke said. "I am not a developer. I don't have money to buy that park. Just thought I would set the record straight so you would know."

After confirming the land was located near Cougar Creek, Mielke continued: "I have no use for it. Not true. Sometimes when you come up and say something like that, it would be nice to have your facts rather than make accusations as to my character, as to what I'm doing."

At Cougar Creek

Clark County Public Works Director Pete Capell sent an email to County Administrator Bill Barron as a follow-up to the Tuesday night meeting. In that email, he said the county is actively moving forward in an effort to develop the land southeast of Northwest 119th Street and 16th Avenue for public use.

"This year, we submitted an application for an acquisition reimbursement grant and were awarded $558,391," Capell wrote. "We have recently received the grant agreement, and it should be on an upcoming consent agenda to accept the grant."

Those grant funds come through the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition and would pay for roughly half of the developments planned at the Cougar Creek site. However, the work on the land doesn't currently have a build date.

That said, both Capell and Barron said no talk has occurred on selling the land since 2009. At that time, commissioners Mielke and Stuart, along with former Commissioner Marc Boldt, considered selling some of the land to a developer if it would pay to create the infrastructure at the park. But that plan never moved forward, and Mielke says he never much cared for that idea.

Furthermore, selling the parks land would activate a difficult legal balancing act for the county. As the land in question was purchased by the county with public funds, the county would need to turn around and purchase a similarly valued piece of land for parks development after the sale.

Beyond that, a public process would be required for any type of sale to go through, and Barron said there are currently no plans for such a discussion.

Bigger parks plans

The Cougar Creek land in question remains a far-off development in the county's eyes.

Its first commitment appears to be completing 10 neighborhood parks and seven miles of trail promised to voters who fund the Metropolitan Parks District.

"Our highest priority is the 2005 Metropolitan Parks District guarantee," Capell said in an interview. "We have eight neighborhood parks and two community parks left to build in that promise."

The county paused on development of the parks in recent years as income from MPD taxes shrank with the austere economy. But with revenues improving, Capell believes the county could construct three of the parks in 2014. Commissioners are expected to talk on that matter in an upcoming board time discussion.

The Cougar Creek land is not considered a spot for one of the 10 remaining parks; however, it could be used to fulfill a portion of the trail commitment.

Capell said the hope is that all the MPD parks will be built out in "three to four years."

All three commissioners have spoken in the past on their commitment to county parks.

Madore made a focus of his campaign to remove county park parking fees — a feat he achieved back in April with the support of Mielke.

While that effort originally caused some additional problems with visitors drinking and having a raucous time at the free parks, Capell said he believes the parks are now "healthy" as visitors have made an effort to report the issues.

Stuart has often said he remains committed to keeping the promise to voters who approved the MPD. His statements have all focused on making the 10 parks still outstanding a county priority.

Further, Stuart has taken over as the commissioner liaison to the county's work at Camp Bonneville on the county's east side — a project that requires explosive ordnance removal and is likely a decade away from being completed.

Meanwhile, Mielke does have his gaze cast to a parks project, but it isn't near Cougar Creek and his intent isn't to buy up the land.

Tucked away in North County, off NW 389th Ave., sits an 80-acre former campground transferred to the county from Washington State Department of Natural Resources in 2011.

Mielke toured the location back in June after acquiring a key to the gate. The land is currently off limits for overnight use despite the dozen overgrown campsites.

It has a large shelter in the middle of it, toilets and sinks and even a basketball court.

Mielke says he's excited to open the space up to the public again, but he knows these things take time.

"This will need a plan to be created for it," Mielke said. "We're looking a few years out at this point."

The next big talking point for commissioners will come as the county and city of Vancouver attempt to rework an agreement that operates the Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation department. Commissioners have long said they wish to discontinue paying for some of the services the county purchases from the city-run department.

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov; erik.hidle@columbian.com.