Groups fight to preserve Bellevue Coal Creek site slated for new homes

BELLEVUE — The Coal Creek Natural Area bears some reminders of the mining industry it’s named for. Hikers and visitors might come across a sealed mine shaft and locomotive turn table, remnants of an era that now rest in a densely forested recreational site. Structures where one of the last coal miners in the area lived sit off Lakemont Boulevard Southeast.

Historical signs along the trails detail the area’s past, while recently added signs in one privately owned spot signal a potential future: proposed land-use action for a new housing development.

Isola Homes plans to build 35 single-family homes on about half of the 12 acres the company purchased in 2016 and 2017 for a combined $3.8 million. The proposed homes would be two levels and up to 3,275 square feet, according to permit applications filed with the city of Bellevue.

The process for this planned development, which began nearly seven years ago and spans numerous environmental, archaeological and geological studies, countless meetings and testimonies, and thousands of city documents, has spurred criticism from groups who say it threatens a critical wildlife corridor and could have additional environmental effects.

“I fully believe there are a few very special places you don’t put houses on, and this is one of them,” said Sally Lawrence, steering committee chair for Save Coal Creek, a resident group that has hired a lawyer and appealed the city’s permitting decisions along with the Issaquah Alps Trails Club.

Representatives for Isola Homes, meanwhile, note that the area they want to build is privately owned and zoned for single-family residential homes. They question the opponents’ descriptions of the space, given its history as a coal mine. They stress that the company voluntarily dedicated about 6 acres of the property to be used by the Bellevue parks system, allowing the trail connection that crosses the site to be preserved. With the $3.8 million to buy the property, as well as permitting and construction costs, Isola has spent about $6.7 million for the project over the past seven years.

“We are doing as many things as I can think of in building the property,” said Steve DeShazo, in-house counsel for Isola. “The only other thing is no development at all, and that ignores that it was houses before.”

Bellevue had a public hearing last month before the city’s hearing examiner, who will make a final decision on the site, officially called the Park Pointe Planned Unit Development.

Coal mining history

The site is bordered on three sides by the Coal Creek Natural Area, which is owned by the city of Bellevue. On the other side is King County-owned Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park. One parcel is known as the Swanson property — it was the home of a family of miners who lived in Company House No. 180 beginning in 1923, according to Bellevue city documents.

The Swansons purchased the home from the mining company in 1930, and Milt Swanson lived there until his death in 2014. He was among the last of the Newcastle coal miners, part of the roughly 100-year period when the Eastside was coal country and tunnels hundreds of feet deep snaked underground. At its peak in the 1880s, Newcastle was producing about 200,000 tons of coal annually.

“The idea of preserving even our more unique recent human history, as an artifact and exhibit as well, that’s a big part of the story,” said Paul Winterstein, the former executive director of the Issaquah Alps Trails Club and former Issaquah City Council member. “It creates a unique connection.”

Mining ended in the 1960s, but Swanson kept many relics from the era, including a coal cart. The area is a reminder of its history, Steve Williams said, and its transformation from that time into a spot for recreation.

“Nature can recover, if we leave her alone,” said Williams, a former King County park manager and past president of the Newcastle Historical Society.

Isola says it plans to provide historical narrative signs at the site regarding the area’s coal mining history. The structures that would be demolished for the development were determined ineligible for local, state or national historic registries.  

Needs for open spaces, housing

Similar conflicts have played out on other proposed developments on the Eastside, where cities pride themselves on proximity to open spaces and dedication to conservation, while also wanting to increase housing stock. Bellevue has a growth target of adding least 35,000 new housing units through 2044, with about 1,400 units per year from 2022 to 2044, according to the city’s 2022 Housing Needs Assessment.

But critics say the proposed development isn’t the type of housing that’s needed to address the lack of affordable homes in the region. Each home would cost an estimated $1.5 million, according to Isola, which is generally less than other homes of that size in the area but still out of reach for those seeking “missing middle” housing.

At the hearing examiner’s public hearing, Ryan McIrvin, an Issaquah Alps Trails Club board member, called the plans a missed opportunity for better trail access and said they work against the goals set for outdoor accessibility.

“I understand how much housing we really need. … This is not the place for that housing,” said McIrvin, who is a Renton City Council member but said he was there in his own capacity. “This is an area that is sensitive and we can never get back once we build there.”

Opponents note that the residents would likely depend on cars because of its distance from services. They also worry about the environmental effects from construction, especially with stormwater and salmon.

Isola said the project received a Salmon-Safe certification, given by the Portland nonprofit Salmon-Safe, after a review of policies and procedures related to reducing the effect on watersheds. It also plans to add safety features at the crossing at Lakemont Boulevard at the Red Town Trailhead, and says it will make investments in public utility infrastructure.

The groups have lobbied for the city of Bellevue to purchase the land from Isola to prevent the development. DeShazo said Isola is open to selling the properties, and both the company and the city confirmed representatives have met about that possibility, though neither said what, if anything, came from those meetings.

That type of sale isn’t without precedent: In 2018, the Issaquah City Council voted to acquire 46 acres on Cougar Mountain’s lower slopes in partnership with King County and the Trust for Public Land, halting the proposed construction of 57 homes called the Bergsma Development. The land was sold for $11 million to preserve it as parks and open space following an effort that, like the Coal Creek groups, came from citizen groups that opposed the development.

“Both the level of interest, and how the council went through that process, I saw a lot of similarity there and how it would work with Bellevue in this case,” Winterstein said.

Williams, the historian, would like to preserve the property — and put in Milt Swanson’s coal cart.

“A lot of people want to move here because of nature and the close relationship to the woods,” he said. “But if we build houses everywhere, we lose the reason we came here.”

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