Fall City park district creates rift with Snoqualmie Tribe
When Fall City residents voted by a large majority last month to create a new park district to manage Fall City Park, it created a rift between the community and the Snoqualmie Tribe, which had offered to take on park maintenance.
Seattle Times Eastside reporter
On the surface, the measure on last month's ballot to create a park district in rural Fall City was a bid by local folks to gain oversight of a much loved King County park just across the river from their little downtown.
"Do we control the ambience of our small portion of this valley," the online voters guide, "or do we leave its fate to developers, ambitious politicians and those with interest disconnected with Fall City?"
But for the Snoqualmie Tribe, the community's decision to create a new layer of government that could manage the park was perplexing.
The 650-member tribe — which gained federal recognition just a decade ago and recently opened a casino in neighboring Snoqualmie — had offered to step in and take care of the park when King County didn't have the money to do it.
"In an anti-tax area, in rural Eastern King County, how else do you read it," said Snoqualmie Tribe administrator Matthew Mattson, "except that people don't trust the tribe?"
New parks Commissioner Lee Moderow says that while she views the park district as a triumph of local control, it did create a rift between the Fall City community and the tribe.
"It's been a really painful kind of thing, because the tribe is a very important part of the community," Moderow said. "It put us at opposite ends, and we never wanted to be in that situation."
By regional park standards, 27-acre Fall City Park is fairly modest. It includes a meadow, an oval horse arena and a baseball diamond. Its one curiosity is a hops-drying house, dated 1888 and moved from another site.
Residents call it the heart of the community. It's where Little League plays many games, where people go to walk their dogs in the afternoon. Bicyclists, hikers and equestrians park here when using the 31-mile Snoqualmie Valley Trail.
The equestrian-riding arena is one of just three in the county and can be freely used for riding when not reserved for other events, Moderow said.
But this land also has strong meaning for the tribe. A major tribal village was at the confluence of the Snoqualmie and Raging rivers, Mattson said, and tribal warriors trained here.
Years earlier, an archaeological dig uncovered Indian artifacts in the meadow, including pottery shards and evidence of a traditional longhouse. Because of the finds, the meadow can't be disturbed, Mattson said.
In 2001, when King County was in the midst of a budget crisis, the county began asking whether adjacent cities or other government entities could take over some of the upkeep of county-owned parks, said King County Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Brown.
Fall City couldn't do it because it's not a city; despite its name, it's an unincorporated town. But the Snoqualmie Tribe, which once had its tribal headquarters in Fall City, offered to help.
"The tribe thought it was doing a good thing, when the county was in a huge budget crisis," Mattson said.
In the short term, the county's budget crisis eased, and the proposal to have the tribe take over the park languished for several years. But with budget tightening in 2008, it gained momentum again and the county began working on a contract with the tribe.
But community members were concerned about certain provisions of the contract, which would allow the tribe to schedule tribe-only activities, limit public access to the park for short periods, and give the tribe the option to take other equivalent lands or facilities within the county and exchange those facilities with the park.
People feared the tribe might one day swap land far from Fall City, leaving the community without its park.
Wrote one resident: "We have no guarantee other than the protestations of their non-Indian lawyers that the park will be maintained/used as it currently is. With all due respect, I do not trust the word of the Tribe's legal counsel — period."
Mattson said the tribal council worked hard to assuage residents' concerns. For example, the tribe waived its sovereign rights in the agreement, meaning any disputes over the park would go to a state court rather than the tribal council.
In private, in print and in public, Mattson said, "there was fear of the tribe, and what the tribe might do to the park. We felt like we were getting beat up for doing a good deed."
Metropolitan King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert, who opposed the transfer of the park to the tribe, thinks the county failed the residents of Fall City the minute it began trying to rid itself of the park.
"The county needs to step up to its local-government function, even in these very dire financial times," Lambert said.
Lambert says the tribe's offer "was very kind," but she believes transferring county land to a tribe wouldn't have stood up in court.
Last year, a group of residents proposed a parks-improvement district, which went on the Feb. 3 ballot and passed with 58 percent of the vote.
New parks Commissioner David Schneidler called it "remarkable" that people were willing to add another layer of government and the potential for new taxes, considering the hard economic times.
Ten days after the vote, the Snoqualmie Tribe told King County it was no longer interested in the park. "Clearly our offer was not well received by the citizens of Fall City and we do not wish to fight that sentiment any longer," Mattson wrote.
The parks commissioners, who will hold their first meeting later this month, say they want to invite the tribe to the table.
"I would love to have the tribe's involvement," said Commissioner Perry Wilkins.
Mattson said it's unclear just how the tribe will fit in.
"Our objective is to monitor the site," he said. "We're just sort of, in movie parlance, we'll fade to black."
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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