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Originally published September 2, 2012 at 9:02 PM | Page modified September 2, 2012 at 9:21 PM

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Woodinville locked in tug of war: wine, tourists and farms

A battle is raging over whether King County should move the urban growth boundary, allowing Woodinville to expand with more wineries, restaurants and a hotel.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Where city meets farm

Click to enlarge | Owners of 31 acres next to the Sammamish Valley agricultural district want their land annexed to Woodinville, paving the way for wineries, restaurants and a hotel.

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I take the opposite view to some extent -- we are losing prime farmland in this country... MORE
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The two-lane blacktop that runs south from downtown Woodinville is no longer an old-fashioned country road.

Past the three-story medical buildings on the edge of town lie a veterinarian's office, a modern church and a Montessori school. Farther on, a sprawling sports club, then wine-tasting rooms, restaurants and shops at a new roundabout.

But that's not the whole story.

Between those newer establishments remain glimpses of an agrarian past: chickens scratching in a dusty yard, horse trailers for sale, plant nurseries, farmers tending crops on the east bank of the Sammamish River.

Now a battle is raging over whether King County should move the urban growth boundary, allowing Woodinville to expand to the south from downtown and north from the tourist district to allow more wineries, restaurants and a hotel.

Not much land is directly involved — 31 acres and 11 owners — but the stakes are high.

If wineries can't find the space they need in Woodinville and modest-priced hotel rooms aren't built, advocates say, businesses might leave and new ones might not come to the area. Opponents warn that more intense development would hasten the conversion of the valley's remaining farmland to more profitable, but less green, uses.

It's the latest episode in a struggle that has simmered for years over the future of the Sammamish Valley, where Woodinville's wine-tourism industry operates next to some of the best fresh-produce farmland within 20 miles of Seattle.

Hoping for agritourism

Jack Gundersen doesn't see why he and his next-door neighbor shouldn't be allowed to make way for two wineries and a restaurant.

King County's rural zoning won't allow that, so he's asked the county to move the urban line.

Five wineries have opened tasting rooms kitty-corner from Gundersen, and a mix of wineries and other businesses is immediately south of him. He's spent 22 of his 75 years there, repairing tractors and riding mowers, and, since February, making furniture out of old wine barrels.

Gesturing to the edge of his property, he said, "Five feet over and 13 feet down is a sewer line, and I can't tap into it and build what I want. I would like to build two beautiful wineries here and a place for my furniture.

"I'm not out for a fast buck. I'm here to make something nice for the city and the area."

Real-estate broker John Corrado and the city's first mayor, Lucy DeYoung, are promoting urban zoning followed by annexation to Woodinville for two areas they say are ideally located for wineries, restaurants and a moderately priced hotel.

"Woodinville is running the risk of losing the name of Napa Valley of the north," Corrado said.

New businesses on the edge of the valley would bolster wine tourism and nurture "agritourism," in which visitors could see crop farming up close and personal, Corrado and DeYoung say.

"We can't compete with California" on agricultural production, DeYoung said. "What we can compete on is agritourism. We want to make sure that as many farmers as possible can be successful."

LeeAnn Belarde wants to be part of that agritourism, with plans for a Washington Wine and Culinary Museum in addition to the French bakery she recently opened. To do that, she needs urban zoning and connection to a sewer. Part of her property is in a county-designated agricultural production district.

Closer to downtown, developer TRF also wants urban zoning in order to build a hotel and conference center. Part of the land is in the ag district, where demonstration gardens and vineyards, trails and a gazebo are envisioned.

Extending sewer lines would protect adjacent farmlands from pollution, DeYoung said.

The Woodinville City Council supports redesignating the properties as urban. King County Executive Dow Constantine opposes it. The County Council will make the critical decision on whether to move the urban growth boundary.

Appetite for local crops

When Claire Thomas first began tilling the dark, rich soil south of the Woodinville wine district 26 years ago, "I couldn't believe how things grew."

Her farm, The Root Connection, was among the region's first to distribute weekly shares of organic produce to members under the community-supported agriculture model. She employs 17 workers.

Thomas frets that more urban development would squeeze agriculture in a valley where farms have largely been replaced by subdivisions, golf courses, ballfields, business parks and wineries.

"What the city governments don't understand," Thomas said, "is that you can't keep chopping away at the ends of an entire ecosystem and expect it to survive, because if it gets smaller than a certain size then you have drainage problems, you have wildlife going away, like coyotes, garter snakes, everything it takes to keep an organic farm working."

Three acres of her 22-acre farm have become too wet to cultivate because of runoff from development above her farm, and a decline in coyotes has led to "an epidemic of rabbits," she said.

Despite those challenges, Thomas grows 90 tons of produce each year, and other farmers have moved into the valley to satisfy a growing urban appetite for fresh, locally grown crops.

The nonprofit 21 Acres farm, adjacent to downtown Woodinville, has brought 18 neglected acres back into production. It sells local produce at an indoor farmers market and offers classes in gardening, cooking and sustainable living.

Carnation-based Full Circle Farm has expanded its operation to 72 acres in the Sammamish Valley. At the nearby South 47 Farm, Woodinville's Herbfarm and Kirkland's Trellis restaurants grow their own produce.

Not all farmers oppose more urban uses. Federica Zante, who runs a produce stand on land her late husband cleared for farming in the 1920s, said, "I think it's good for the city to expand. I don't think it's going to hurt the farmers."

Different approaches

Woodinville and King County have periodically engaged in a tug of war over what kind of development is appropriate.

The county, committed to protecting farms and preserving land for future farmers, bought development rights to much of the richest Sammamish Valley farmland, put more into an agricultural production district, and created a low-density buffer around it.

Woodinville, meanwhile, nurtured a tourist district anchored by the Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia wineries and Redhook brewery. More than 100 wineries and tasting rooms call Woodinville home, most of them in the tourist district, which slices across the valley through the ag district.

The county's Farmland Preservation Program means there's no reason to fear the demise of agriculture if tourist-related businesses are allowed to extend north from the ag district and south from downtown, DeYoung said.

"This whole thing that we're going to pave over the valley and march down the valley can't happen because these surrounding properties have sold their development rights," she said.

But the fact that a landowner has sold development rights doesn't mean a farm isn't affected by surrounding development, some farmers say.

When students at Cascadia Community College tested water running off a church parking lot onto 21 Acres, they detected heavy metals. The farm is using bioswales and ditches to keep contamination away from crops, said the farm's chair, Gretchen Garth.

21 Acres hasn't taken a position on the prospect of a 100- to 150-room hotel next door. Garth, speaking for herself, said a hotel would bring "a great audience for our work" but "could be located anywhere within the Woodinville area."

Leaders' views clash

The Woodinville City Council, interested in annexing properties along the Sammamish Valley, supports the landowners' request that King County move the urban growth boundary.

County Executive Constantine opposed opening the door to urban development after his planning staff said the city failed to show there was a lack of land for commercial development within city boundaries.

When the stalled 24-acre Woodinville Village in the tourist district finally moves ahead, it will bring new wineries, homes, restaurants, a grocery and a boutique hotel. And, opponents of annexation say, there's plenty more land downtown ripe for development.

But annexation proponents say downtown is too far from the tourist district and a Woodinville Village hotel would be priced beyond the reach of most visitors to wine, beer and liquor tasting rooms — making a convenient, affordable hotel a safety need.

County Councilmember Kathy Lambert said she plans to propose moving the line separating city from country.

"The urban growth boundary was meant to be adjusted as needed," Lambert said. "The policy of King County has turned it into being a cement wall. It was never intended to be that. To move it an inch is like shedding blood."

Councilmember Larry Phillips, chair of the council's Transportation, Economy and Environment Committee, vows to fight the change.

"This just comes up every four years," Phillips said. "Unfortunately we have to go through the battle, but so far, over many executives and councils, we've fought to preserve the farmlands of the Sammamish Valley and not have hotels built next to cows."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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