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Originally published Sunday, February 23, 2014 at 8:01 PM

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Mercer Island mansion’s fate touches off development debate

Critics of the biggest single-family-home development proposal on Mercer Island in more than two decades are worried about irreversible damage to the environment inside and outside a lavish and long-respected mansion property.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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For about 30 years, the Coval House has stood on a wooded, 5-acre estate as one of Mercer Island’s dream homes. Its owners, research scientists Myer and Barbara Coval, lavished so much money on landscaping, rooms and a tropical pool that HGTV showcased the home on its “Million Dollar Rooms” show.

Cathedral-like ceilings are built with wood shipped from the Republic of Congo and Costa Rica. The landscape includes more than 300 trees, an organic fruit orchard and a koi pond.

The amenities of a $10 million pool are so intricate, it took contractors five years to finish.

“You step inside, and it just blows you away — and the swimming pool room is out of this world,” said Linda Chaves, 63, a neighbor who’s been invited to the home occasionally for neighborhood parties.

Now the estate is close to becoming the exact opposite of all that: A proposal the Mercer Island City Council says it will decide Monday night could make the property the largest residential development on the island since the 1980s.

The proposal from a developer buying the property, MI 84th Limited Partnership, registered in Washington under Garth Schlemlein, would level the mansion and much of its landscape to build 18 single-family homes in its place. The developer would also chop the top off a hill on the property that is close to a steep slope, prompting some neighbors to worry about the hill becoming destabilized.

Chaves said she imagined the property would become some kind of development because it seemed the Covals had trouble selling it since it went on the market in 2011 with an initial listing price of $15.5 million.

The Covals were devastated by not being able to find a buyer who would invest in preserving the property as is, said David Paul Eck, who spent years designing much of the home’s interior. He said they at first refused to believe an appraiser who said only a developer would likely ever take on the property. But after two years of no serious offers, they reluctantly agreed the appraiser was right.

“We tried hard to find somebody of a like mind, but the world doesn’t turn that way anymore,” said Eck. “Nobody stepped up.”

But because Chaves and others didn’t expect the development to so drastically change the landscape, they’ve banded together in hopes that the next phase of life for the property can keep some semblance of its last.

They argue that the Mercer Island City Council is not allowing enough public comment and discourse for a project that would alter part of the island’s landscape and would add traffic to a road that’s been regarded as dangerous and in need of repair for decades.

The Mercer Island Planning Commission’s first public-comment period on the project started around Christmas and ended around New Year’s, said Rick Aramburu, a lawyer assisting those opposed to the development.

Another public-comment period opened after a packed Jan. 15 Planning Commission hearing. The commission then recommended at another packed meeting Jan. 29 that the City Council approve the development.

The City Council has said that at the 8 p.m. Monday meeting it will make a final decision after each side spends 20 minutes defending their points of view.

“This is the biggest development in more than 20 years — you would think people would want to take a closer look at it,” said Chaves.

Adam Cooper, Mercer Island’s Planning Commission chairman, and three others approved the development proposal because they said all plans conformed to city code and third-party consultants deemed the plans for the property safe.

Cooper said the Planning Commission sympathized with complaints that traffic could become more dangerous and recommended the City Council prioritize making nearby roads safer. He said one of the men behind the development offered to pitch in $50,000 to help with road repairs.

Cooper said approving the development didn’t mean commission members weren’t saddened about the property’s future.

“We all voiced a certain amount of lament that we wish we had more latitude when it comes to protecting more trees because, honestly, that’s something that takes 100-plus years to replace,” Cooper said.

Cooper said he remembers biking by the property to go to a childhood friend’s house.

The mansion as it stands today hadn’t been built yet, but the property has included an upscale residence and landscape since 1913.

Chaves said she knew the Covals wouldn’t always be there but never thought the property would one day be almost unrecognizable.

“It’s a shame it’s not being treated with more respect,” said Chaves.

Eck said the pushback against the development has been another blow to the Covals.

“I’ve never seen two people nurture a piece of land more than they did. The idea that they’re selling out is ludicrous,” said Eck. “The home was built to last a lifetime so it would be passed on to children, but sometimes things don’t go that way.”

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.



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