Growing Pains | District Responds to Criticism Over Buying Properties to Expand Mount Si High School

On June 11, 2o15 the Snoqualmie Valley School District Board of Directors unanimously passed a resolution authorizing the purchase of seven parcels of contiguous land adjacent to Mount Si High School.

According to the district, the additional land is needed for the new $188 million, 2,300 student capacity school that is slated to break ground in April 2017.

The size of the proposed rebuilt school was increased from 2,100 to 2,300 students in October 2014 when new demographic forecasts came in. That increase in capacity required more land, something Asst. Superintendent Ryan Stokes said was discussed multiple times at school board meetings during the lengthy community bond vetting process. In the formal bond resolution approved in late October 2014, ‘site acquisition’ is included in the description.

The district confirmed the need to acquire additional property for parking has been a part of bond discussions and planning, however, the exact location of the land was not determined until the conceptual design for the new high school design was developed last spring.

SVSD Assistant Superintendent Stokes stated the district’s desire is to work amicably with affected property owners, saying the decision to purchase these properties was weighed heavily because of the impact to the school’s neighbors.

Stokes stated that impact is “not ideal,” but is necessary for the high school expansion project, providing a contiguous footprint, maximizing use of the existing property and adding greater design flexibility. He said the district will work to provide property owners options they need, which according to the district’s attorney could mean flexible closing dates and other relocation concerns that can be discussed during negotiations.

Before the board voted on the land acquisition resolution, impacted property owners were invited to share their opinions at that June 11th school board meeting. They expressed concerns, including being unaware that a bond passage would mean having to move; making sure they are fairly compensated for their properties so they can afford to stay in the Snoqualmie Valley; and making sure retirement plans stay intact for those with paid off homes and rental properties.

Legally, the district can pay fair market value for the properties, as determined by two appraisals. Property owners can also arrange their own appraisal during the purchase process. Five of the land parcels have homes on them, once of which is a triplex rental unit.

The resolution to purchase the land also includes a condemnation clause (bringing into play eminent domain), if a purchase price cannot be amicably agreed upon. The district stated it hopes to close on the properties in fall of 2015, but can be flexible depending on each owner’s circumstances.

The purchase of the properties was the subject of a TV news report and local Talk Radio last week. Since that time many discussions have erupted on community social media pages.

Based on concerns expressed on those pages, a set of questions was sent to the Snoqualmie Valley School District.  These are their responses:

Did the district hide the fact that it would have to buy adjacent homes for the high school rebuild/expansion from voters during February School Bond Campaign?

No. The need for additional land was clearly pointed out in presentations made by NAC Architecture and openly discussed multiple times as the School Board vetted what was called ‘Option A’ as a solution for improving Mount Si High School. During the bond campaign, the district also talked about expansion and answered questions about parking concerns – as best as possible – since the exact location of property for additional parking had not yet been explored.

The district did not begin to evaluate potential properties until the work on the school’s conceptual design was underway last spring.

Feedback from the most recent Thoughtexchange community engagement was also influential in the design concept process – as two of the most important concepts resulting from community feedback were to reduce construction disruption and length of construction, and also build the facility large enough for future growth.

The land parcels in question allow for a reduction of construction from five years to three, and reduces from three construction phases to one– significantly simplifying the process and reducing the disruptive impact on students. In addition, the current conceptual design facilitates better planning for future enrollment growth on the site.  Because the parcels are contiguous with the current property, fewer properties are needed.  The current parcels widen a narrow strip of our current property that is underutilized.

If the district were to consider property across any streets, the number of parcels (and community members impacted) would likely increase in order to obtain a similar amount of property.  Wetland buffers, setbacks, security of the property, and proximity to the floodway or river were a number of other factors considered when trying to identify the property that best serves the needs of the students and the school for the expected 50+ year life of the building.

Is the district is offering property owners fair value for their homes? 

Yes, it is the District’s intent to offer fair value for the homes. By law, the District can only offer property owners what their property is appraised for.  The law requires a school district to get an independent certified appraisal, reviewed by a second appraiser, to determine the fair market value.  In addition, property owners can also choose to obtain their own appraisal.  To the extent that an owner’s appraisal differs from the District’s appraisal, the District can ask its appraiser to review and provide comments.  In some cases, a third party appraiser may be asked for an opinion.

Are you displacing residents, taking homes and applying eminent domain?

The School Board has not authorized eminent domain (as a media report characterized), but rather has asked the District to move forward with extending offers to the property owners to purchase their homes at a fair market value.  The board and district are hopeful an amenable purchase can be reached with the home owners.

The district acknowledges that this is a difficult situation and regrets the stress this may cause affected property owners.  We have been working with the owners to extend fair market offers and make arrangements to be as sensitive and responsive to their individual needs as possible—while at the same time staying within the parameters of the law and timeline needed for the new school construction.

Should those offers not be accepted, the board would need to consider authorizing the use of eminent domain.

Is there consideration of picking a different capacity solution, like a second high school as suggest by some, so that homes don’t have to be demolished? Is the District committed to the current plan to rebuild and expand Mount Si High School in its current location?

For context, the process of developing the current plan to expand and rebuild Mount Si High School at its current location has transpired over nearly four years of extensive discussion and planning (since January 2012.)  The Board initially considered a second high school as part of their preliminary discussions—although this idea did not receive heavy consideration and was set aside due to three past bond failures for a second high school (two in 2007 and a third time in 2008), as well as the incremental costs of operating a second high school.

They then looked extensively at three options, conducted focus groups for input, and decided in the fall of 2013 to fully vet a high school rebuild and expansion. This vetting process, over a 6-9 month period, involved community and staff meetings. The high school rebuild and expansion concept was further tested through a survey in May of 2014.  The board reviewed feedback, discussed further and in the fall of 2014 decided to place the measure on the ballot. The measure received a 62.5% voter approval rating in February 2015.

Since then, the District has been busily moving forward — investing significant time and money into the design of the building on the current site — in order to deliver a solution by 2019, when we anticipate the two current middle schools to be beyond their capacity.  After such a lengthy and thorough process to develop the plan, which a super-majority of voters in our community support, there are no plans to deviate from the voter-approved plan to rebuild Mount Si High School.

Where do things stand now in the process?

The District provided offers to all of the property owners in mid-June.  The purchase price included in each offer is based on a fair market value appraisal prepared by one appraisal firm and reviewed by a second appraisal firm. We are also in contact with several of the property owners or their representatives as they review and consider the offer.  The District’s continued hope is that it can work with each property owner to address circumstances and reach an amicable purchase agreement.

 

Parcels of contiguous land the Snoqualmie Valley School District is trying to purchase to enlarge Mount Si High School.

Parcels of contiguous land the Snoqualmie Valley School District is trying to purchase to enlarge Mount Si High School.

 

Conceptual Design Plan for rebuilt Mount Si HS, approved in late June.

Conceptual Design Plan for rebuilt Mount Si HS, approved in late June.

Comments

  1. Sean Sundwall says

    Great questions and very thorough answers. It sucks that five households have to be uprooted but it’s clearly the best solution for the community as a whole and the tens of thousands of students who will attend school there in the decades to come. I applaud the school board for their unanimity in making these tough decisions and moving so quickly to follow through on the voters mandate.

  2. Rob Wotton says

    I agree that we should work to preserve our neighborhoods and ensure affordable housing options throughout the Valley. Certainly those displaced will be challenged in finding comparably affordable housing options. It is something all of us should be concerned about and involved through ongoing discussions.

    We also can largely agree that having quality public schools supported by adequate facilities is critical for a thriving community. And in this case much effort has been put forth to include broad public input for school improvements. I feel confident of the work of citizen groups, the school board, administration and design professionals have done a commendable job.

    Yes, the new high school will encroach upon those who live adjacent and some may be displaced, but we will all benefit in our commitment to our future generations. It also helps to highlight what should be our next priority: affordable housing.

    From a personal perspective, I will be focusing my attention as a member of the Snoqualmie Economic Commission, I am dedicating some of my efforts to address housing options for our local workforce. And like our school board, I believe we need to involve our community as much as possible in the housing discussions.

  3. Linda Crosson says

    Why not build a new High School, make the current high school into a Middle School, and make Snoquamlie Middle School into an Elementary school? Wouldn’t that solve the over-crowding issues for now, and save these peoples homes?

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