Thursday, April 14, 2005

If You Build It...

It will become a political football:

"First, they didn't plan for parks, so that forced parents to say, where can we play ball?" he said.

"And what happened is some Snohomish County officials sort of said, 'Wink, wink, go out there and do it,' which put these folks between a rock and a hard place."

Mark Kilpatrick, vice president of the North Snohomish Little League, said the non-profit spent several years trying to find a place for their fields, after maintaining access to their land near the airport became a problem.

The legal land they found was way out of their price range, swampy, tree-covered or located under crackling power lines. When they found a landowner willing to sell 24 acres of flat, fallow farmland just outside the city, it looked perfect.

"It seemed right for the community, it seemed right for the Little League program, it seemed right for the farmer," Kilpatrick said. "We knew there were complications with the land, but I don't think any of us realized the magnitude of those complications."

It was across the street from seven ball fields that had already been developed by the South Snohomish Little League, which were technically illegal but already had been in use for three years. The two groups serve about 1,300 children.

North Snohomish league officials said that when they started to put out feelers about whether the land's agricultural status would be a problem, county officials were optimistic that they could get the law changed in Olympia.

While no one told them outright that it was OK to build there, they also got the impression that Snohomish County wouldn't make an issue of it if they did, Kilpatrick said.

They invested $650,000 on land, grass seed, bleachers and fencing to develop the 10-field complex, which they began using last season.

Soon afterward, the county got a formal complaint from a neighbor about traffic, said Craig Ladiser, director of Snohomish County's planning department who was hired when County Executive Aaron Reardon took office last year.

Ladiser said he had no choice but to enforce the state law. But he gave the recreation groups more than a year to lobby the Legislature for a solution.

"It's tough publicity but the fact of the matter is, the Little League was aware that it was illegal when they did it," he said. "They hoped the law would change and it didn't."

Kristin Kelly, Snohomish County director for Futurewise, the anti-sprawl group formerly known as 1000 Friends of Washington, said the legislation awaiting the governor's signature gives the county the opportunity to solve the problem without a wholesale weakening of farmland protection.

Some used the issue to push for broad legislation that would have opened the door to recreational uses, such as golf courses and RV parks, on prime agricultural land across the state, she said.

Although Futurewise doesn't condone people illegally building on farmland without permits, the group compromised in this case because it didn't want to penalize innocent children, Kelly said.

Let's play two.

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