Where Is Mitchell Hill And Why Does It Matter?

OK, back to business.

One of the most significant innovations in the way Seattle and the suburbs seek relief from sprawl is barely visible from I-90 as a rim of trees on the ridges north of the freeway between Issaquah and Preston.

It's Mitchell Hill, a leafy and exclusive enclave of superstar homes and private roadways. Mitchell Hill is also densely wooded, full of streams and brambles. Some of the neighborhood's homes are at the NBA-Major League Baseball player level. One I can think of is perched facing east and overlooks all the magnificence of the rising Cascades. Others are more modest, but all share that kind of country squire placement on the land that can make life on the Eastside so attractive.

What Mitchell Hill also has is undeveloped forest land that is at the hub of the region's highest rate of growth and development. It turns out, I-90 is the great development magnet, attracting growth along its stem the way railroads used to gush cities out of prairies. Mitchell Hill is close to Issaquah and adjacent to the planned community of Issaquah Highlands, where every home is Internet friendly and where Microsoft has eyes on even more office space.

Back in the last century, the Mitchell Hill Connector was the phrase of choice for land-use planners and land-swap deal makers who are always looking for ways to leverage land into a bankable asset. There is a community of folk who do land banking as a profession and work inside the rings of county government on countless deals big and small. If you ever want to hunt them down, I'd start at the Two Bells Tavern in Seattle's Belltown.

Mitchell Hill became the point of an arrow called Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs), which could be the model for a countywide policy intended to contain growth and save green space. It's too early to say if TDRs are going to show up in anything but small, specific cases, but the first one is a doozy.

TDRs work like this: A builder buys development rights to a forest or open space, most likely somewhere in east King County. Those rights are then shifted back west to the developer's project, ensuring the open land will never be developed. Essentially, the money goes to lock up forests from development. In exchange, the builder puts more square footage into another site.

The Mitchell Hill Connector is the first TDR enacted and becomes a tale of county, local government and the developer doing a square dance of revolving partners. King County agreed to the sale of development rights on 315 acres of forested land to Port Blakely Development Co., creator of Issaquah Highlands - formerly known as Grand Ridge. For $2.75 million, Port Blakely acquires rights that are transferred from Mitchell Hill into Issaquah Highlands, which then adds 500,000 square feet to the 2.9 million square feet of commercial space Microsoft plans to use. An additional $250,000 from King County goes to the land owners to round out the full cost of the TDR to $3 million.

The city of Issaquah had to sign off on the deal because it's getting more density. Port Blakely agreed to put $1 million into a bypass to help with easing traffic out of Issaquah Highlands, which is expected to generate about 7,000 car trips a day onto environs of Issaquah.

The result is more office space for Microsoft, more inducement for people to move into and near Issaquah Highlands near where they'll work, and preservation of a green corridor, the famous Mitchell Hill Connector. That forested link runs between 1,700 green acres on Grand Ridge to 1,000 acres of state land on Mitchell Hill.

Are TDRs the next big land use wave of the millennium? Maybe not.

First, what looks good in Issaquah required a set of circumstances not always present. In order for transfer rights to work, a city has to accept more density. Seattle is the obvious place to put it, as long as somebody sells the idea to the neighborhoods. For Kirkland, Bellevue and Redmond, more density is not always desirable. Most Eastside cities think they have enough density already.

The next problem is who gets the boon of selling development rights to forests. That's pure money because the rights will be exercised away from the forest floor. The Department of Natural Resources has much of the land. Would that help the state budget? King County Parks would love to have some extra cash. Could the county sell off rights to some of its land?

Intermediaries also come into play. Organizations such as the Trust for Public Land and the Land Conservancy are often the brokers between government and developers in land swaps. What's their profit, either in dollars or influence?

In the first transfer rights deal ever in King County and likely the first in the state, there appears at first blush to be all winners.

Threats, real or improvised, to the greenbelt to Mitchell Hill have been stopped and the forested connector is rendered untouchable. Issaquah Highlands has another half-million square feet of office space to toss Microsoft's way. The county and the green-space-preservation movement can claim a victory over further development. Other I-90 greenery projects are enhanced by a potential trail link between Grand Ridge and the trail systems that will spread east of Preston. Maybe horses will win, too, if the connector is developed into an equestrian path.

In fact, the success of the first TDR is so evident, you can bet lots of eyes are staring hard at grid squares now, looking for the next opportunity.

James Vesely's column focusing on Eastside issues appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: jvesely@seattletimes.com