Partners Join to Review Northern State

By Mark Stayton, January 14, 2014, Go Skagit

Three public entities have joined to investigate the economic opportunities of allowing development on the 953-acre Northern State Hospital site just east of Sedro-Woolley’s city limits.

On Monday, the Skagit County commissioners were the last to sign an interlocal agreement for a large-scale site review involving the city of Sedro-Woolley and the Port of Skagit.

The goal is to see what possibilities Northern State might hold for future private development while protecting the site’s historical significance, recreation opportunities, environment and neighbors, said Patsy Martin, executive director of the Port of Skagit.

Eron Berg, Sedro-Woolley city supervisor and attorney, said he would eventually like to see the site become an economic engine for eastern Skagit County and provide tax revenue for the city.

“We’re looking to see what are the attributes of the site, what does the community want to see at the site, and who’s out there who might want to suit those needs … ” Berg said. “There’s a lot of potential for doing more on the site. Office space, an IT (information technology) campus, sustainable agriculture. I look at it like an old building downtown that’s underutilized.”

The site is currently held in two separate parcels, each with its own restrictions and considerations that have thwarted past plans for development.

The former Northern State campus, where a mental hospital operated from 1909 to 1973, is owned by the state Department of Enterprise Services.

The 227-acre former hospital plot still features many of the original Spanish Colonial Revival-style buildings and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The state leases space to a number of tenants, including Cascade Job Corps, an in-patient drug and alcohol treatment center and an alternative high school, but access is barred to the general public.

Age and weather have taken a toll, and some of the buildings may be beyond repair, said Nick Cockrell, who manages the site for the state. Maintenance and fire protection upgrades cost the state around $1 million per year between 2011 and 2013.

A main part of the plan to make private development possible is acquiring the state-owned land, said County Administrator Tim Holloran.

“We’re looking at what synergy can we get if the state transfers property to local control, and what can we do to turn it into an economic engine,” he said.

In 1991, Skagit County bought the 726-acre parcel of land bordering the campus, which was formerly farmed by hospital patients. It was purchased using funds matched with $364,585 from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition and turned into the North Cascades Recreation Area — a park with trails and a Frisbee golf course.

The matching funds came with a deed restriction that stipulates the land be used for outdoor recreation in perpetuity.

Any development placed on the land would need to be replaced with another park of equal size and access, said Leslie Ryan-Connelly, a compliance specialist with the state Recreation and Compliance Office.

More than 500 acres of the county-owned portion are designated as wetlands and are off-limits to development, while Hansen Creek was the site of a recent salmon habitat restoration project.

The three local partners have each committed to putting $25,000 or an equal combination of funds and in-kind contributions toward the review.

Martin said she hopes to find the remainder of the $325,000 needed for the review from the state budget or in a grant from the state Department of Ecology.

The review would be massive. It would look at whether buildings are safe and usable; the site’s historical significance; a review of topographical, environmental, archaeological and other aspects of the site; existing uses and leases on the site; and cost-benefit analyses of local ownership and potential uses.

The agreement states that prior to making and changes in ownership, uses or development models at the site, the study will be completed and the public will be involved in the decision-making process. Martin said the partners will have regular meetings.

Larry Dustin, a Camano Island-based adviser for Hospitality Focus Inc. who proposed building a destination resort on the site in December 2012, said his offer still stands if the entire site is presented as a long-term land lease.

“We’re not ready to entertain proposals at this moment,” Martin said.

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