City moves to expand, care for open space

Last month the Mercer Island City Council voted to transfer management responsibilities of an 8.57-acre South-end property known as the Engstrom Open Space from the city to the Open Space Conservancy Trust. Their decision essentially expanded the open space area around the 113-acre Pioneer Park, while simultaneously adding to — or stretching thin — the city’s available open space maintenance dollars.

The decision also included a provision to match maintenance of the Engstrom Open Space to that of Pioneer Park. Increased maintenance of the Engstrom Open Space will reduce the amount of invasive or non-native plants that might spread to the adjacent Pioneer Park property.

According to city estimates, heightened maintenance of the 8.57-acre Engstrom Open Space may cost an extra $6,200 each year. This additional cost concerned several Council members, who noted the city’s financial strain.

West countered that if one park is maintained at a lower level than the other, it’ll create a drain.

“If we maintain it (Engstrom) at a lower level, we’ll always have invasives threatening Pioneer,” West said. “I think Engstrom ... has the potential to be a high quality habitat and high quality recreation.”

Councilman Dan Grausz, who is also a member of the Open Space Conservancy Trust, emphasized the need to transfer the management responsibilities from the city to the Trust and up the level of maintenance.

“Right now there is no one who’s taking ownership or an active interest in Engstrom,” he said. “If you don’t have someone looking out for it, it kind of gets lost in the mix.”

Deputy Mayor El Jahncke was open to the transfer, but unsure of the addition costs.

“We’re going to have a lot of competing interest for REET (funds) because there are more deserving projects,” he said.

Grausz countered that the Trust’s main interest is open space stewardship.

“The Open Space Trust has no budget authority. They just spend what we give them,” he said

The city acquired the land in two transactions, one in 2002 when Margaret and Ken Quarles transferred 1.57 to the city, and another in 2006 when the couple sold 7 acres to the city for $300,000.

The Quarles could have fetched anywhere from $700,000 to $2 million per raw acre — where 14 or more new homes could have popped up, according to a 2007 article in the Reporter.

Margaret Quarles is the daughter of Oscar and Hilda Engstrom, who purchased the property in 1925.

In a separate agenda item, the Council considered a grant application for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP) to purchase the Northstar property, a 3.5-acre parcel that parallels the Engstrom Open Space and abuts Pioneer Park.

The Council unanimously approved West’s proposal to apply for the grant, which could go toward a matching requirement for the Conservation Futures Tax grant from King County. In June, a citizen review committee for the Futures grant made a recommendation that Mercer Island receive up to $500,000. The recommendation will go before the King County Council in November; however, the grant will require a 50 percent match.

The WWRP could be used to match the Futures grant — if the county awards it to Mercer Island — and add up to $1 million in potential grant funds that could be used to purchase the Northstar property.

“What we’re buying is a buffer to Engstrom,” said West, referring to the residential neighborhood south of Engstrom.

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