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Tuesday, January 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

A cantankerous community, splitting at the seams

Mayor Ava Frisinger fell in love with Issaquah as a young wife when she moved to the idyllic town 39 years ago. Frisinger loved it so much she tried to stop its growth. In 1981, she ran on a slate of candidates opposed to the development of the old Skyport and the idyllic Pickering farm, which lay just north of I-90. They lost, and the property is now Pickering Place.

Undeterred, Frisinger joined the planning commission. She got an eye-opening lesson in exactly how much the government can meddle in the plans of private property owners.

"I was taught the realities of the law," she said. "I went from anti-growth to believing we needed to manage growth."

With prices skyrocketing, land scarce in Seattle and the formerly suburban bedroom communities becoming job centers in their own right, the Eastside has been squeezed for every bit of development space within the growth-management area.

Issaquah, perhaps, more than other cities. Sitting between Tiger and Squak mountains and Lake Sammamish, it is a choke point. Thanks in part to the Growth Management Act, the town is home to two high-density urban villages — high-end homes squeezed so close together the uninitiated are inclined to suck in their stomachs in sympathy.

Smaller lots make roomy homes more affordable. A 1,000-car park-and-ride garage under construction makes it more accessible. In the Issaquah Highlands, the construction, views and nearby amenities are beautiful — a spa, a dog park and even Caffe Ladro. It's nice. Heck, my inner claustrophobe figures, there's always terrarium gardening.

Though Issaquah's downtown resembles the downtown of 20 years ago, people who live and work elsewhere seize it for good parts of the day.

A 15-year-old proposed solution — the Southeast Bypass, which would skirt the city by cutting into the base of Tiger Mountain — was a centerpiece of last fall's City Council election. Each of the four seats up for election was hotly contested and Frisinger, a bypass supporter, was challenged by longtime council member, Hank Thomas.

The people were having none of slate politics, electing or re-electing some of each. The city is completing an environmental-impact study but, given the lineup, bypass construction will not be started anytime soon.

At least not until capacity of the county-owned Hobart Road leading out of the city is expanded. And that's controversial because some people fear expansion means even more development — though zoning and infrastructure couldn't accommodate it.

"I don't want that development either — and I'm a developer," says Skip Rowley, CEO of Rowley Properties. Founded 52 years ago in Issaquah by his father, the company owns 67 buildings, including offices, apartments and warehouses.

The same election, Issaquah faced the possibility of more than doubling in size — with two proposed annexations. The Greenwood Point/South Cove neighborhood voted to annex and assume a share of the city's debt; Klahanie liked the idea, but not the debt. The City Council declined to annex. Some Klahanie activists say they'll try again with another ballot measure; others dare them to try.

Such is the cantankerous nature of a community splitting at the seams. Those who moved there to get away are finding the world has found them again.

The Issaquah Frisinger fell in love with isn't that far removed from the one she manages today. She might no longer recognize everyone at the city's annual Salmon Days Festival, but the sense of community has never gone away. She notes the impressive citizens' efforts to launch the Issaquah for Katrina Relief fund. The group of service organizations, school and youth groups, churches, homebuilders, the city and the Issaquah Press has raised an impressive $100,000 to help out its adopted city of Picayune, Miss.

In response to the demands of growth and the confines of growth regulation, Issaquah has emerged as a regional player in a way its population — 17,000 until its annexation — might not indicate. City officials have gotten involved in issues of regional housing and Eastside water quality and supply.

That outward-looking involvement is necessarily defensive, Rowley says. "Most of Issaquah's ills are caused by the region so if you're really going to do Issaquah some good, you need to play in the regional/state playground."

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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