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Hilltop property is key to connecting Grand Forest

This group of islanders, listening to leader Jim Thrash (far right) in the meadow on the Hilltop property, will serve as tour guides during the May 1 event put on by the Bainbridge Island Land Trust.   - Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo
This group of islanders, listening to leader Jim Thrash (far right) in the meadow on the Hilltop property, will serve as tour guides during the May 1 event put on by the Bainbridge Island Land Trust.
— image credit: Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo

Islanders are being given the opportunity during the next few months to experience one of the most unique environments that still exists on the island.

A glimpse of future will begin on May 1 with a four-hour event that has the dual goal of introducing islanders to the 31-acre Hilltop property and enticing those who want to participate in helping the Bainbridge Island Land Trust buy the land for the purpose of eventually turning it over to the Bainbridge Island Park & Recreation District.

The Sunday event, which will have a festive feel to it with live music, local food and family activities, will include guided tours of the existing trails and meadow. Tours with small groups will continue in coming months, but only with permission of the Land Trust since the property is still owned by the Hedderley-Smith family.

The family bought 80 acres in 1952 as a summer getaway from Seattle and eventually moved here permanently. Half of the property was sold in 1966 and the family decided last year to enter into an 18-month option agreement with the Land Trust for purchase of the property on specified terms. One member of the family still lives on a small piece of the original property.

Two characteristics of the property make it extremely valuable:

• It’s highly diverse, featuring: a 6-acre meadow standing tall as one of the highest locations on the island; two wetlands; a strong third-generation forest with a healthy understory resplendent with native plants; and the existence of several trees of significant value – including two old-growth Western Cedars.

• Many lightly traveled trails wind throughout the property, with only one being more defined. That one figures to become park property as soon as possible because it will serve as the all-important trail between the east and west Grand Forest park properties.

This sweeping hilltop expanse is considered the “missing link” of the other Park District and Land Trust properties and easements which have been procured in recent years. With its addition as public property, the cross-island (east-west) corridor for people and wildlife will connect nearly 540 contiguous acres of permanently protected landscapes.

“It’s exciting for us just to think about the trail connecting all the properties,” said Asha Rehnberg the Land Trust’s executive director. “That east-west trail between the forests will likely be multi-use so it will be built with sturdier standards. But much of the bottomland and understory is very fragile and will need conservation easements to protect it.”

The Park District has set aside $500,000 for its first phase of purchasing the entire 31 acres over a five-year period. The half-million dollars, which is primarily focused on the east-west trail located at the northern part of the Hilltop property, will change hands from the Park District to the Land Trust once BILT gathers a 10 percent down payment. The $2.75 million purchase price ($3.1 million with other costs) has an option deadline of early September with the goal of closing in November.

Currently, the Land Trust has had about $700,000 in pledges from private donors – $500,000 from one anonymous donor, a total of $140,000 from the 14 Land Trust board members, and about $60,000 in smaller donations. The park’s $500,000 will go in the pile once the option is paid off.

“We hope to have it fully paid off in five years and fully in Park District ownership by that time,” said Rehnberg. “As far as use of the land, nothing is certain at this point. We’re on the same page with similar desires for what will happen up there, which will be passive uses for the most part. But the property will change hands through phases, and there will be negotiations going on as to how the land will be used once it belongs to the Park District.”

The need for protection is clear once a person walks the land, which also serves the Fletcher Bay and Murden Cove watersheds, two of the island’s most important streamflows into the Puget Sound. Of course, runoff from the top of the hill into the lower lands is a crucial part of the watershed.

And then there’s that incomparable forest.

“It’s a unique property because of diversification of the trees – maples, fir and cedar all on one property,” said arborist Olaf Ribeiro, who is one of the tour guides for the May event. “Plus, the forest is maturing nicely, being left undisturbed for many years and with no sign of disease. There are few holes in the forest because of very little decay and root problems that lead to blowdowns.”

Ribeiro said he felt like he was in a temple, a young one with most of the Douglas fir being only about 50 years old, “but one where you really get the feeling of being in a natural rain forest. In the Grand Forest, many trees are older and larger, but there’s not the heavy understory there is now. So there’s a different feeling.”

And, when connected, it will be a  prized forest with a lengthy vein running through it.

“It will be such a wonderful, long hike,” Ribeiro said. “A whole day right here on our island. No need to go to the Olympics or Cascades. It will be great.”

Land Trust’s purchase transaction terms

On March 9, 2010, the Bainbridge Island Land Trust entered into an 18-month option agreement with Hill Top Tree Farm Family Limited Partnership to purchase approximately 31 acres on terms that include:

• Seller financing through a deed of trust for five years with a down payment at closing of 10 percent of the $2.75 million purchase price.

• No prepayment penalties if the promissory note is paid down early; if there are prepayments, BILT can convey portions of the land to a third party (e.g., the Park District)

• If BILT receives sufficient support from the community, it will exercise the option prior to the Sept. 9 expiration date; closing would then occur within 60 days of exercise.

• If the option is not exercised on time, BILT will lose $50,000, which otherwise is applicable toward the down payment.

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