City, Suyematsu come to terms

After three years of negotiations, the city has reached agreement with owner Akio Suyematsu for public purchase of his 15-acre farm on Day Road East, to preserve the land as open space.

But the city will not take actual title to the property during the life of Suyematsu, who is almost 80.

The city will pay $550,000 for the parcel, with all but $1,000 deferred until 2012. In the interim, the city will pay interest only, at the rate of 7.6 percent per year, on the outstanding balance.

“This is the most prominent and oldest working farm on Bainbridge Island, and is the cornerstone for further aggregation of farm land as we try to preserve that portion of our community,” said Mayor Dwight Sutton, who signed the agreement with Suyematsu Monday afternoon.

Suyematsu was unavailable for comment prior to the Review’s press deadline.

Suyematsu retains the right to live on the property and farm it for the rest of his life, under terms of the contract.

The money to pay the annual interest of $41,724 will come from city operating funds, Sutton said. The final payment will come either from open-space appropriations made from time to time by the city council, or from a special bond issue such as the open-space bond appearing on the November ballot, he said.

The city council must give final approval to the contract, which it is expected to do at this week’s meeting.

The contract requires continued operation of the parcel as a farm under Kitsap County’s criteria for agricultural assessment. Under those rules, the land must be devoted primarily to agricultural use, and must produce gross income from that use of at least $100 per acre.

If Suyematsu does not want to continue the farming operations himself, he can rent the land to somebody else. If he fails to do that, the city can select a farmer and charge rent.

While Suyematsu or his tenant is operating the farm, it will not be public land, and will be open to visitors by invitation only. The agreement does call for building a public viewing area where the farming operations can be observed.

The agreement requires Suyematsu to remove abandoned vehicles from the property within a year, and Sutton said much of that cleanup work has already been done.

Suyematsu, who never married and has no children, wanted to maintain the property as agricultural land, Sutton said.

“He said very strongly that it should remain in farming,” Sutton said. “That is why he resisted a number of up-front big deals – he had a vision that this was something he wanted to insure.”

City officials said the property has been farmed by Suyematsu or his parents since 1928, and has primarily been used to grow raspberries.

The parcel was originally 40 acres. Suyematsu sold half of it to Gerard and Joann Bentryn for their Bainbridge Island Winery vineyard operation, and later sold two small parcels, one to Betsey Wittick for her organic farming operation and another to the Bentryns for their parents’ home-site, Sutton said.

The various parcels are currently worked by more than a half-dozen different farmers, to raise an array of vegetables, garlic and Halloween pumpkins.

Councilman Norm Wooldridge, who was involved in the acquisition talks, said the Suyematsu property “defines what agricultural land should be, and will certainly be a focal point for how to preserve property.”

Wooldridge said that when the city does become owner of the property, it might consider dividing the land into smaller parcels, such as the two 2.5-acre pieces that have already been carved out for individual farms. That land would then be leased for farmers. Wooldridge said the land might support homesteads so that farmers can live on the land.

“The land will stay in agriculture as long as there is any desire on anybody’s part to undertake farming,” he said.

Talks with Suyematsu began in July of 1998.

Sutton said the city might also be interested in acquiring the Christmas tree farm Suyematsu owns on Manzanita Road if the upcoming open-space bond passes.

“We’re about out of resources now, but that is something we would be very interested in exploring in the future if Akio is interested,” he said.

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