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Life's a beach, and a rocky one

Steph Miller and Connie Waddington stroll a waterfront parcel at the south end of Rockaway Beach. The half-acre of land and associated rocky tidelands may be the first purchase with the city’s open space bond levy funds. - ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo
Steph Miller and Connie Waddington stroll a waterfront parcel at the south end of Rockaway Beach. The half-acre of land and associated rocky tidelands may be the first purchase with the city’s open space bond levy funds.
— image credit: ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo

The wayward tide announces its return with brisk knocks against wild formations of rock.

For those venturing out to greet it, each footfall brings the crunch of shell shards, or the dull squish of anemones and kelp. A few scattered tidepools hint at the abundance of life hiding beneath its froth.

So even with the typically steep asking price for a half-acre parcel at the south end of Rockaway Beach – $585,000 – the designation “waterfront” only tells half the story. Probably less.

“I’ve ridden my bike by there a zillion times over 20 years,” said Andy Maron, chair of the city’s Open Space Commission. “Then I went out there at low tide... It’s incredible to see.”

The parcel is the first to be recommended for purchase with city open space funds, and the proposal will go before the city council for consideration at its Aug. 14 meeting.

Open space commissioners concede that the price is steep – and would use up 7 percent of the $8 million in bond funding island voters last year authorized for land purchases. But the uniqueness of the parcel – and the fact that a purchase option held by the Bainbridge Island Land Trust is about to expire – make the time to act now, commissioners say.

“Timing is everything,” Maron said, “and this is going to be gone if we don’t deal with it.”

The property sits behind a fence at the south end of Rockaway Beach Road, just before the abrupt curve up to Halls Hill.

Behind a gate, a brief bluff with a shock of wild grass gives way to the expansive, rocky beach below.

It actually comprises four building lots, ranging in size from 4,000 to 7,000 square feet; together, they constitute about a half-acre of land, with 240 feet of shoreline looking east toward downtown Seattle. Mount Rainier peeks over Restoration Point to the south.

With setback requirements, a developer would have to aggregate the land to two lots. Even so, land trust board member Steph Miller says, it would make a “Sunset Magazine-quality” home site.

The parcel is among the last of the Port Blakely Tree Farm holdings on Bainbridge Island, land that once totaled nearly 1,200 acres around Blakely Harbor.

While the rest of the land has been sold off to private development – with the notable exception of the 40-acre Blakely Harbor Park – the Rockaway Beach property has been kept off the market, during purchase negotiations with the land trust.

The original asking price was $675,000, but the land trust secured an option at $585,000 after an appraisal by Anthony Gibbons of Winslow firm Re-Solve. That option expires later this month.

Commissioners hope state grant funding can be secured to offset some of the purchase price. Park board members discussed the possibility of applying for such grants, at their Thursday meeting, but were noncommittal.

The parcel was nominated for purchase by the land trust board, and on a per-acre basis, it could prove to be the most expensive property the Open Space Commission looks at.

But price is just one consideration, Miller said.

“Once you know you’re paying fair market value, your focus should shift to the merits of the property,” he said. “The land trust believes the merits of this property are extraordinary.”

While technically private property, the site has been popular with local divers for years – an activity that has waned only since the appearance of a “Private Property” sign a year or so ago.

“It’s an amazingly gorgeous site – it’s awesome,” said Joe Byrd, a dive instructor at Exotic Aquatics.

Byrd called the dramatic rock formations “exclusive to that part of the island.”

Because of the general absence of currents there, he said, divers can venture forth at any time. The shallows also make it an ideal place to help novice divers find their fins.

Byrd also cited the wealth of underwater life there, including octopus, ling cod, starfish, crabs and sea cucumbers.

“It’s really that good,” he said. “It would be such a shame to see it ruined with houses. We’ve got too many houses here in the first place.”

The Open Space Commission has been reviewing a list of some 60 properties for public purchase. That list has expanded and contracted, as more parcels are nominated and some owners have said they have no interest in selling.

In making their recommendation to the council for the Rockaway property, commissioners too cited its uniqueness relative to other available waterfront, and the need to establish an array of water access sites “(for) our urbanizing community.”

Maron said the commission has also identified a variety of other desirable properties – forests and farmland among them – that are being actively explored.

“Some people say, ‘what happens if we get Wyckoff?’” he said. “I hope we do.

“If we don’t, we have this.”

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