Land Acquisition

The Challenge to Find Property to Build New Schools

Pine Lake Middle School Aerial View June 2017Issaquah School District residents approved funding via the 2016 bond measure to purchase land and build two new elementary schools, a new middle school, and a new comprehensive high school within the next decade. We are eager to begin construction on these projects to alleviate capacity concerns in schools in the Issaquah and Sammamish corridors, but first we must clear one of the most challenging hurdles of the entire process: finding and acquiring land for the new schools. 

Our search for land often occurred behind-the-scenes in the past; however, new regulatory constraints and continued development have left us fewer and fewer pieces of available and suitable property for school construction. As such, the process to site new schools now entails partnering with local government agencies, legal procedures, and creativity in facility design. In other words, a tremendous amount of work occurs before the first shovel-full of earth is even turned over. 

Make no mistake: our construction team is staying plenty busy with critical repairs, modernizations, and expansions funded for existing schools in the 2016 bond! The reconstruction and expansion of Pine Lake Middle School is underway. Construction started on expansion projects at Sunset and Cougar Ridge Elementary Schools. Design for expansion projects at Discovery and Endeavour Elementary Schools has begun. It’s the simultaneous effort to secure land that will help ensure all of our projects stay on time and budget. We are currently pursuing three different properties for the four new schools. 

Background: Why is it so challenging to find property for new schools? 


Learn more: 

Issaquah Highlands - Site for new elementary to serve Clark Elementary and Grand Ridge Elementary students, alleviating capacity concerns at both schools.

The Providence Heights property is our current best option for a new high school with the added bonus of space for a new elementary school.

Admin Building Property - potential new middle school

FAQs: The Challenge to Find Property to Build New Schools

What does the district look for when searching for land for new schools?

Here are some of the criteria use for siting schools:

  1. Size, geography, and location. We have been building multistory schools that require less land however, we still need enough usable land for playing fields, parking, and busing. We also favor locations that will do the most to relieve overcrowding or accommodate future growth. 
  2. Is the land available for purchase? The district and other public agencies may exercise what is called the right of eminent domain, which allows a government or its agent, with payment of compensation, to appropriate private property for public use. However, we view this as a last resort when we conclude that we have no other viable option. Highlands Elementary Photoshopped Image - preservationFurther, eminent domain actions often result in a lengthy legal process that could take years to resolve. This not only delays the building of a needed school, but also increases the cost to build it. 
  3. Transportation. When we assess a piece of property we need to consider how it impacts traffic in the neighborhood and whether or not we can run our school buses on efficient routes. 
  4. Finally, we would like to acknowledge that all of us have had the experience of driving by a property that once was a stand of trees that has been cleared for development. It is unsettling to us too. However, the Growth Management Act has created a definitive boundary within which residential and commercial development can occur. This preserves our rural forests and protects our hillsides so that we, and future generations, can enjoy them. 

Newly built campuses like Clark Elementary opened over capacity this fall. Why doesn’t the district build new schools ahead of the growth curve?

As good stewards of tax dollars, the district builds and expands schools to keep pace with the number of students it serves. While we very carefully predict and plan for growing enrollment (and we have an exceptionally accurate track record for predicting enrollment, even in one of the fastest growing districts in the state), we do not build excess capacity for several reasons. Foremost, we are a service agency, and our funding model is structured around students we currently serve. Developer impact fees are collected and bond dollars are expended as the growth actually occurs. Otherwise, our operations budget—which funds classroom learning—would be negatively impacted by paying overhead costs for under-capacity buildings. In the past, we have attempted to purchase land in anticipation of growth years out; in the most current example of that, King County changed its land-use rules, making our large piece of property in May Valley unusable. The 2012 Bond funded upgrading and expanding the capacity at existing schools. It’s also worth noting that our Capital Projects team has been working at a frenetic pace—with an almost 100-percent on-time and on-budget record—for more than a decade to complete bond projects to keep up with growth. We have been working hard to keep up with capacity demand! 

Sunny Hills Playground Impervious Surface

What is a SEPA Review?

SEPA stands for State Environmental Policy Act Compliance. The district must complete an extensive process that identifies and analyzes environmental impacts of an action, such as constructing a school building. This review helps agencies, decision makers, and the public understand how building a school may impact the environment. For example, the health of tree stands or landslides would be a factor considered under a SEPA Review.  Assessment of trees and geotechnical issues cannot be fully examined until a property owner grants access to a property - generally after a purchase agreement is in place.

What is an impervious surface and how does that relate to school facilities?

Permeable surfaces, also known as pervious surfaces, allow water to percolate into the soil. Impervious surfaces are not permeable and do not allow water to pass through. Parking lots are an example of an impervious surface. However, when it comes to schools, it is important to understand that play fields are considered impervious—the same as a parking lot! That is why the District asks for code changes that allow us to have a larger percentage of what is considered an impervious surface, so that we can accommodate our play and athletic fields.

What is the difference between a “Compact School” and an “Urban School”?

Interconnecting Trail from 2nd to Rainier Trail

The Issaquah School District has been building what we call “compact schools”, meaning that they are multistory and therefore require less land. We say they have a smaller “footprint”. Our new schools, such as Clark Elementary, Issaquah High and Issaquah Middle School are compact, three story buildings. Other features of a compact school may include underground parking or other design elements that decrease the amount of land we need for the school. The term “Urban School” is one being talked about in cities all around the country. However, it means different things to different people and regions. It often brings with it visions of skyscraper schools with no play or athletic fields, no bus loops, or parent drop off spaces. That is not what the Issaquah School District intends to build. We want schools that are efficient and encourage walking, but we still design to allow for safe busing and student pick up and drop off. 

What is the minimum amount of land we need to build a “compact school” per the City of Issaquah’s code amendments?

A compact elementary school would need between 6.3 and 8.1 acres. The area needed varies because the allowable impervious area and tree retention requirements can vary depending on the location and zoning.