Mars Hill, the controversial evangelical megachurch that has expanded across the Puget Sound region and beyond, is pitching a battle with Sound Transit over land the church would like to buy in Bellevue to replace its existing church in downtown Bellevue, which is being demolished to make way for a high-rise.
Sound Transit may develop the land as a maintenance and storage base for its Eastside light rail trains; as we reported last year, Sound Transit bought the land from International Paper under a "protective acquisition" in 2012—two years after International Paper shut down its Bellevue factory and moved operations to Olympia—with the understanding that if the site doesn't end up being Sound Transit's top choice, the agency will sell it.
As Bellevue Mars Hill pastor Thomas Hurst put it on the church's web site, the property Mars Hill wants—adjacent to a mixed-use development being built by Wright Runstad to coincide with light rail in Bellevue's Bel-Red corridor—"is the location that God wants us to use to further the mission of the Gospel."
Mars Hill spokesman Justin Dean says the church—with 2,500 regular congregants on Sundays—is outgrowing its current space and needs to find a location that can accommodate 5,000 people each Sunday, plus as many 150 employees and a new Bible college.
"International Paper fit perfectly for everything we needed," Dean said. "It's large enough, it's right on light rail, and it's right in the middle of the residential and retail area that they’re developing. We really want to be as close as we can to downtown Bellevue."
The site also already includes a large warehouse, which would eliminate the need to build a new church facility. "We don't have the financial resources to buy the land and build something ourselves," Dean says.
On Mars Hill's web site, Hurst claims that Sound Transit "has chosen to seize this property under the authority of eminent domain."
That isn't true. Dean acknowledges that Sound Transit didn't actually seize the property, but says "if [International Paper] had sold it to us, Sound Transit would have just taken the property anyway under eminent domain." He says the church plans to correct the claims on its web site.
In November 2012, the two parties reached an agreement for Sound Transit to buy the building—for $23 million—and on June 19 of this year, they signed a binding agreement to seal the deal.
The property, in other words, isn't for sale.
But that hasn't stopped Mars Hill from waging a relentless PR campaign, arguing—on their web site and through congregation members, who have testified at Sound Transit meetings and sent emails to the Sound Transit board—that Mars Hill made an "offer" to buy the property and was in negotiations with International Paper.
A form email that Mars Hill is encouraging its members to send the Sound Transit board, for example, says that "Sound Transit has taken ownership, even though Mars Hill Church had made a generous purchase offer." Dean says the offer was $250,000 more than Sound Transit's, which would mean the church offered $23.25 million.
Dean says the campaign is an effort to "foster relationships" with Sound Transit "and hopefully get us to the point where we might persuade them to choose one of the other options."
A spokesman for International Paper has not returned a call for comment.
It would hardly be surprising, however, if International Paper had had discussions with Mars Hill. Sound Transit is also considering several other sites for its maintenance base, although this one seems the most likely. (The choice of a final site will depend on the results of a formal environmental impact statement looking at all four potential options; that process will wrap up in summer 2015.)
Finally, a side note: When Sound Transit first said it was considering the International Paper property for its maintenance base back in 2011, developer Wright Runstad criticized it because it wouldn't include any transit-oriented development. (As did we). We have a call out to Wright Runstad to find out if the company believes a megachurch is a better use of the industrial site than a light rail maintenance yard.