The Bel-R Greenhouses are located at 12415 5th Place SW in Burien.

by Jack Mayne
Spending money is always of great concern to Burien taxpayers, especially when the city simply does not have a lot of available cash to spend and Burien taxpayers are in no mood to pay more.
This is an attempt to provide more information.
This time we are looking and trying to make sense out of the application for a $1.5 million grant application approved by the Burien City Council at its March 16 meeting (read our previous coverage here). The Council voted to become a partner in seeking a grant to save and develop the Bel-R Greenhouses in northeast Burien into a local commercial food growing operation.
Vigilant readers and others immediately pounced on the story saying that the grant application committed the city to pay a matching amount to the grant – or $1.5 million in city funds.
Actually, as we will see, that potential amount apparently is higher – $160,000 higher.
Another concern is whether the property would come off the Burien tax rolls and, without some changes, the land would become the property of King County.
Off the city tax rolls.
Who pays the matching $$$?
Everybody agrees the city does not have the money without cutting other things out of the budget, a chancy, if not impossible task.
But the Councilmember spearheading the application – Deputy Mayor Nancy Tosta – said no city money was involved.
She is right, for now at least.
City Manager Kamuron Gurol said no money was spent. Money cannot be spent without the City Council officially appropriating it and that has not been done.
But – and this is a big “but” – if the grant is approved, the city or someone else would have to come up with the matching amount or the grant would be withdrawn.

Download a PDF of the grant application here.

The total value of the property is listed as $3 million, with half paid for by the requested grant money and the other half is listed on the application as coming from “matching funds” from a “private investor,” the King County Conservation District (KCD) or, you guessed it, from the City of Burien, where there is activity to find some entrepreneurial entity to pay that tab.
The KCD is a vehicle that collects and distributes funds normally for parks development.
It appears that $1.66 million must be paid to King County Conservation Futures, not $1.5 million, if it approves the grant. That additional amount appears in the application and it seems to be because of various fees and taxes involved in taking over the property.
Burien is assiduously seeking private donors of that amount.
The application itself was not available for members of the Burien City Council to inspect on that Monday night. It was a last minute piece of business that actually violated normal Council procedures, but was pushed by Tosta and others as being a great opportunity to save a unique piece of land from being turned into houses or condominiums.
Matching amount is higher
However, instead of the application showing a matching amount of $1.5 million, the number on the application is $1,660,000. Apparently, that extra $160,000 is for fees and taxes.
So, the City of Burien or some private investor needs to come up with $160,000 more than the $1.5 million as stated before.
Remember, the city has not spent anything yet, and would not until and unless the grant is approved for the $1.5 million requested.
So, who will pay that $1.66 million?
Not the city, says Tosta and the city manager.
It is well known that the city does not have that kind of money available without cutting something else and that is virtually impossible, everyone agrees.
That is why the city and the Conservation District and anyone else Burien can find is scouring the private development and entrepreneurial community.
But is the city on the hook if no “good citizens” appear on the horizon?
No, but it would have to reject the grant and let the greenhouses be purchased probably by a developer who will turn the open space and greenhouses into the 39 home sites the land is zoned for.
There could even be a requested zone change to permit condominiums or apartments, but that would be under the purview of Burien’s Planning Commission and City Council.
‘Once in a lifetime’
Still, this is no park and the agency it is asking a grant from usually makes grants for park development.
The greenhouses are a taxpaying, private enterprise that grows seedlings for sale to retail outlets and others. Making it into a park would mean it would no longer be paying taxes to the city.
The grant application says it is not an application to make the property into a park.
“The sponsors recognize the very unique nature of this project and fully understand it is unlike those historically funded by the Citizens Committee for natural areas, trails and riparian habitat, etc. However, the sponsors strongly believe this once in a lifetime opportunity within the Green River open space system merits creative consideration by the Citizens Committee.
“Started in 1942, the third generation owners, due to age, now wish to retire.
“While not formally landmarked, the nursery has been in operation for 73 years. It is part of the cultural fabric of the City of Burien.”
This land was annexed in 2010 and can accommodate 39 new home sites, the application says.
“A developer has already approached the family seeking a purchase option. Because of their years of dedication to the nursery, the five members of the family want their legacy to continue.”
Part of the potential of the property is that it could be upgraded to a growing center for local food, although now the greenhouses only house seedlings and no full food production is taking place.
Many have questioned the reality of such a plan. First there are indications that at least one educational facility is not interested in such a program to train greenhouse workers, considered by some as a dead end job.
There are the power costs of running greenhouses during the winter. We have heard that the present owners only produce seedlings though the fall, then turn off the power in the greenhouses, a cost that could amount to many thousands of dollars.
Stay tuned, as there will surely be more developments in this story…]]>

Senior Reporter Jack Mayne passed away in December, 2021. In his honor we have created the Jack Mayne Journalism Scholarship.

20 replies on “ANALYSIS: Making sense of the 'Great Greenhouse Grant Application Caper'”

  1. If this business was successfully operated for 73 years and was profitable there is no reason it should not continue to do so with proper management. The farm to table demand to restaurants, and eating local is huge. Deem the area a “park” and provide children from local schools a place to learn self sustenance . Use community volunteers to provide time . Dedicate space for those folks who live in apartments to have a “P Patch” area. I think if we as a community want this enough the money will be there and the benefits will be enormous

  2. If the activities in the greenhouses cease due to a developer buying the land, then what happens to the twenty people employed there?
    As far as 39 homesites are concerned, that will mean far more children to be educated and the community’s already spoken about that with the failure of two school bonds.
    It seems that the idea to use the greenhouses for training purposes and to develop the p-patches for locals to use would be sensible. There must be some grant money somewhere to take advantage of this unique opportunity.
    Try positive thinking instead of immediately naysaying a good opportunity.

    1. You need very little “training” to work in a greenhouse growing bedding plants as Bel-R does. You do need a very strong back and the ability to live on very low wages.
      I could see saving the part along 128th as a park/P-patch that would serve as a buffer between a fairly busy road and new housing.

  3. What ever happened to Tosta and Berkowitz’s requirements that all of the
    City Council decisions must be based on research, facts and excessively long discussions and talking mainly by them before any vote should be taken by the Council? All of that was ignored by Tosta and Berkowitz in this decision and the vote, so it seems? No real facts or financials about these greenhouses were presented or are still available? No draft copy of the grant was available for the Council to review. No Finance Manager was present to weigh in. The 2 meetings rule was violated before a vote was taken to proceed on by the Council. Still very little is known about this operation and the real costs to turn it into a food production, marketing and distribution center. These greenhouses and their current owners have not done that line of business recently. And no for profit private food production company currently wants to buy these greenhouses.
    The City is on the line to come up with $1.66 million dollars unless they vote to remove their name from this grant. And there is something shady about signing a grant that the City knows it does not have the money for it and no real private buyers for it either. Plus the real intended use for this money (parklands, open spaces for wildlife and trails) is being violated. Burien which is revenue short is even losing more land from the tax rolls. And there is more than enough available food and private food production land in Washington State to get vegetables to Burien.
    Production greenhouses do not make a profit operating off of just drop in volunteers. And most organization around this areas can’t even get enough volunteers to keep the litter picked up or the noxious weeds pulled out of our parks. Parents are not lining up to sign up their kids for lifetime careers in being greenhouse workers. If these greenhouses produce food, it will be some of the most expensive foods to buy in King County. Burien residents do not have the incomes to buy expensive produce that’s why they shop the coupon specials at Fred Meyer. Ah, but there are always those who believe, If wishes were horses, beggars would ride: If turnips were watches, I’d wear one by my side. Even the turnips from these greenhouses will cost a small fortune with the cost of heating greenhouse during the winter months.

    1. Similar words were spoken at the City council meeting…. probably from the same person!
      The grant request was not completed at the time of the meeting. It was a matter of timeliness and DOES NOT commit the city to spending any money. If everything works out and the city can’t fund the grant for ANY reason and no other money appears the city can choose to not go forth with the grant (IE not spending money).
      “Jackie/Fred” is so worried about losing tax parcels off the payroll…. I know how we can put a WHOLE bunch of potential parcels back in play… something they fought HARD against… Up-zone the Lake Burien neighborhood back to moderate density.

    2. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If we want to back out we can. Burien needs to do some creative thinking to turn around our city and this may be one way. Let’s put some more ideas out on the table that will bring new people willing to invest in our community.

  4. I do not understand why this writer/the Blog are so interested in making this sound like a bad idea. The article sounds like someone’s personal attack thinly covered by gross generalizations – “vigilant readers and others,” “everybody,” “many,” “we have heard,” “at least one educational facility.” It is full of inaccuracies. Did Jackie tell Jack to write this?
    I’ve lived here a long time and really appreciate the leadership shown by some members of our City Council (Armstrong, Berkowitz, Wagner, Robison and Tosta) in agreeing to work with an organization trying to do something good in Burien. I agree with “Wondering” – why not think positively about what this can mean for our community? And I for one welcome the chance for my kids to learn how to grow food in cities. It could be our future.

    1. I don’t see that this story is full of inaccuracies as you claim Helen. It seems quite factual to me. I totally support the idea of the greenhouses, but where will the money come from? That is the big question. Let’s face it, we can’t even get people to pony up to support schools, so we know it cannot land on the taxpayers.
      The last time a story was on here about these greenhouses, the comments had folks especially Jackie saying that Burien was definitely on the hook for $1.5 million dollars. This story refutes that claim made by Jackie. I don’t think that is what she would have wanted.
      I appreciate the follow-up that was done in this story to clarify that Burien is NOT obligated to pay this money despite what Jackie may have said. No investor/s no grant.
      I sincerely hope that Tosta/Berkowitz et al will be successful. There are great benefits to be had, but it seems there are a lot of details to consider also.

    2. Thank you for agreeing with me Helen.
      We are lucky to have the Blog to host our diverse comments. Fortunately, I learned a long time ago that it was rude to insult the host at a gathering. I didn’t perceive inaccuracies, and don’t believe the Jack Mayne or the Blog is taking sides. There are as many people who are willing to support this idea as there are who don’t. And many who are unwilling to publicly state their feelings. I am glad that there is a vehicle like the Blog where we can do this.

    3. I fail to see what leadership has been provided by Jerry Robison whose main reason for being on the council was to push the annexation of white center.
      Now he spends most of his time dozing or joining Berkowitz in pushing her nutty agendas.
      As far as L Berkowitz she is responsible to bringing in unruly groups from outside our city to disrupt our council meetings. This is not leadership this is a selfish promoting of her own agenda which is disconnected from the wishes of the majority of the residents of Burien.,

    4. What’s your agenda Helen? I found Jacks article to be fair and balanced.
      You don’t agree with the message so you attack the messenger!
      Have you read the grant request or are you just blowing smoke?

      1. Does ‘Caper’ sound objective? If you think it does you should look it up and see.
        Seems like interviewing people who support this AND those who are opposed, then fact checking from there would have been a good start…

  5. I see this greenhouse complex as an exciting chance for Burien to lead in horticultural education, local sourcing, perhaps partnering with local food banks and farmer’s markets as well as selling bedding plants to retail outlets. This community has a long horticultural tradition (who doesn’t remember the Pumpkin Patch?) going back more than a century – as well as an educated and experienced horticultural workforce. What a fabulous asset this could be to Burien! South Seattle Com College has a horticultural program that could also benefit greatly in giving their students hands-on experience in running a greenhouse operation. Count me in!

  6. Thanks for clearing that up Jack 🙂
    We really appreciate you staying on top of this story which as you state is a little convoluted.

  7. The King County Conservation District (KCD) started to write this grant 7 days before the Council knew anything about this grant according to the Grant Writier who spoke at the City Council meeting. But KCD doesn’t hire grant writers to write grants for cities unless a city requests it. So the real question here is who usurped the power of the City Council, the Mayor and perhaps the City Manager and told the KCD to write a grant in the name of the City of Burien? Before it was appoved by the Council?

  8. Thank you for keeping this in public discussion the Bel-R Greenhouse operations discussed at the Mar 16 City Council meeting. That meeting was the first time I realized that the business opportunity was going to become available beyond the current family owners. Now the question becomes how to most efficiently encourage the transfer and enhance the value of the assets to our community. Council members should be encouraged to think outside the box to help our community flourish.
    We hear valid push back from both community and council concerned about issues including liability, loss of tax revenue, costs of potential obligation to the city, lack of information, lack of time to examine the issue. I would ask everyone to continue to stay engaged in the process and open to new ideas.
    There are several viable, if less conventional, ways to approach retaining Bel-R property as an agricultural resource. For one, Washington State has a long history of agricultural co-ops dating from 1898 (http://wscfc.org/history/). Perhaps facilitating the transfer of property development rights and aiding current employees in purchasing and continuing in business would help preserve jobs, taxable land parcels, and the ability to provide locally sourced plants / vegetables. Simply being a “not-for-profit” does not mean a business does not pay appropriate taxes and wages. Maybe Discover Burien members could help find ways to replace the expertise that leaves when the current owners are bought out. We have local businesses such as “Eat Local” who are always looking for local suppliers.
    Gardening in the Burien / SeaTac area since 1981, I learned that are plenty of crops that can be grown outdoors overwinter without supplemental light and heat. Greenhouses can actually be operated as “cold frames” that are even better at winter production than uncovered fields. Our Burien “B-Patch” converts spent coffee grounds into edible mushrooms and garden mulch outdoors.
    I am certain that there are plenty of Burien citizens who have ideas that could be considered for the best ways to encourage Bel-R to continue as an agricultural entity and a valued asset to our local economy. I look forward to the discussion and hope that the council can entertain approaches that may not yet be as widely appreciated.

  9. Boo is semi accurate. It takes very little training and a strong back to be a general laborer in a greenhouse. If you think you want to grow or be a “grower” of bedding plants in a commercial operation such as Bel-R you’d better have some serious educational background in horticulture and business as well as a strong back. Farming,which is what this is, is not a job, It’s a Lifestyle. 24/7/365. Not for the Faint of Heart!

  10. Most Burien citizens can’t afford to buy or eat food from Eat Local. Eat Local got rid of most of its retail business in Burien for that reason. The food they prepare is for a slender, elite cut of the population in Seattle. Why should Burien get rid of its valuable residential lands that can bring in tax revenues to feed an elite population elsewhere when it has lots of “graylands ‘, less valuable lands over in NERA that can be used for greenhouse food production? Dow C. doesn’t care where these supposed new Ag lands are to boost food production in King County as part of his new food plan.
    The property owners, developers and govt. in NY doesn’t encourage taking away revenue rich lands on Manhattan Island to keep or change them to greenhouse growing sites. Puget Sound has lands east of I-5 that are better suited to food production that should be saved right now just as lands in Kent and Auburn should be saved. Instead Dow C, the King County Council and the Puget Sound Regional Council have pushed these communities to continue to meet their Growth Management numbers and add new housing on what were farmlands. The discussion on these greenhouses should have happened before the Council voted to sign the grant but no information was provided to them. PerhapsTosta had the information but just didn’t share it with the others? Economically poor Burien should not give up revenue rich resident lands to Dow’s newest pet project he is pushing. There is no shortage of organically grown food or regular food in the Puget Sound region for those who have the bucks to buy it. There are a number of places that will deliver a box to you for a set fee per month. Those of you hungry for fresh produce, you can sign up at least 3 locations in Burien to get it.

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