Mars Hill Church: 'God wants us to have' disputed property

BELLEVUE, Wash. -- Leaders of Bellevue's Mars Hill church say God wants them to have a piece of property that was purchased this year by Sound Transit for future Light Rail expansion.

At issue is a 10-acre parcel of land in Bellevue on 120th Ave. in the Bel-Red corridor that International Paper put up for sale in 2011. It's now an unoocupied warehouse.

The church leases what was once the John Danz Theatre just east of Bellevue Square, but the building has a date with the wrecking ball as its owners plan to make way for a skyscraper.

The church also has outgrown its 1,000-seat auditorium and needs a place that can accommodate 5,000 people over several services each Sunday morning.

"There are few places in Bellevue that can handle a building of this size, and the International Paper property is one of them," said Mars Hill spokesman Justin Dean.

Sound Transit has also been on the lookout for a large parcel of land to handle a potential rail yard when Light Rail's expansion on the eastside begins in 2017. A spokesman for Sound Transit says it began negotiations with International Paper two years ago, reaching a deal in November of 2012 that resulted in a signed purchase agreement in June this year.

The land was bought as a "protective acquisition" by the regional transit system.

"What that means is we didn't know for sure we were going to use it," said Sound Transit Spokesman Geoff Patrick. "But if we did, there is a real chance taxpayers may have to pay more if we didn't take steps to acquire it now".

The church says Sound Transit has several properties under consideration for a rail yard operations center, but the International Paper property is the "only viable option" the church has to relocate an stay in Bellevue.

But what has people talking is the church's belief that God is on their side in this dispute.

"We believe this is the property that God wants us to have," Dean said.

The Church had accused Sound Transit of taking the property by eminent domain, which Sound Transit denies. The Church has since backed down on that claim. Now the church leaders are questioning International Paper's acceptance of Sound Transit's offer.

"We bid $250,000 over Sound Transit's bid," Dean said.

In an email, a spokesman for International Paper in Memphis said that's not the case.

"We accepted the highest and best overall offer which was from Sound Transit," wrote International Paper spokesman Kyle Morgolis. "Given our confidentiality agreement, we are unable to disclose the terms of the transaction".

Sound Transit bristles at the idea it finalized the purchase agreement by undercutting and pushing Mars Hill out of any negotiation.

"The idea that we intervened in the purchase of the property by them late in the game, that wasn't true," Patrick said. "We didn't here from them until a week after we entered a binding agreement to purchase that property".

Mars Hill is not against Light Rail in Bellevue, but it has started an online campaign to increase pressure on Bellevue civic leaders that its plans for the property are better suited than building a rail yard.

"If God wants us to have this land then I'll guarantee you, that's what will happen," Dean said.