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Originally published October 24, 2013 at 8:45 PM | Page modified October 26, 2013 at 2:18 PM

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Corrected version

Mars Hill wants to move Bellevue church to Sound Transit-owned site

The fast-growing church is asking its members and supporters to email Sound Transit officials and suggest the agency put the rail yard elsewhere and let the church buy “the only viable option” for its continued strong growth on the Eastside.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Ballard-based Mars Hill Church is making plans to reach more Eastsiders by moving its headquarters to its largest and fastest-growing location, Bellevue.

Two years after opening a downtown Bellevue church that now draws 2,500 worshippers to its four Sunday services, church leaders say they have found the right site for a larger church, offices and a future Bible college — and that it is “what God has intended for us.”

But there’s a problem with that vision for the 10­½-acre property in the Bel-Red Corridor: Sound Transit bought it last month as a possible location for a light-rail maintenance and storage yard.

Mars Hill is asking its members and supporters to email Sound Transit officials and suggest the agency put the rail yard elsewhere and let the church buy “the only viable option” for its continued strong growth on the Eastside.

The property, which lies between 120th Avenue Northeast and a stretch of the Eastside Rail Corridor, is one of four options — three in Bellevue and one in Lynnwood — Sound Transit is considering for a maintenance facility.

Two of the options have different configurations but would both require use of the property Sound Transit bought last month for $23 million.

The Sound Transit board last year authorized a “protective acquisition” of the land after the owner, International Paper, put it up for sale. Transit officials wanted to avoid paying a higher price if it was bought by a developer or speculator.

Persuading Sound Transit to sell the property before completing its environmental review next year would be an uphill battle.

“It would be unusual to abort consideration of two out of the four options midstream,” agency spokesman Geoff Patrick said.

If Sound Transit decides to build the rail yard on a different site, it could sell the International Paper warehouse property as surplus.

The transit agency doesn’t expect to make a final site decision until 2015.

That could be difficult for Mars Hill, whose lease on its downtown church ends in 2017. The New York-based Rockefeller Group has an option to lease the property from Sterling Realty Organization to build a high-rise project.

The church, which meets in the former John Danz Theater on 106th Avenue Northeast, is the largest of Mars Hill’s 15 churches in five states, which have a combined Sunday attendance of 13,000 to 14,000, spokesman Justin Dean said.

The former warehouse would seat 3,000 worshippers and could have other uses. Such a large site with ample parking near downtown Bellevue is the ideal location from which to “plant” additional Eastside churches, Dean said.

He said Mars Hill will continue to look for other properties while attempting to persuade Sound Transit to pick another site for the maintenance yard. “We believe that this property is what God has intended for us,” Dean said.

The church’s website said it is “a small church with little chance of being able to make the government change their decision. However, we will continue to move forward with faith in a God who is bigger than any government. A God who rules a world that bends to his will.

“We believe that God wants us to have this property, and we will continue to be obedient to his call.”

The conservative, evangelical megachurch began as a Bible study group in 1996 in the Seattle home of Pastor Mark Driscoll and his wife, Grace.

Mars Hill initially said in a news release that International Paper was willing to sell to the church but the deal was scotched by Sound Transit “seizing the property under the authority of eminent domain.”

The church later revised the release to clarify that Sound Transit bought the land through a negotiated agreement, not through eminent domain.

Patrick said transit officials learned of Mars Hill’s interest in the property only after they signed a binding purchase agreement in June.

Bellevue officials generally oppose Sound Transit locating a maintenance yard close to the future 120th Avenue light-rail station, around which they want high-density, mixed-use development.

Developer Wright Runstad broke ground last month on the 16-block Spring District project which, over the next 15 years, could bring more than 5 million square feet of offices, apartments or condos, stores, restaurants and hotel rooms.

Bellevue City Councilmember and Sound Transit Board Member Claudia Balducci said she views Mars Hill’s wish to buy the property as “in the same category as other people who have an interest in the property being one thing or another.”

Balducci said she doesn’t know if a church and Bible college would be compatible with Bel-Red zoning, but she said “a sea of parking” would clash with the city’s land-use plan for the area.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or

Information in this article, originally published Oct. 24, 2013, was corrected Oct. 25, 2013. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Rockefeller Group bought the property on which Mars Hill’s Bellevue church is located. Rockefeller has an option with the owner, Sterling Realty Organization, to build a high-rise project there.

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