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Originally published Friday, April 15, 2011 at 10:01 PM

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Neighborhood of the week

Neighborhood of the week: Black Diamond is scenic, historic and quaint

Big plans are on the horizon for Black Diamond, a small town on Seattle's suburban fringe that has character and affordable homes.

Special to The Seattle Times

Black Diamond

Population: 4,190

Distance to downtown Seattle: About 33 miles.

Schools: Black Diamond is served by the Enumclaw and Tahoma school districts.

Recreation: Flaming Geyser State Park, 23700 S.E. Flaming Geyser Road. This 480-acre day-use park has more than three miles of freshwater shoreline on the Green River. It is named after a natural-gas vent, which before it was capped shot a flame 8 feet into the air when lit. A cap now controls the flame to about 6-8 inches. The park will undergo significant construction and upgrades as soon as environmental permits are obtained. Repairs are expected to take at least two years to complete.

— Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf

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More than a century ago, a mining company in California named Black Diamond moved its operations north to Washington and created a town.

In 1885, it had 3,500 residents. Today, Black Diamond has about 4,200. And a typical house is worth about $230,000.

"It's the 'last frontier' of affordable housing and the only city in the area that hasn't seen a lot of growth and development," said Charla Herlitz, designated broker for RE/MAX in Black Diamond.

With the Green River running alongside it and Lake Sawyer on the outskirts, Black Diamond is a quaint community that offers a quiet rural setting dotted with farms, old houses and views of Mount Rainier.

Situated between Seattle and Tacoma and at the confluence of several country roads and state highways, Black Diamond is close enough for city commutes without the high real-estate price tags found in urban areas.

"It is a relatively close-knit community where you know your neighbors but are close enough to conveniences. Black Diamond has a real community focus," said longtime resident Dawn Johnston, who is the managing broker for Windermere Real Estate in Maple Valley.

Johnston, who has lived in Black Diamond since 1976, said that she can recall only four new developments being built in her time there, aside from the Lake Sawyer annexation in 1998.

"Black Diamond still feels like that safe, small town," Johnston said. "It has a good feel to it."

It also has a feeling of history to it, thanks to the Old Town District stretching along Railroad Avenue, where the old depot has been converted into the Black Diamond Museum. There also is a bookstore, several gift shops, a pizza deli and the venerable Black Diamond Bakery & Restaurant.

The 109-year-old bakery is a local favorite, featuring home-baked breads, pastries, cookies and muffins made in its "old brick oven" plus a candy counter. The adjoining restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, featuring such home-style meals as meatloaf, lasagna and stroganoff.

Nearby is a "Welcome to Black Diamond" sign painted on a replica of an old coal car.

Though the bakery enjoys a rich history, Black Diamond was developed much earlier, in the 1880s, by the Black Diamond Coal Co. of Nortonville, Calif., a town that was located between the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, but no longer exists.

The company moved its operations and workers, many of whom were Welsh immigrants, to Washington. Complete with a train station, company hospital and stores, Black Diamond thrived for the next 45 to 50 years mining coal.

Some of the town's original landmarks remain today, including the Black Diamond cemetery, Black Diamond Miner's Cabin and the Luigi & Aurora Pagani House.

Though it doesn't enjoy historical status, another local landmark is Mama Passarelli's Dinner House, formerly known as The Dinner House.

Built in 1922, The Dinner House used to be Gattavara's Store and the Morganville Tavern. Now owned by Harvey and Ginger Senecal (aka "Mama Passarelli" and "The Soup Lady"), the restaurant retains a lot of the old-world charm, complete with an ornate imported bar wall, antiques, sitting room and family-style meals.

Populated primarily by coal miners, early homes in Black Diamond were called company houses. They were typically built by their occupants on land leased to them by the mining company. The homes were plain in character and design with unfinished exteriors and often a single story with four rooms.

Today, Black Diamond has a wide variety of houses and prices, ranging from the high $100,000s to more than $1 million for lakefront property.

Among those recently listed were a 5,900-square-foot view home on Lake Sawyer for $1.6 million. There also was a 2,300-square-foot home listed for $289,950.

According to Seattle-based Zillow, the median value of all single-family houses in Black Diamond was $230,700 in February. This figure represents all homes, not just those recently sold, and this benchmark is down 16.7 percent year-over-year, and down 0.8 percent from January. That compares with $361,200 for single-family houses in Seattle, down 8.6 percent year-over-year, according to the Zillow Home Value Index.

Big plans are on the way that would give Black Diamond its biggest growth spurt since the 1880s.

A local developer, Yarrow Bay, been working with the city of Black Diamond and its citizens since the 1990s to lay out a master plan to add housing and businesses while preserving the city's small-town character and conserving its rural farms and forests.

Over the next 20 years, Yarrow Bay and the city are planning 1,250 homes in the Lawson Hills development and 4,800 homes in The Villages. In addition, the master plan will set aside hundreds of acres of open space and sites for neighborhood schools and reserve space for a mix of office, retail and light-industrial businesses which could bring jobs to the area.

Though some are opposed to growth in Black Diamond, Herlitz believes the growth will enhance the sleepy Seattle suburb.

"It's a huge benefit to the whole city," she said. "It is better to have a master plan than a development here and there. They're [Yarrow Bay and the city] doing it in a very smart way. It will give the city a face lift."

The Yarrow Bay proposal is currently moving through the public process, but construction is expected to begin in about a year.

The build-out will continue over a 20-year period, eventually providing housing for approximately 15,700 residents. Housing styles will include town homes, single- and multifamily housing as well as luxurious view properties.

"It will open up people's choices in terms of homes and businesses," said Johnston. "Ultimately, the outcome will be positive for Black Diamond."

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