Black Diamond, a town frozen in time, is poised to boom | KUOW News and Information

Black Diamond, a town frozen in time, is poised to boom

Feb 21, 2017

Black Diamond is a city of 4,000 people southeast of Seattle. It's a haven for cyclists headed for Mount Rainier, and a historic coal mining town. But a huge housing development has loomed over this small town for 20 years, and the tension over it is tearing the city apart.

People in Black Diamond want to save the warm and sheltering community they’ve created. They worry that with thousands of people and houses on the way, that might not be possible.

Brenda Evenson runs the antique stop on the main street. She’s new to the city, and she’s experienced the Black Diamond welcome.

“Strangers take you under their wing and help you out," she said. "I’ve been here three years; that’s how this whole town is."

When Evenson got married, it felt like the whole town celebrated. Someone came forward to alter her wedding dress and bake her a cake. “I mean they just spoiled me rotten,” she said. “They didn’t even know who I was.”

Now Black Diamond is divided over growth. Evenson has seen it.

“Just in the last couple of years it’s changed. Once they started doing their development thing,” she said. 

At city council meetings in Black Diamond, small-town warmth is in short supply. Instead there's a battle, between a mayor willing to go through with a massive development and the three-person majority of council that wants to curtail it.

The roots of this conflict go way back. In the 1990s, the leaders of Black Diamond agreed this development should go ahead. And then they put the plan on ice.

“The city was in building moratorium for a long time,” said Andy Williamson, who is simultaneously Black Diamond’s economic, community development and public works director. He said Black Diamond wanted to wait until it got development right, “to learn from other communities to try to get the best results.”

Mount Rainier looms behind the Oakpointe construction site.
Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott

Black Diamond froze development for more than 10 years, and that decision has frozen the city. It's a place that hasn't changed in decades. 

“The proposal was transacted. It was inked and it stayed there waiting to happen,” said Gene Duvernoy, president of the land conservation company Forterra. He was involved when Black Diamond's development planning initially went through in the 1990s.

He said back then, the developer, region and city agreed about how the growth should happen.

But, he said, “Time can be the enemy. And I think that time was the enemy here.”

Other communities built out. Maple Valley, just down the road, got strip malls full of stores. Black Diamond doesn't even have a grocery store.

And since the 1990s, the old consensus about development in Black Diamond has broken down.

“The people are different, the city administration is different, the city elected are quite, quite different and the community is different,” said Duvernoy. “Those permits have been thrust into a different world to activate.”

The development is 6,000 houses. It could bring 15,000 people to Black Diamond, nearly quadrupling the population.

People worry that will damage the close, small-town feeling they love — the feeling they're already losing with each contentious city council meeting.

Right now, Black Diamond is operating on an emergency budget that expires at the end of March, and the sides are still fighting over control of city council as well as the budget.

Duvernoy says he gets it: “We all want things to be the same forever. We’re not going to be able to keep things the same. And that’s difficult and tough, but if we turn our backs on growth, we get growth none of us like.”

Now it’s just before the thaw, and the city is so torn apart that no one can promise that there will even be a working city government in April. 

Carolyn Adolph can be reached at cadolph@kuow.org. Have an idea about a community or a growth issue we could cover? Tell us here