The Sueno family, including the mother, three sons, a daughter and son-in-law, walk single file through a cathedral-like setting of mature Douglas fir trees across the street from North Thurston High School. Some of the trees approach 150 years old and more than four feet in diameter.
They emerge from the forest onto the Chehalis Western Trail, which flanks a six-acre wetland that covers the southwest side of the 20-acre property. The parcel has been in the family since the early 1980s. It’s one of the last, large undeveloped tracts of land in the urban area where Olympia and Lacey meet along Sleater-Kinney Road NE.
They have plans in the works to build nearly 250 units of rental apartments and townhouses for active, independent seniors and their extended families over the next 10 years, developing about 11 acres while leaving nine acres of wetlands, buffers and forest in a natural state.
“We believe this is a special place,” said the family matriarch, Nena Sueno, who immigrated from the Phillipines to Seattle in the 1960, later returned to her native land and met her husband, Dr. Joseph Sueno. They returned to the United States and moved to Olympia to start a family business — First Rehabilitation & Physical Therapy — and raise four children, Jay, Paul, Carolyn and Michael. “This is the legacy we’d like to leave the community.”
Eight years after the death of the senior Dr. Sueno — son Paul is an Olympia physician, too — the family members formed Golden Alon Development Co. and launched the Bayan Trails project. The word Bayan means “community” in the Filipino language.
Over the past few months, the family has hired a team of well-respected South Sound consultants and subcontractors to survey the trees, wetlands and soils on the property. They’ve consulted with architects, city planners and engineers on a site design. They are committed to a low impact development approach to the project, which means they will use rain gardens, permeable parking lots and roads and other features to infiltrate stormwater on the site.
“The neighbors are lucky,” said Jeff Glander, an Olympia-based landscape architect who is working on the project. “Some developer could have come along and just slammed something in there. This family really cares what they’re doing on the property.”
The family plans to submit a land-use application for Bayan Trails to the city next month. But first they have organized a neighborhood meeting for 6:30 p.m., Monday, at Olympia City Hall to introduce the project to the community, answer questions and gauge public reaction to their plans.
“We know we’re opening ourselves up to some risk,” said Jay Sueno, 35, and the project manager for the family, acknowledging that development of the property, no matter how well planned, will rub some people the wrong way. But his argument goes something like this: the community is better off with the longtime stewards of the land doing the project, rather than one of the many developers or land speculators who have tried to buy the property from the family over the years.
The community meeting isn’t required at this stage in the project, noted Jay Goldstein, an Olympia attorney representing the family. And it’s not common for developers to seek public input this early in a project. “But transparency is a good idea in a project like this,” Goldstein said.
The property supports the old family home and a caretaker’s home, both of which would be removed as the project develops. Also slated for removal is the litter from homeless encampments on the property, which is easily accessed from the Chehalis Western Trail.
Some of the long-range elements of the phased development are still works in progress. But Jay Sueno envisions trails and bike paths eventually connecting to the Chehalis Western Trail. Those would-be trails may be open to the public on the private property, if liability issues can be resolved.
“There’s a lot of recreational opportunities out here,” Sueno continued. “We want to share this property with the community.”
The family wants to turn the preserved natural areas into an outdoor laboratory for students in natural sciences classes from the high school. The wetland could be enhanced through habitat restoration projects involving students, Stream Team and other community groups, Sueno suggested.
But first things first. The Sueno family is about to find out if their dream of Bayan Trails meshes with neighborhood views of the property.