Neil Van Lierop’s land is his life, and the retired daffodil farmer said it’s emotional to part with it.
The 77-year-old dragged his first hoe when he was 2, plowed his first field when he was 7 and bought his first batch of bulbs at 10.
Van Lierop bought his first 24 acres near Shaw Road East and Pioneer Way East in Puyallup at age 22 — two years before his father died in 1962 — and grew the five-generation family business alongside his mother, Beatrice “Flower Lady” Van Lierop, until she died in 1975.
He continued his family legacy — an operation that spanned about 72 acres at its peak — until the farm closed in 2013 and the gift shop shuttered last year.
Now, a partnership between a nonprofit and the city of Puyallup will likely bring new life to Van Lierop’s land, for decades the heart of the Puyallup Valley.
The Puyallup City Council has approved a deal to buy about 24 acres from Van Lierop for $3.75 million. Upon closing, likely by the end of the year, the city will keep 18 acres with plans to build a park in the farmer’s honor.
The remaining 6 acres will be sold for $1.25 million to Step By Step, which helps at-risk mothers support healthy babies from pregnancy through infancy. The nonprofit plans to use the historic homestead to create a hub for staff and to provide job training for clients.
Before the city stepped in to help, Step by Step had already launched a fundraising campaign earlier this year to collect $1.5 million to purchase land from Van Lierop.
Krista Linden, Step By Step’s founder and executive director, is glad to advance her nonprofit’s mission while preserving the farmer’s legacy.
“I think it’s beautiful for him,” Linden said.
She said everyone wins with the land deal in place.
THE NEXT STEP
A large donation from a prominent donor pushed Linden’s nonprofit within $250,000 of its $1.5 million fundraising goal.
Jerry Korum, a Puyallup car dealer known for community involvement, said his wife Germaine’s passion for Step By Step’s mission inspired him to donate $500,000, an amount that grants the family naming rights.
The couple has been married 47 years. Germaine has fought lung cancer for the past three.
“We are currently working with local foundations and individual donors to match the Korums’ gift and plan to name the site in honor of Germaine Korum, who has been a longtime advocate for the health and well-being of women and children,” Linden said.
Germaine Korum said there’s nothing more important than children, and Step By Step does much more than teach women how to be moms.
“Long after I’m gone, I do believe it’s going to become a major place in Puyallup,” she said.
Step By Step plans to move quickly on program development. Linden said the goal is to open the Germaine Korum Center for Women and Children by the spring.
On-site programs will include three components: an early childhood education center, a community cafe and catering program, and a business and technical education program.
Services will include child care, parenting education, life skills and job training, and continuing education classes. All will equip vulnerable mothers to support themselves and their babies, Linden said.
Other donations for Step By Step come from MultiCare, Columbia Bank, CHI Franciscan, Boeing, Puyallup Kiwanis and more.
Some wish to remain anonymous, including one donor who’s pledged $200,000 once the nonprofit raises $1.3 million debt-free.
All of those donations are in addition to grant funding and $300,000 in individual gifts.
Linden approached the city in October asking for help purchasing Van Lierop’s land.
Around that time, she discovered Step By Step would be on the hook for unexpected costs — roughly $98,000 in back taxes — if it moved ahead with the acquisition as planned.
Linden said she always hoped Van Lierop would sell to the city. But after learning that a local government could buy it without paying the extra taxes, it was an added push that landed her in Puyallup City Manager Kevin Yamamoto’s office.
After sparking the city’s interest, Linden worked closely with Van Lierop’s Realtor and attorney. She encouraged the city’s community development department to complete sample park designs.
Yamamoto said the City Council had already identified its intent to pursue a deal with Van Lierop for parks land during its annual retreat this year.
The mostly slow-moving process shifted into higher gear with Linden as the driving force.
“She encouraged us to put this together,” Councilman John Hopkins said following the vote on the agreement.
Councilman John Palmer, an advocate for parks and open space, said he has urged an agreement like this for years. He said the city already had plans to improve parks, especially in the northeast corner of Puyallup where Van Lierop’s property is located.
“This community has a strong attachment to this land. It’s our last big agricultural area,” Palmer said. “People care a lot about the fate of this land.”
Mayor John Knutsen abstained from the vote that authorized the agreement.
He told The News Tribune that his decision was driven by frustration with the process, not the deal itself. The public should have known in advance about the proposal and been given an opportunity to comment, Knutsen said. The city now must find $2.5 million, he added.
“I really like Krista and her organization,” Knutsen said. “I really like the Van Lierops. I’ve been through years and years of them being abused. I don’t want to interrupt them getting some reward for the mistreatment.”
CENTER OF CONTROVERSY
The 24-acre parcel to be sold is across the way from the future site of a 470,000-square-foot warehouse. That property, also formerly part of Van Lierop’s farm, has been at the center of a heated land-use debate for more than two years.
In the summer of 2013, several months after Van Lierop retired, the Puyallup Planning Commission voted 3-2 to deny a land-use application by Seattle-based developer Schnitzer West. The company had a deal to buy about 22 acres of Van Lierop’s land, which officially sold in July this year. Schnitzer’s application at the time sought to change the industrial zoning on the property.
Despite the commission’s split decision, sparked by public outcry over the fear of warehouse development, the Puyallup City Council still approved the rezone in another split vote.
The decision was favorable to Van Lierop’s plans to sell his farm. It streamlined two parcels that had different industrial zoning, making it easier to develop a warehouse project.
Momentum shifted a few months later. Two newly elected council members joined a pair of sitting council members to halt development on the Van Lierop land and nearby properties.
They eventually voted to limit building height, open space, parking and other design components.
In response, Schnitzer filed a lawsuit last summer challenging the restrictions, even though the firm’s warehouse application was already filed and wouldn’t be subject to the new standards.
Representatives from Schnitzer West have said they had to submit a less desirable development plan or they would have lost rights to the Van Lierop property.
A Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled against the city earlier this year, saying council members’ actions constituted a discriminatory spot-zone “aimed directly and solely” at the Van Lierop property. An appeal by the city is pending.
“We’re still going forward with the same plans submitted to the city,” said Jeff Harmer, a senior investment manager with Schnitzer.
Harmer said he couldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit against the city. He also wouldn’t say whether he’d had communications with Step By Step regarding their plans on the nearby property.
Van Lierop said a life of hardship is something he’s used to as a farmer.
“It’s been a difficult life,” he said, noting that any challenges he faced with the city were nothing compared to the tough love he got from his hardworking father. “My dad prepared me for that stuff.”
He said the pending sale is the first step toward moving on from the many frustrating years he spent trying to retire.
He said the ideal situation would have been to keep the farm going, but Step By Step’s willingness to maintain the integrity of the buildings is the best outcome. He hopes to see flower sales on the property again, which the nonprofit has said it’s exploring.
“As much as I enjoyed farming all those years, I knew it was time for me to retire,” said Van Lierop, who will be left with about 10 acres when the sale to the city closes.
All parties involved look forward to a city park on the property, regardless of any industrial development that occurs around it.
Linden said she isn’t worried about Schnitzer’s plans. She said Step By Step has potential to be an “oasis” in the area.
Palmer said “the Van Lierop park is going to be a gem regardless of what happens around it.” He hopes everyone strives to preserve the “regional treasure.”
In the meantime, Van Lierop will live in his brick house on the property with his wife, Lore, for a while longer.
He still tills the field outside the home. The couple has planted tulip and daffodil bulbs in the garden. They will bloom around the time Step By Step plans to launch its new programs.
The flowers are a symbolic gift that will open the next chapter for the beloved farmland.
“There’s some life over there,” Van Lierop said of Step By Step’s operation. “In a way it’s a little sad, but it’s a relief.”
Visit legacyinmotionproject.org for more information on Step By Step’s plan for new services or to donate.