Walk in the Park // Local Foundation Gifts a City Sanctuary

By Connie Bye

This is a love story

A love of community. A love of the outdoors. A love of island history. A love of tranquility. It is the story of Moritani Preserve and the people who gave this gift to all Bainbridge Islanders.

The 8.5 acres at the western end of Winslow Way sat overgrown and largely forgotten for years. But after Fletcher Bay Foundation bought the former strawberry farm in March 2017, things started changing fast.

The foundation assembled a team to tackle the underbrush and invasive plants, to lay down meandering gravel paths, design information panels, and plant meadow grass in open areas.

The foundation turned the site over to Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Park & Recreation District (BIMPRD) in September and it was dedicated October 15. Nancy and Glenn Haber, cofounders of Fletcher Bay Foundation, had walked by the property for years and envisioned ways to use it.

But like the site’s nearby neighbors and green-space advocates, they worried that developers would buy the land and fill it with tightly packed housing. The Habers decided they couldn’t let that happen. The property near the heart of Winslow “was screaming to be a green, open space,” Glenn Haber said.

“It just needed financial resources—and the courage to take it on. ”When crews started clearing and cleaning last spring, neighbors initially feared the worst, said Jane Purinton, whose home faces the property.

Then signs went up, explaining that Fletcher Bay Foundation was creating a preserve and asking for patience. “We were thrilled,” she said. Establishing another park near downtown had long been a goal for several agencies and entities, but they lacked funds or faced other obstacles, said Ken DeWitt, BIMPRD board member and 2017 chairperson.

For example, the district is prohibited from paying more than the appraised value, he said, “and we were priced out” on the Moritani property. Still, it was critical to offer a place to interact with nature, “a haven of spirit,” especially for residents of the increasing number of dense neighborhoods near Winslow, said Terry Lande, executive director of the BIMPRD.

Now, he said, Moritani Preserve “is their backyard. It breaks up all those rooflines. ”After the property’s owner, Shigeru Moritani, died at age 95 in 2016, the Habers approached his heirs with their idea and struck a deal.

Attempts to reach the heirs for this article were unsuccessful. The Habers decline to disclose how much their private foundation paid for the property or the ensuing work.

They do hope their gift will spur support—large and small—for other projects and causes. “Maybe it will encourage other people to be bold,” Nancy Haber said. Because of the Moritani family’s place in island history—they were among the first Japanese American strawberry farmers—the Habers sought approval for their plans from elders in the Japanese American community.

They also asked Bainbridge Island Land Trust for input. And they quietly began discussions about turning the finished project over to BIMPRD. “What was amazing was the Habers’ vision,” Lande said.

“Every trail was planned. It came with every rock in place. It was remarkable, exquisite taste in park planning. ”The Habers are quick to credit others who helped bring the preserve to life, including landscape architect Maryann Kirkby, landscaper Brad Waggoner and construction contractor Steve Kelly.

“It was a dream team of skilled people,” Nancy Haber said, “and they were all really invested. ”Eight benches dot the site, offering places for rest or contemplation.

The bench design—stacked log supports, split-wood backs and seats—was based on a picture BIMPRD supplied, said Max Strom, 14, who took on the bench-building as an Eagle Scout project.

All told, 21 people helped with the benches, which took about 130 hours. The Rotary Club awarded Strom a $600 grant to help cover costs; he paid for the rest. BIMPRD offered guidance and supplied most of the cedar from fallen trees, he said.

David Kotz, of David Kotz Woodworks, milled the wood for the seats and backs. “I’ve built little things before,” said Strom, a sixth-generation islander, “but nothing big like that.

”Last fall, a box of markers and paper tags appeared on one of the benches. A small sign invited visitors to write thank you messages and hang them on an adjacent tree, which was soon aflutter with notes of gratitude for the preserve.

The Habers also have found thank-you notes attached to the preserve’s gates. Don’t expect to find playground equipment or ball fields at Moritani; events won’t be held there, either.

As a preserve, the goal is to protect and enjoy the plants, animals and natural features. It’s also intended to be experienced on foot; posted rules instruct cyclists to dismount and walk their bikes through. There is no onsite parking, but visitors who don’t live close by can park on some nearby streets and walk to the preserve.

Benefaction in Action

Nancy and Glenn Haber  said they set up Fletcher Bay Foundation about 15 years ago to help teach their children about giving. Most of the charitable grants ranged from $1,000 to $5,000 over the years.

When the Habers’ now-grown children and their spouses did not want to take over the foundation, it was decided to spend down the funds with a focus on larger projects, Glenn Haber said.

The Habers point out that Fletcher Bay Foundation is only one among several individuals and foundations that help support nonprofits on Bainbridge Island. They said they prefer to remain out of the spotlight.

“If we’re involved, you probably won’t know about it,” he said with a laugh. They found that was impossible, however, with a project as big as Moritani Preserve.

They stepped out of the limelight again last fall after turning the site over to the Park & Recreation District. Still, Glenn Haber couldn’t resist visiting Moritani Preserve on Christmas morning.

“I wanted to see it in its first snow,” he said. To his delight, a family was laughing and sledding; a group of young people was walking dogs. And on the snowy trails, footprints showed where other people already had made a walk through the preserve a part of their holiday.

Besides interacting with nature, visitors can learn about the property’s place in island history. Shigeru Moritani and his brothers, Nobuichi and Tatsukichi, moved to the site with their parents in 1921.

After their father died in 1927, the brothers helped their mother, Hayano, with the berry farm; the trail system threading through the preserve is named in her honor.

During World War II, the U.S. government forced the Moritani family and other Japanese Americans to leave areas along the West Coast, so a neighbor maintained the farm until they returned.

The brothers phased out of farming. Tatsukichi, who died in 2006, was the last to live at the site. The old farmhouse tumbled into disrepair along with sheds and other outbuildings.

All of those structures had to be cleared, but anything that could be recycled was, Nancy Haber said. However, visitors can still see the house’s worn concrete steps and some foundation stones atop a knoll; a plow and windmill parts are grouped at a stand of trees. Poems by a relative were cast in brass and affixed to two stones.

The Habers asked Rick Chandler, curator at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, to create explanatory panels, including photos of the Moritani family and the farm.

In the northwest corner of the property, the Moritanis long ago planted evergreens in some of the old strawberry rows. Today the mature trees form aisles through which morning sun casts columns of light.

Nancy Haber wanted to keep the trees and mounded rows so that visitors could better visualize where berry plants once grew.
Although Fletcher Bay Foundation completed a lot of work before the preserve opened, more work lies ahead.

Scotch broom, holly and other invasive plants will require ongoing, vigilant attention, Lande said, and old fruit trees will need pruning. To help support and maintain the preserve, BIMPRD and the Bainbridge Island Parks Foundation created Friends of Moritani Preserve. Glenn Haber, a member of the Parks Foundation, is its liaison on the Friends citizen advisory committee.

Brooke Thompson, who has lived for 13 years across the street from the property, is part of the advisory committee, too. She sometimes talked with Shigeru Moritani when he stopped by to check on things at the farm, tend a small garden there and spend time with old friends in the farmhouse kitchen.

She has a folder full of information about the property and notes from her conversations with him. She praised the Habers for recognizing what the property could mean to Bainbridge Island residents, both now and in the future.

“The Habers have a connection to this place,” Thompson said. “They could see the true potential.” Visit biparks.org/parks-trails-finder to learn more.