The organizers of the Vashon Sheepdog Classic have announced that the popular event won’t be held in 2022 because the owner of the pasture that has hosted the competition since its founding 12 years ago will no longer make the site available.
The news, coming last week, was a sad surprise to many on the island and beyond who supported and participated in the event for years and looked forward to its full return in 2022. The event was canceled due to the pandemic in 2020 and held as a handlers-only event in 2021.
The pasture where the dog trials were held, at SW 220th Street and Old Mill Road, is part of Misty Isle Farms, the sprawling estate of the late Thomas Stewart. In recent months, several other parcels of land that are part of the Misty Isle estate have been sold.
Richard Wilson, president of the Development Services of America, the Stewart-affiliated company that owns the property, told The Beachcomber that he would not discuss his company’s decision made regarding the Sheepdog Classic and whether or not buyers were interested in the pasture.
But in an interview, Catherine Sullivan, executive director of the Sheepdog Classic, provided further detail to an announcement made on the organization’s website last week — that the owners of the property had declined to allow the event to take place in 2022 due to “ongoing real estate opportunities.”
Each year, Sullivan said, the group has reached out to Misty Isle Farms manager Hans Youngmann to request permission to use the pasture for the event. Youngmann, she said, passes along the request to Development Services of America.
This year, in early November, she and her colleagues received a quick “no” to their request, she said. Organizers then returned with another question — would it be possible to hold the event for handlers only, as took place earlier this year?
The response to this request was more detailed, she said, with the group being told that because the company had had some recent success selling some lots of the Misty Isle property, company officials could not predict what would happen with the pasture between now and the time of the event.
The pasture property is currently not listed as being for sale, but King County has targeted the western half of Misty Isle Farms, including the sheepdog pasture, for acquisition for conservation purposes.
In a 2019 application to the county’s Conservation Futures program, which funds open space acquisition, the County Water and Land Resources Division said it hoped to eventually purchase 228 acres of Misty Isle – everything west of Old Mill Road.
The acquisition “would preserve farmland, increase recreational opportunities and protect ecological values,” the application said, citing the property’s habitats including pasture, streams and wetlands, as well as 75 acres of deciduous, coniferous and mixed forest.
However, the division’s application sought money that year to help buy only 93 acres – mostly bordering Old Mill Road. These included the pasture that was home to the Sheepdog Classic as well as much of the forested corridor of Fisher Creek, a stream that supports cutthroat trout, coho and chum salmon.
Conservation Futures approved $2.6 million toward the purchase in 2020.
Greg Rabourn, of King County Water and Land Resources Division, told The Beachcomber last week that the county is still working with the sellers to buy all parcels approved for purchase that had not already been sold — a designation which would include the pasture on Old Mill Road.
“Our scope of interest has not changed from our previous efforts,” he said, declining any further comment.
Misty Isle sales have picked up in 2021
After years of unsuccessful attempts to find a single buyer for the entire, 525-acre estate – despite steep price drops — Misty Isle’s owners have been successful this year in selling off smaller pieces of the complex.
The most recent buyers purchased four parcels totaling about 27 acres this fall, bringing the total acreage sold this year to about 92.
County records show Taylor Wright of Deer Lodge, Montana, last month bought three heavily forested, adjacent parcels on Southwest 220th Street – each parcel 4.8 acres – for a total of $750,000.
The parcels were among the Misty Isle properties King County wanted to buy for conservation purposes.
Another Wright family member, Claire Wright McShane, and her husband, Ryan McShane, bought 23 acres of Misty Isle pasture just to the south of Taylor Wright’s three parcels in June.
County records also show that in October, Gregory R. Jette and Tinuviel M. Lathrop of Olalla, Kitsap County, bought 12.2 acres of Misty Isle pasture fronting Wax Orchard Road for $550,000.
In Facebook posts, Lathrop has said they intend to grow peonies and other flowers commercially on the property. The couple has formed a company, Vashon Peony Co., and has already begun tilling and other work.
“The goal for the farm is to create a sea of peonies and other flowers that maintain the agricultural purposes of the Farmland Preservation zoning for this parcel and create a uniquely beautiful space for locals and visitors to enjoy,” Vashon Peony’s website says.
Three other sales were recorded in the summer of 2021. Steven Jensen and Mark Grace of Vashon bought two parcels totaling 16.25 acres for $1,139,900— one including an older 900 square-foot house.
Adrianne and Matthew Williams, formerly of Tacoma, first purchased 5.15 acres with an older, 4,300-square-foot house for $925,000, where they now live with their children. Two months later, the couple closed on an adjacent property that is the site of the old Wax Orchards fruit processing cannery, paying an additional $500,000 for that 5.2-acre property.
Loss of Sheepdog Classic has big impacts
The Sheepdog Trials, founded by islander Maggi McClure as a nationals qualifying event for the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association, had grown to become the largest event of its kind on the West Coast, drawing thousands of eager spectators of all ages to Vashon each year. Its attendance peaked in 2017 at 9,000 spectators, dropping to what executive director Sullivan said was a more comfortable level of 7,000 attendees in 2019.
It drew devoted attendees of all ages, she said, from both on and off the island.
The event, as founded by McClure and her cohorts, was also a major fundraiser for Vashon nonprofits. Over the years, the Sheepdog Classic organization, in partnership with Vashon’s Partners in Education (PIE) donated significant amounts of its net profits to island programs and organizations serving youth. The biggest beneficiary was PIE, a well-known group that funds special projects created by teachers and staff in the Vashon schools.
Karen Boyle, a PIE board member, said that the Sheepdog Classic partnership with PIE had been a valuable outreach effort for the group, widening its scope of potential donors beyond the island. Over the years, she said that the group had received $30,000 in donations from the proceeds of the events, but also additional funds as well, through raffles, booth sales, and sponsorships sold in connection with the event. All these fundraising efforts garnered PIE a total of $111,000, Boyle said.
Other beneficiaries of the Sheepdog trials, to name only some on a long list posted on the Sheepdog Classic’s website, were Vashon Wilderness School; Camp Burton, Vashon Food Bank, Interfaith Council for Homelessness; UMO Youth Ensemble and Education; Safe Grad Night for VHS Seniors; Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse (VARSA); The Harbor School; Vashon Girl Scouts; Vashon High School Debate Team; Vashon High School Cheerleaders; Vashon Youth and Family Services (VYFS) and Burton Adventure Recreation Center (BARC).
The Sheepdog Classic also had a close partnership with the island’s vibrant fiber arts community, each year hosting a Fiber Arts Village that was home to many tents dedicated to fiber with an emphasis on wool — its preparation, creative uses, and final products. Demonstrations include wheel and drop spindle spinning, fiber preparation, weaving, rug hooking, knitting, crochet, embroidery, Kumihimo braiding, and needle felting. Most demonstrations were hands-on, at no expense to spectators.
Sullivan said that she and the group’s small board of directors were now involved in discussions about what to do next with their organization. She said the group knew of no other island location that could accommodate the trials with spectators, but that the group was following a lead on a pasture where a handler’s only event could be held. She said the board was considering two options: whether to disband or wait another year, in the hope that the pasture would once again be available.
“I’m very sad,” Sullivan said, defining the Vashon Sheepdog Classic as a true community event that could not be separated from the island on which it was presented. “The first week I was kind of in shock — it feels like a loss for the community and all we offered.”
In a Facebook post, founder McClure struck a more hopeful note, saying the group was still “working behind the scenes to see if we might be able to pull off some sort of hybrid event for 2022,” and promising to keep supporters posted.