A twist in state law may aid Love Israel's dreams for the future

Seattle Times/March 11, 1997

By Stephen Clutter

Arlington -- Love Israel, the self-proclaimed prophet and founder of a religious commune on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill in the 1960s, has found a new gig. He's become a public official.

And a restaurateur. And perhaps a developer? Leave it to Love Israel to find a little-noticed clause in the state's Growth Management Act that, if he succeeds, would allow him and his followers to create an urban village in a rural area along the south fork of the Stillaguamish River in Snohomish County.

Love Israel, 57, is now a commissioner of the newly formed Jordan Sewer District east of Arlington, created to cover the 305-acre ranch where he and his "family" hope to build as many as 100 homes on land now covered by a converted barn and a dozen yurts.

Love Israel won an uncontested election last month, along with Serious Israel and Abishai Israel, who also belong to the 75-member religious community.

"It's kind of funny, huh?" Love Israel said, sitting around an elegantly set table at the Village Bistro, the upscale restaurant he recently opened in downtown Arlington. "Who would have thought?"

Actually, a jaunt into politics seems only natural for the former television salesman named Paul Erdman, whose powers of persuasion once drew as many as 400 followers, including people who turned over riches to fund his vision of a Christian Utopia.

Love Israel and his followers frequently delighted or beguiled Seattle officials, hosting some of the liveliest parties on Queen Anne Hill, and displaying behavior that seemed peculiar, even for Seattle. They often wore colorful robes (or sometimes nothing at all), didn't cut their hair and expressed their claim of eternal life by not giving birthdates when stopped for traffic violations.

At its height of power, the family owned several houses on Queen Anne Hill, property in Hawaii and Alaska, a vineyard in Eastern Washington, a cannery, a horse ranch and an old converted Navy mine sweeper that it used as a yacht.

In those days, members didn't have jobs, preferring a "spiritual life," meaning they lived off the assets of new members.

"In Seattle, we were more focused inward," said Lael Israel. "Now we all have to work."

That includes running a custom-home construction company, growing organic foods and hosting an annual garlic festival.

In 1983, the family was ripped apart in a maelstrom of accusations, with some accusing Love Israel of sexual opportunism and of using family money for drugs and an extravagant lifestyle.

He denied the allegations. But many members left. Love Israel worked in Los Angeles for a year as an investment banker to help rebuild the family's assets, then returned in 1984 with a new vision - an urban village on land the family had previously used as a campground.

Dressed for Success

The community, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ at Armageddon, tries to adhere to two main precepts of the New Testament - "Love thy Lord with all thy heart" and "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

Not all are blood kin, but all take the surname Israel and use first names of biblical figures or a virtue. For instance, Love Israel's biological daughter is Compassion Israel, 27, who helps run the restaurant.

Love Israel routinely strolls around it, ensuring his guests are enjoying their meals - perhaps a special such as grilled jumbo prawns on a bed of wild mushroom puff pastry with Grand Marnier cream sauce ($15.95).

He is absorbed in the restaurant business, calling it the "best job I ever had." He dons suits for dinner guests, looking every-bit the maitre d', with hair slicked backed and tied into a fashionable ponytail.

The restaurant also is part of the family's continuing effort to improve relations with Arlington-area residents. "We've always had detractors," he said. "But they get so fanatical trying to detract us, they end up looking like the nuts."

Over the years, Love Israel has coached youth sports teams, and family members have been involved in civic activities. Love Israel's son, Clean Israel, now on the University of Washington football team, was a star tight end on the Arlington High School team two years ago. Love Israel could often be seen sitting in the bleachers, chatting with Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel, whose daughter was one of Clean Israel's classmates.

The family decided to form the sewer district last year as part of a plan to turn their once-struggling ranch into an urban village.

"We just want to raise our families, our food, and have a nice environment for our children," said Serious Israel, 56, a former English professor.

Serious Israel strolls along a gravel pathway, past a half-dozen children's bicycles parked neatly in a row. He sweeps his hand across the property as if touching the hillside, where a forest rises above the ranch.

"This was just an abandoned farm when we moved (here)," he said. ". . . Nothing was here but an old barn."

Now the barn is Love Israel's home and a place where the others gather for morning prayers and discussion. Behind the barn is a gazebo built for weddings, along with a barbecue pit, used for outdoor parties. There is a pond, a basketball court and meditation nook.

Nice, but the family wants more.

They 'want to get legal'

First, they finally "want to get legal," as they say, referring to the fact that in building their collection of yurts and other structures over the years they have violated the county's zoning code for the land, which allows one house on every 5 acres.

After a series of long-running legal battles with Snohomish County officials - including some in which the county threatened to bulldoze their homes - they reached a truce in 1995 that allows them to exist as a "housing demonstration pilot project.

But the overlying zoning hasn't changed, and the pilot project expires this June, according to the Snohomish County planning department.

The family, however, discovered a clause in the state Growth Management Act that allows counties to establish urban villages in rural areas. They recently submitted a proposal to become an urban village, and hired Everett land-use consultant Reid Shockey to help them through the process.

Under the plan, the ranch would become "Jordan Village," which would mean replacing some of the yurts with conventional single-family houses and dormitory-style buildings that could be sold to non-family members.

The village also would include space for family members' cottage industries, and Serious Israel would like to see a community center, with classrooms for children, a communal dining area, and a kitchen for canning and baking.

Forming the sewer district would help the family attract grants and financing that isn't available to private parties, Serious Israel said.

Creation of the village ultimately will have to be approved by the Snohomish County Council in a process that could take up to two years.

Public meetings will be held after a formal application is made, said Hi Bronson, a county planner.

So far, there have been no official complaints about the family's plan, but Virginia Blain, who lives a mile down the road from the Israels, doesn't like it. "I moved here to be out in the country, not to live next to a metropolis," she said.

Keith Graves, another neighbor, said he feels frustrated that the Israels seem to be getting rewarded for flouting the law.

"Most of what they've built has been without permits, but nobody will touch them," Graves said. "They seem to be immune to everything."

Love Israel, who says he'd be a developer if he could live his life over again, admits the plan could provoke some controversy.

But when you're Love Israel, nearly everything does.

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