The Gristle

Four-score acres and a mule
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FOUR-SCORE ACRES AND A MULE: South of Bellingham lies 82 acres of exquisite reforested canopy proposed for an urban park. East of Bellingham lies a parcel 100 times that size of exquisite reforested canopy proposed for an urban park. But might the timing on a policy decision on the smaller harm a policy decision on the larger?

In 2011, in the midst of a white-hot election, Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike negotiated a deal to acquire the forested wetlands of Chuckanut Ridge for $8.2 million, an historically enormous sum for a single parkland property acquisition. Of that amount, $4.5 million arrived from Greenways III funds set aside for the purchase. An additional $500,000 was contributed from park impact fees for the Southside. Most controversial, $3.2 million was borrowed from the Greenways Endowment, a loan Bellingham City Council agreed must be repaid. As a backstop against default on that loan when the balloon comes due in 2017, City Council agreed portions of the property could be resold to repay that loan.

In that six years, council reasoned, any number of repayment plans might mature.

Sharply critical that the previous administration had paid too much for an overvalued asset acquired by a groaning bank seeking surrender (along with many others) from the collapse of the housing market and construction industry, Mayor Kelli Linville early on in her administration reissued the warning of City Council that the property would indeed be surplused to avoid either default on the loan or repayment of the loan from the city’s general fund or Greenways. Those are not options, in her view.

Her warning galvanized supporters wishing to save the entire 82 acres prosaically known as Hundred Acre Wood. They launched a signature campaign to place a proposal in front of voters in the city’s southernmost neighborhoods this February to create a metropolitan parks district, a Chuckanut Community Forest Park, with special taxing authority able to raise sufficient funds to repay the loan. Supporters propose a levy of $28 per $100,000 of assessed home value over 10 years, or $70 per year for a $250,000 house.

Modeled after an earlier, stalled proposal to create a metropolitan parks district (MPD) that might encompass the entire Chuckanut Mountains south into Skagit County, this scaled-down version would be governed by five elected commissioners. The measure is unusual for Bellingham, involving only those voters in the city’s southern precincts (Edgemoor, Fairhaven, South Hill, Happy Valley, and South neighborhoods).

Precisely how MPD commissioners would coordinate and plan with the existing multi-member city Parks board, which further coordinates with the Greenways committee, is unclear. As authorized under state law (RCW 35.61), MPD commissioners could assign themselves a salary and expand Southside park activities beyond Chuckanut Ridge; however, supporters have no intention to do so, convinced such follies would collapse support for the district and its purpose.

Coterminous with these activities, Whatcom County Council has again picked up the threads of a proposal to transfer up to 8,700 acres of state forest trust lands into county management as a forest preserve park. Absent that transfer, the lands will be fenced off by the state Dept. of Natural Resources until logged. County administration had asked council to delay on council’s decision until the start of this year. Council held the second of three committee discussions on the proposal this week.

Like CR, the proposal takes advantage of provisions in state law. That law allows for the transfer for use as a park. Unlike CR, the proposal offers a measurable water quality benefit for all Bellingham residents.

In the Gristle’s estimation, both park proposals teeter on the knife’s edge.

Support for a forest preserve park on the Southside might best be expressed as some inverse-square equation based on the distance one is from the direct benefits of that park and the falloff of enthusiasm for the increase in property taxes. Compounding the perception of cost, Bellingham residents south and north just witnessed a sharp uptick in monthly outlay at the start of this year, the result of water rate increases to address the continued decline of Lake Whatcom.

Support for the Lake Whatcom Reconveyance is in the hands of, particularly, the votes of two County Council members anxious to discover evidence that Bellingham does not support the expansion of forest preserve parks at this time. The more volatile, unconvinced of those two votes, Kathy Kershner, actually represents residents on Bellingham’s Southside. Mightn’t the failure, even a slim failure, of a parks initiative in the liberal, affluent, parks-loving Southside provide just such evidence? Bet on it.

Our point is not that the merits of the two proposals should be conflated. Our point is the merits of the two proposals will be conflated, one used as evidence to decide the other, and the possible (perhaps probable) failure of the one by voters will collapse council support for the other. Focus on four-score acres may prove the ruin of four-score hundredfold acres.

Let’s stipulate that Chuckanut Ridge is worth the cost of preserving whole. Let’s further stipulate that—properly timed and organized, with appropriate scope and controls and support from numerous stakeholders, with adequate tie-in to other city endeavors—the creation of a MPD is an excellent financing tool for parkland acquisitions. Voters will decide its merits. Yet, given the radioactives that Chuckanut Ridge would not go critical until 2017, the timing of this initiative could not be worse for the larger issues that grapple with Bellingham in 2013. If the MPD fails for lack of the listed qualifiers, supporters will have broken the very best tool of last resort in their box.

Our eternal complaint about Chuckanut Ridge endures: It is a passion that cares little for other coincident issues unfolding alongside it.

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