The Last Urban Forest

Bellingham creates ‘hundred acre wood park’

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A park is born, a really big park. And a chapter is closed on one of the most boisterous land-use debates in the history of Bellingham.

Bellingham City Council this week unanimously—and with evident relief bordering on giddy—approved the sale of a conservation easement of roughly 82 acres of forested wetlands at the city’s southern boundary to the Chuckanut Community Forest Park District Board. Their transfer triggers a zoning change that removes the acreage from the city’s inventory of developable land and instead preserves it for use as a forested park.

The property is known by many names—Chuckanut Ridge, Hundred Acre Wood. For a while it was Fairhaven Highlands, zoned for dense residential development. It is an astounding jumble of boggy marshland, steep slopes, mossy wet forests and quiet dark streams. To this, the city added additional 29 acres of adjacent parkland, creating—truly—a hundred-acre wood.

“From the squishy mats beneath the forest to the banks of small swampy ponds everywhere, wetlands at this site hold and filter lots of water,” Wendy Scherrer, former director of the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA), once described the setting. “Soggy places, the cedars and firs, the cottonwoods and willows, the mosses, rushes and cattails and shrubs help moderate storm runoff and absorb floodwater. The site is a sort of big natural reservoir for Padden and Chuckanut creeks—nature’s kidneys.”

For more than two decades, a fierce debate swirled around the potential use of the site zoned for residential development. Three voter-approved Greenways levies failed to secure it.

In the financial collapse of 2007, the development property flipped from bank to bank. The city at last prized it loose from the ailing Washington Federal Savings Bank in 2010 for $8.2 million. It was the single most expensive piece of property the city had ever purchased, using a combination of greenways funds and park fees slated for the Southside, along with a raid of the voter-approved, citywide Greenways Endowment Loan Fund in the amount of $3.2 million.

Under the purchase agreement structured by City Council, that endowment fund needed to be repaid, whether through fundraising or another sale of portions of the property.

Southside residents had a different idea, and in February 2013 put it to a vote of the city’s southern precincts, proposing a cannily gerrymandered special purpose taxing district to raise property tax revenues sufficient to pay back the endowment with interest. The measure passed by fewer than 130 votes, creating a five-member elected commission with the single purpose of managing those revenues to pay back the loan and interest within ten years.

The agreement approved by council this week authorizes the mayor to complete an interlocal agreement with the Chuckanut Community Forest Park District’s elected board of commissioners that describes the repayment schedule of the loan. Under the agreement, the city requires the parks district commission and the taxing district to dissolve when the terms of the loan are retired.

As part of their negotiations with the CCFPD, the City of Bellingham stipulated a variety of potential uses for the property that is consistent with the city’s parks zoning, including street access and parking, restroom facilities, off-leash areas for pets and similar recreational amenities. In order to get the zoning, parks supporters had to accept the uses such zoning permits. Council, in good humor, struck “forest zip lines” from the long list of conceivable items that might inconceivably be added to a park master plan. The likelihood, however, is that the city will do very little in future years to change Chuckanut Ridge, allowing the land to age gracefully into a mature forest. Even a completed park master plan could be years away, as residents and visitors alike meanwhile stroll the forested trails and enjoy the splendor of the city’s largest park.

The described potential uses “gives the parks district something to buy with their $3.2 million, so that a transaction can take place and the loan can be repaid,” Robyn DuPré commented to council. DuPré was one of the early organizers of the initiative that created the CCFPD. “I believe that a robust master planning process will allow for more community conversation about how we want to use this property, once we put down the conversation about how we’re going to pay for it.”

“This represents democracy in action,” Dr. Frank James commented. James has been a tireless advocate for the property, helping to organize public response for its purchase and preservation. “Democracy through City Council, through citizens choosing to take on the additional tax burden—not something you see every day in this world, in a park board that is willing to spend their time for a very specific reason and agree to cease to exist on completion—another thing you don’t see very often.

“It’s a pragmatic compromise that benefits the entire community. But this has been a process that has built community, despite conflict it has brought people together.”

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