Wednesday, August 22, 2018
3-IN-1 OIL: The penetrating lubricants handy to free gummy gears also make pretty fierce combustible accelerants. The mechanics working under the hood of City of Bellingham could perhaps use a little of both—things you might pour on a fire that can also unstick seized parts.
After ten years of trying, the city last week reported defeat in efforts to acquire an abandoned rail line between Meridian Street and Roeder Avenue. The rail line, which connects Orchard Place near Cornwall Park to the main line near Roeder Avenue, is a key piece that might complete the Bay to Baker Trail, a project decades in conception that would provide trail opportunities across the county on former railroad, logging road and other established corridors.
In a letter dated Aug. 10, BNSF Railway terminated a pending purchase and sale agreement from March of this year.
Last April, Bellingham City Council approved spending $261,500 in Greenway funds for this long-sought trail connection. City staff were heading to Olympia last week to present their grant application to the Recreation and Conservation Office to build the trail, but instead had to pull their application because of BNSF intransigence.
“I am very disappointed that BNSF chose to terminate our purchase of this important property,” said Mayor Kelli Linville. “This has long been identified as a key connection for our trail system, and it was an opportunity to work with BNSF on mutual goals of mitigation as well as recreation. We will continue to work on any and all options to make our trail system work for our community.”
Washington and other states across the United States are littered with thousands of miles of abandoned rail lines. Many of these rights-of-way were simply granted by the federal government as a means to crack open the resources of the West, and the lines have fallen into disuse as rail operations have consolidated. Conservation groups have worked from coast to coast to help develop these thousands of miles of rail-trails for millions to explore and enjoy while creating vibrant corridors that link communities and neighborhoods. From the standpoint of economic development, a completed Bay to Baker Trail would connect recreational opportunities across the entire county.
BNSF has no plans or use for this long-abandoned rail line. Their unwillingness to part with the right-of-way stems from the company’s stiff-necked assuredness that they can, and their supreme confidence that no pressure will be leveraged against them for doing so.
A decade ago, the Port of Bellingham applied leverage to an analogous large, distant and intractable mega-corporation—filing an order to seize and condemn Georgia-Pacific’s wastewater treatment lagoon on Bellingham’s central waterfront. The port argued that the agency envisioned a higher, better economic purpose for the structure. In making their case, the port built upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo decision that found that the general benefits a community enjoys from economic growth qualifies as a permissible “public use” under the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment. Washington’s own state constitution contains a provision that would complicate the use of eminent domain for economic development; however, the larger point is the lawsuit got Corporate’s attention and brought them to the table for a discussion that eventually brought Bellingham’s waterfront into public ownership.
Was the port’s strategy tenable and legally supportable? Doubtful. Did it work to public benefit? Oh, undoubtedly.
One can easily make the argument that the city’s position here is even more compelling. At the time of its condemnation, GP’s treatment lagoon was functional and supported scores of jobs. BNSF’s diseased and abandoned rail line yields no economic benefit or purpose whatsoever.
Would the city prevail? Perhaps that’s less of a salient question than whether such an action might work loose the cost-benefit analysis from BNSF on a property they’ve long flirted with surplusing.
A similar situation and opportunity exists with Albertson’s and the food desert their corporate decisions have created in Birchwood neighborhood.
In July, City Council learned there was not a hell of a lot the city could do to break a noncompete agreement by the owners of the former Albertson’s grocery that had served that neighborhood since 1960. The company created a noncompete clause for that location that stipulates no other supermarket can open there until 2042. The clause has resulted in a diseased and vacant building; and a lower income neighborhood devoid of fresh fruits, vegetables and other whole foods under the USDA’s standard.
The circumstances that placed Haggen Foods under the control of Albertson’s in 2016 were slippery enough, but had the effect of creating a virtual monopoly for the grocery giant in Bellingham. Their surplus signature Birchwood property keeps flipping to new owners, but maddeningly the restrictive covenants travel with the sale.
Letters and appeals sent by the City of Bellingham seem to vanish into the maw of distant (and disinterested) corporate giants. We’d suggest that placing them in a legal filing with law citations might challenge that attitude.
Mayor Kelli Linville said she does not support filing lawsuits just to gain attention; but sometimes that’s exactly the point—forcing an analysis by distant, mercurial corporate executives of whether being obstinate actually carries higher risk and greater costs than simply surrendering a dubious asset they really don’t care that much about. The city meanwhile has municipal public goals, in some cases urgent, the city must pursue.
Sometimes you need to raise the stakes at the poker table. Or throw a little fluid on the fire.