The legacy of Bellingham’s parks acquisition program and a new strategic plan
Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Like many beautiful cities in extraordinary locations, Bellingham struggles with growth. When the economy is on an uptick, the pressure intensifies. With great foresight, in 1990 our community initiated a grassroots led Greenway Program that levied additional property taxes to raise funds for habitat preservation, parks, trails and open space. Bellingham’s Greenway legacy is arguably one of the finest things we’ve ever done.
Competing for General Fund dollars with the essential safety services of police and fire isn’t easy for park departments. Cities around Washington are burdened with the cost of purchasing, developing and maintaining parks, trails and recreational areas with minimal funding mechanisms including limited and very competitive state grants. Bellingham is ahead of other communities in that regard, thanks to four voter-supported Greenway levies.
Since 1990, the program has spent nearly $50 million of Greenway and other public funds to purchase, protect and preserve 3,420 acres of land. This includes the 2,182-acre Galbraith Mountain conservation and recreation easements acquired in 2018. The City acquired an additional 274 acres in 2018 alone.
Bellingham’s total park acreage, including open spaces and developed parks, trails and easements, and wetland mitigation acquisition—more than 6,100 acres. Greenways is responsible for more than half of that total.
Acquiring the Legacy
Early Greenways objectives were trail connectivity, protecting riparian and wildlife habitat, and preserving the wooded hilltops around the City. Acquisitions often targeted environmentally sensitive areas that were yet to be protected by our modern critical area regulations. The first decade of acquisitions included gems such as the Padden Greek Gorge, Northridge Park, Arroyo Park expansion and numerous trail corridors and habitat tracts along Whatcom, Padden, Squalicum, and Connelly creeks; not to mention the Railroad Trail and portions of the South Bay Trail.
The legacy continued with the passage of “Beyond Greenways” levy in 1997. This levy focused on large preservations as well as improvements to exponentially expand use of Civic Field with artificial turf. The assembly known as the Samish Crest open space was purchased during this time, nearly completing the goal of linking Whatcom Falls Park with Lake Padden. Purchased from Pacific Concrete in 2002 for $4 million, Squalicum Creek Park was developed using Park Impact Fees to create what the kids often refer to as “Zipline Park.”
Woodstock Farm, purchased in 2004, secured this historic homestead on Chuckanut Bay. This year the City is submitting a nomination for a National Historic Register listing for this property to help attain grants to preserve and enhance this unique asset. With the future in mind, various undeveloped park properties in the north and west will serve future annexations and new development.
The “Greenways III” levy, approved in 2007, enabled continuing acquisitions despite the Great Recession. Most notably was the controversial 80-acre Chuckanut Community Forest purchased in 2011 for $8.2 million.
This tract, an expansion of Fairhaven Park, led to the establishment of Bellingham’s first park district. This funding mechanism enabled property owners in the south part of the city to pay back the borrowed Greenways endowment funds used to purchase the land.
Focus on the north end of town by Mayor Kelli Linville and the dedicated Cordata neighborhood advocates succeeded in driving multiple purchases to create the Cordata Greenway system. The crowning jewel is 20 acres purchased in 2015 for $3.6 million as a future home for a community park on Cordata Parkway. A top priority of Linville’s, the construction of Cordata Park begins this May, funded by Greenways and Park Impact Fees collected from new development. Phase One of this incredible new park features a spray park, accessible playground, trails, parkour, a pump track and a large picnic shelter. Phase Two is slated to begin in 2021 to add a pavilion, amphitheater, pickleball and basketball courts, and another play feature.
The citizen Greenways Advisory Committee (GAC) is charged with strategic guidance in use of Greenways funds. Led for many years by longtime City employee and now retired Tim Wahl, the volunteer board members study maps, take field trips and create strategic plans to prioritize acquisitions for each levy. Wahl’s longstanding family history in Whatcom County played an important role in building trust for prospective sellers. Mapping the fingers of the Greenways corridors, looking at key linkages, connections and intact habitat, leveraging other funding and donations, and jumping on opportunities, all contributed to the success of Greenways.
Guided by the Parks, Recreation and Open Space Plan, a chapter in the City’s adopted Comprehensive Plan the GAC, and Parks & Recreation Advisory Board work together to recommend priorities for purchase. Ultimately, each purchase is approved by the City Council.
Maintaining the Legacy
For the first time, the fourth levy included guidance percentages for use of the funds: 44 percent for park and trail development, 33 percent for land acquisition, and 25 percent for maintenance and operations of park assets. The backlog of identified maintenance and capital repairs to Bellingham’s park infrastructure is truly an astounding list. Having this new source of funding is an incredible boost for the Parks department.
Currently, Greenways revenue is approximately $5 million per year. This means about $1.25 million can be used for maintenance and operations. With so many needs, the hard part is deciding how best to spend this money. So far, these funds have re-roofed the Sehome Observation Tower, the North Grandstand at Civic Field, and the Lake Padden bathhouse; re-surfaced the track at Civic Field; and paid for the evaluation of several bridges within the Park system. In addition, Greenways also pays for staff who take care of the more than 70 miles of trails in the city, many acquired with Greenways funds. The trail around Lake Padden was resurfaced with Greenways funds last year.
A major capital maintenance project begins this Spring in Boulevard Park to demolish the failed and unstable (rotting?) pedestrian overpass and reroute all the park utilities underground up Bayview Drive. Thanks to a competitive bid environment, this project came in under budget, saving extra Greenways and other public funds for other things. Another project coming soon is the repair of the Wharf Street Trestle, the structure supporting the South Bay Trail at the north end as it enters downtown. This popular, multi-modal structure is built on piling, and the repair will cost half a million dollars, as well as require a detour during part of the work.
Greenways 2019-2023 Strategic Plan
Approved by the City Council on March 11, the latest Greenways Program Strategic Plan proposes funding priorities for the remainder of the levy. Split into two categories, “Primary Priorities” and “Ongoing and Contingent Priorities,” the plan is the result of months of engaged analysis and study. Like past plans, the focus is on important linkages, habitat connections and missing pieces. The draft plan is available here (http://www.cob.org/greenways).
The plan also summarizes Greenways spending in 2017/2018 (this includes both Greenway 3 and Greenway 4 levy funds), and includes what is budgeted for 2019/2020.
Bellingham is extraordinarily lucky to have the legacy of Greenways. Our parks, trails and open spaces, as well as the strategic parkland reserves that will serve new residents in the future, are intrinsic to the value of this place we call home.
For more information, or to apply for two vacant positions on the Greenways Advisory Committee, see http://www.cob.org/greenways.
Nicole Oliver is parks development manager for the City of Bellingham
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