Make A Difference
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
MAKE A DIFFERENCE: Bellingham City Council made the right call this week, sending a planning matter back for additional investigation after it became evident important neighborhood transparency had been missed in the initial review of property proposed for development.
The property is in a hilly, wooded area just south of Western Washington University campus, on the borders of Happy Valley and South Hill neighborhoods.
“Back in 1994, a group of about 30 of us neighbors built a trail on the unused Douglas Street right-of-way between 20th and 21st streets,” Daniel Kirkpatrick recalls. Neighbors spent hours cutting back brambles and blazing virgin pathways on the public right-of-way. Their labor was dubbed “Make A Difference Day” and was an event celebrated by City Hall.
“During the day, the group that started at the bottom of the hill worked upward to reach a similar group working downhill,” Kirkpatrick recalls. “The sea of blackberry vines gradually yielded to their efforts and by the day’s end, a brand-new trail linked Happy Valley with the South Hill neighborhood. Several volunteers worked to plant donated, native conifers, knowing that until the trees shaded out the blackberries, pruning would be a constant challenge. Others distributed city-supplied gravel to form the walking surface of the trail. As a final touch, signs simply indicating ‘trial’ with an arrow were posted at both ends.”
The footpaths themselves were incorporated into the city’s Greenways plan for improved connectivity to a number of trail systems. The rough switchbacks eventually give way to a city stair system that connects upper and lower reaches of 19th Street—with stunning views of the valley and foothills, with Mt. Baker beyond—granting access to Lowell Park, a little-used urban forest above south campus.
“The trail is rustic but has been used for over two decades,” Kirkpatrick said. “We also planted conifer trees that are now approaching maturity.
“This is a neighborhood asset on a city right-of-way. Now the city is preparing to vacate and sell the right-of-way to a developer so he can build a larger apartment building adjacent,” Kirkpatrick noted. “This would mean the loss of the trail and conifers. The price the city is prepared to accept for this land is a tiny fraction of its actual value.”
The city does not own the land, but it does hold rights to access to this informal trail system through an easement right—which is what the city intended to sell. In the exchange, the developer gets profitable property far above the assessed value of the easement.
The development proposal calls for a 10-unit apartment complex in two buildings north of the right-of-way. The property is constricted by hills and woods, and the developer sought additional design flexibility through access to the right-of-way. Property owners to the south did not object to surrendering their portion of the right-of-way. The developer sought more land in the form of a street vacation for the full width of this platted (but unbuilt) portion of Douglas Avenue.
“After reviewing the right-of-way vacation petition, the city’s technical review committee determined that the subject right-of-way is not needed for future circulation and other beneficial uses” and could be considered surplus, the city’s Hearing Examiner noted in her review of the petition in July.
Yet clearly the original technical review missed some important details. City Council perceived that and this week called for additional review.
You can actually see the trail on the city’s own aerial map exhibit of the proposed street vacation. Neighbors say they were not notified the petition was under review, nor was the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association, whose volunteers had just spent the summer improving a similar modest right-of-way just a few blocks from this Douglas Avenue site. The Douglas Avenue trail is specifically called out in the Happy Valley neighborhood plan, but the policy goals and concerns for rights-of-way and open space contained in that plan were not part of the materials reviewed by the Hearing Examiner. These rights-of-way are the connective tissue of the walkable future the City of Bellingham envisions in its comprehensive planning goals. They should not be surrendered lightly, because once granted they cannot be clawed back.
“When there are tradeoffs between enhancing natural areas and building bigger buildings, the voices of neighbors should be heard,” Kirkpatrick observed.
“I don’t believe the record is complete,” Council member Michael Lilliquist commented on the Hearing Examiner report that undergirds Council’s decision on the street vacation. “Based on that, I would like to recommend we remand this back to the Hearing Examiner for reevaluation.”
“Retaining the right-of-way lends value to the community,” Council member Lisa Anderson observed. “My concern is that the people who were utilizing the trail did not receive ample notice of the petition under review. …We may have failed to notify the larger community.
“I am not at all supportive of losing this trail corridor connectivity without some kind of guarantee there is going to be something put back in its place that is acceptable to members of the community who use that area,” Anderson said. Anderson supported rejection of the petition to vacate the right-of-way.
“A key policy was left out of the review,” Lilliquist observed, “and there has apparently been a lot of after-decision discussions, which—if they were part of the original record—would help us determine whether the correct balance has been struck” between competing city goals of housing and density and connectivity and open space.