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Barbara Ryan, Terry Bornemann and Gene Knutson, all members of the Bellingham City Council, have submitted this guest article.
Until now, we have chosen to let our record speak for itself on the Greenways III issue, which has been painful, divisive, and caused us many nights of lost sleep.
Recent accusations about our actions now require us to respond. We will not accuse others of lying, as we have been accused. Rather we will chronicle the history of this troubled plan as we see it and as we lived it.
For those citizens new to Bellingham, you may know that the 85 acres called Chuckanut Ridge, or Fairhaven Highlands, has been the object of discussion since the first Greenway levy passed in 1990. In fact, it was this property that spurred southside citizens to organize the first Greenways Levy, hoping that the Levy would provide funds to protect the property as wildlife habitat and trail corridor. Unfortunately, the previous owner and the City were unable to agree on a price, and the property was eventually sold to its current owners, Horizon Bank and Greenbriar Associates.
The property continued to be important to many in our community. Its wetlands are the headwaters of two salmon-bearing streams - Padden Creek and Chuckanut Creek. Its 50 to 80-year old trees, forest floor, and wetlands are home to many varieties of birds and mammals. It is contiguous to a several hundred yards of the Interurban Trail, offering a near-wilderness experience for hikers of all ages and abilities.
The problem is that the property is inside city limits, zoned for high density development (739 units on 85 acres, minus significant wetlands). That has made the price higher than the Greenways Committee has been willing to pay.
After the Greenways II levy expired, Mayor Mark Asmundson appointed a third Greenways Committee to begin organizing a third levy campaign. He asked John Blethen to head this effort. John asked several others to join him including Del Lowry and Jack Weiss, currently a member of City Council.
This group was opposed to acquiring Chuckanut Ridge because of the price and because the city had acquired other Greenways properties in the area, including property around Hoag’s Pond. The need for parks and open space was clearly in the north end of town.
But the desire to acquire Chuckanut Ridge was still strong among some citizens, who formed their own group. This group agreed that the highest need for parks and open space is on the north end of town. But it also felt that Chuckanut Ridge should be acquired as open space, environmental laboratory, trail corridor, tree canopy and animal habitat.
Months of meetings ensued. Both groups met separately and together many times to try to reach consensus. Heated debate, often beyond any reasonable rules of engagement, hardened feelings. Many members of the Council were involved in these debates, trying to find consensus. The three of us, and Joan Beardsley, after months of listening, decided on our positions, which we made known in public. Only the details remained to be worked through.
It’s all on tape.
About the time that this item hit our Council agenda, Bellingham began video taping both afternoon work sessions and evening meetings. In fact, the full discussion of the March 10, 2006 meetings in which we discussed the Greenways III proposal can be seen on-line. (Call the Council office, 778-8200, for information about how to access the video of these meetings).
After several hours of discussion and straw votes, most of which were split 4-3 with Terry Bornemann, Barbara Ryan, Gene Knutson, and Joan Beardsley favoring allocating $8 million to Chuckanut Ridge and $12 million to north side acquisitions (this was not the only acquisition money in the levy proposal), and Louise Bjornson, John Watts, and Bob Ryan opposed to any acquisition proposal for Chuckanut Ridge, we were at an impasse. Mayor Mark Asmundson and Council President Gene Knutson begged for a solution to which most of us could agree. It makes little sense to send a proposal to the public for a vote on which the Council is split.
Finally, Joan Beardsley suggested that “In addition to $6 million to acquire Chuckanut Ridge, we set aside an additional $2 million to be used to acquire the property, if necessary.”
During this discussion, Terry and I asked Mayor Asmundson to clarify our proposal. We wanted the public to know what was being discussed so that they could vote based on whether they agreed with the proposal. He clearly said that “What you are proposing is to spend $6 million, plus $2 million if necessary, which is a total of $8 million to purchase Chuckanut Ridge and, at the end of the day, that is how the staff will interpret this vote.” We believed that the Mayor, staff, and citizens understood that this was the Council intent.
John Watts had nothing to do with this compromise. But he went along with it, as did the entire Council (7-0), because he knew that no mention of the specific property, or our specific recommendation for an amount to be spent to acquire all or part of the property, would be included in ballot language. He voted for the proposal, knowing that he could then accuse the majority of not having made any decision at all because no mention of $8 million for Chuckanut Ridge would be specifically in the ordinance.
Just who were we fooling?
Past Greenways practice says that no specified dollar amount will be set aside for any specific property. If developers understand the city’s financial limits, the city’s bargaining position will be severely compromised.
After all this discussion, it was probably more clear to the developer than to anyone what the council had decided. But the final language of the ordinance, and an accompanying outline of potential Greenways III expenditures, never made this explicit.
The omission of this language in the ordinance was probably a huge mistake. We weren’t fooling the developer. But we did not make Council intent clear to the public nor to the people who were supporting the levy. We believed that the omission was standard procedure, to protect the City. Instead, it turned out to be the pivot point on which the anti-Chuckanut Ridge folks hung their “you don’t have it in writing, and thus you have nothing” hats. We have been accused of lying. We have been charged with everything from collusion to fraud.
Joan Beardsley, who died in office in 2007, isn’t here to defend herself. But the written record testifies to the fact that she attended a Greenways meeting and suggested that the Greenways Committee not bring requests for funds for southside acquisition because the four Council had already made their positions clear to spend $6 million, plus to $2 million if necessary, on the Chuckanut Ridge property. She was bullied into recanting her statement. She knew that four Council members, including herself, had, independently, concluded that they would support this proposal.
Charges of collusion are neither fair nor true. After months meeting with both Greenways groups, most of us came to conclusions based on what we heard. We made these determinations independently, as did those who opposed acquiring Chuckanut Ridge.
What concerns us most is the question that Chuckanut Ridge opponents have sown about their government and this process. The secretive property acquisition process itself is rife for these accusations. These are among the very few discussions that can be held in Executive Session, without public scrutiny. In order to continue to set aside land for parks and open spaces, some confidentiality must be maintained.
But what this process shows is that same need for confidentiality has created rifts and fissures and a lack of trust for the process, and ultimately, for our ability to govern ourselves.
Where we are now.
On January 12, the Greenways and Parks Boards decided that no more than $4 million of the $44 million levy should be spent on the Fairhaven Highlands property, known as Chuckanut Ridge. They made their recommendation public, for the first time, in the Council packet published Thursday, January 8.
Council decided, 6-1 (Stan Snapp opposed), to postpone any decision on this property, and to not bring forward any potential Greenways purchases for southside properties until after the Environmental Impact Statement now being prepared by the developer has been submitted and studied. This will give all of us a better indication of the value of the Chuckanut Ridge property.
It is our hope that we can acquire some or all of the Chuckanut Ridge property using Greenways funds. That will depend, of course, on who sits on Council when that final vote is taken. We hope citizens make their preferences known.