The thousand acre dilemma: Part 1.5 – Now is the time to solve it!

In “The thousand acre dilemma: Part 1” we introduced the $69 million quandary Bellingham officials are currently wrestling with: How does the city provide parks for the 13,000 or so residents currently living in the UGA no-man’s land who have never been asked to fund a park system of their own?

No impact fees, Greenway levies, or real estate excise taxes have ever been collected and set aside to fund this $69 million expense – an estimate that ignores the impact of inflation on the rising costs of acquiring land and facilities. So many questions remain unanswered that heads are literally spinning at the city’s planning commission meetings where the 2008 Park Plan update is now being debated.

Although this issue was specifically raised in April 2007 - when the city adopted its present Park level of service to comply with an order from the Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) – it was entirely ignored. To her credit, City Councilwoman Barbara Ryan made a passionate plea to address the massive budget shortfall; but Council members simply followed the advice of the city’s assistant attorney: While the Park Plan budget is something Council needs to look at, “this is not the time to do that.”

Now, more than a year later, city staff and planning commission members are struggling with a no-win situation:

A) Do we recognize that UGA residents have already been sharing the city’s current park system with city residents and lower our level of service (LOS) based on a calculation that includes the UGA population?

Or

B) Do we deplete funds set aside by city residents in a futile attempt to provide an equivalent system for UGA residents who have never contributed to this fund (AND still maintain the same level of service for new residents)?

The consequences of not facing the dilemma head-on are clear and are currently playing themselves out in the Guide Meridian / Cordata neighborhood where the deficiency of parkland and facilities has been a thorny issue for years.

At present, staff has proposed option A and has lowered the city’s Park LOS from 47.5 to 35.8 acres per 1,000 residents. As a result, the city will acquire 1,100 less acres of parkland and open space over the next 14 years.

But wait… there’s more. Even though staff has properly recognized that funds are simply not available to acquire these 1,100 acres, the 2008 Park Plan update still anticipates spending a substantial amount of city funds to acquire land for the benefit of existing UGA residents.

And so, the dilemma continues:

1. How should the city expand its park system to accommodate these 13,000 UGA residents who are expected to be annexed and

new residents who will move into the city and the UGA?

2. How should this expansion be funded?

3. Is it fair to the 75,000 city taxpayers who have voted three times to tax themselves to improve their own park system to use these funds to provide parks for the 13,000 existing UGA residents who have never contributed to such a fund?

4. Should existing residents in the UGA consider adopting their own Greenway levy?

5. Should the city work with the county to establish an impact fee in the UGA?

6. Should the city increase its park impact fee so that developers pay their fair share of the cost to provide parks for new residents?

Or, should we simply heed the counsel of the city’s assistant attorney and decide “this is not the time to do that?”

About Larry Horowitz

Commenting member • Member since Jan 16, 2008

Comments by Readers

g.h. kirsch

Aug 02, 2008

I, for one, am waiting for the last .5.  When the city acknowledges the discrepancy between their earlier LOS for parks, the Captital Facilities Plan and the budget, who is going back to the GMHB to repquest internal consistency?

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Larry Horowitz

Aug 02, 2008

I guess we’ll find out if and when the city amends it Comp Plan by adopting a new Park Plan and opens a 60-day window of opportunity for appeal.

I say “if” because the Bellingham Planning Commission (BPC) asked Senior Planner Greg Aucutt, Parks & Rec Director Paul Leuthold, and Parks & Rec Manager Leslie Bryson whether the city actually needs to follow through with updating its Park Plan now that a draft version of the Plan has already been sent to the state agency or agencies to meet the city’s eligibility for grants and other funds.

A clear answer to that question was not available at the last BPC meeting on July 31.  It appears that it may never be a good time to address the thousand acre dilemma.

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Larry Horowitz

Aug 03, 2008

Former City Councilman John Watts posted an entry on his ?hamstertalk? blog today entitled ?Dilemma or Fallacy?? regarding my two articles on the thousand acre dilemma.  Since John doesn?t allow replies on his blog, I?ll reply here to four of his specific comments:

1)  John writes, ?The author of these articles suggests this ‘dilemma’ resulted from lack of proper & timely attention to detail by both elected officials and responsible City staff. While there is an undeniable element of truth in that charge, it was -and is- easily correctable, as is happening now. Like the author, my ‘druthers’ are to have everything crystal clear, up-to-date and comprehensive??

While I appreciate that John agrees that elected officials and staff exhibited a ?lack of proper & timely attention to detail,? he fails to mention that this lack of attention led to an ERRONEOUS recommendation to expand the city?s UGA by a whopping 2000 acres.  What I find incredulous however is his comment that his ?druthers? are to have everything crystal clear, blah, blah, blah.  In fact, I was working closely with the late City Councilwoman Joan Beardsley throughout the first half of 2006 to identify and correct these errors.  Instead of John encouraging Joan to continue with her research and questioning, he sent her a scathing email on April 25, 2006 (see third ?Related Link? above), which included the following disparaging remarks (among others):

?It is very damaging to your ? and the Council?s ? credibility to make such unfounded claims in public, particularly now at this critical time before the Greenways election and final passage of the Comp Plan.  The PRO Plan has been around since 2002 for reference and comment, where have you been!  Perhaps this also explains the difficulty you experienced in understanding how the Parks Dept, Greenways Advisory Committee and Parks & Recreations Board have functioned so effectively for so long.  There are systems that do work and staff who can be trusted!  To politicize things like this for selfish purposes and so arrogantly dismiss the hard work of many good people is not good public policy, and also makes no sense. 

“How could you have made either of these important decisions without knowing these facts?  To say that you were not aware at this late date is mystifying and very troubling to say the least!  Perhaps you merely forgot?  If so, please be more careful of thoughtlessly making ill-considered statements like this in the future, for your own good if for no other reason.  You seem to have an aversion to admitting mistakes, even when they are so obvious.  Perhaps that is the price for having some sort of private agenda, and a lot of attitude and distrust of staff and your peers??

It goes without saying that Joan Beardsley never attempted to uncover these errors again and explains why elected officials and staff failed to pay property and timely attention to the facts.

2) John writes, ?More troubling is that this author also seems to imply that other, more sinister, motives may have been at work in creating the ‘dilemma’, like intentionally overstating the City’s need for additional Urban Growth Area, and by setting artificially high Parks levels of service that are unaffordable and therefore unsustainable.?

At the April 2, 2007 City Council public hearing, Barbara Ryan testified, ?I believe that we have artificially inflated our Parks Level of Service, which drove our decision to recommend adding unneeded land to our Urban Growth Area. The result is sprawl, the precise phenomenon our Growth Management Act was designed to prevent.?

Enough said.

3) John writes, ?While I also question the author’s motivation(s) for taking the trouble to construct such a flawed writing, those concerns are for others to conclude for themselves.?

Unfortunately, John conveniently fails to mention any specific flaws in these articles.

4) I am very confident that any discrepancy -real or perceived- will be appropriately addressed and corrected during the current 6-year review & update of the Parks, Recreation & Open Space [PRO] Plan.

I hope so as well; however, one must consider of all the wasted time and resources resulting from the bogus recommendation to expand the UGA, including both the city and county GMHB appeals.

Once again, John seems incapable of accepting any responsibility for the “sticky mess” resulting from the initial fudge (as Greg Kirsch so aptly describes).

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Larry Horowitz

Aug 03, 2008

Note: The copy of John Watts’ email to Joan Beardsley included in the “Related Links” above was received as part of public disclosure request.  Joan Beardsley’s name was deleted after “To:”.  The original date of the email was April 25, 2006; however, the original email was forwarded by John on September 12, 2006 to City Attorney Joan Hoisington as part of my public disclosure request.

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John Watts

Aug 04, 2008

During some past edition of ‘Prairie Home Companion’ Garrison Keillor delivered a line that was memorable; “If you can’t learn to enjoy misery, you’ve got no business living in Minnesota”.
Presumably, he meant Lake Wobegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are well above average, but I can’t be sure of that.

Remembering that line, reminds me of something else for which the ability to enjoy misery should be a requirement.
That would be politics, because that is certainly one profession that frequently attracts active attempts at creating misery, even when none should really exist.

Ah yes, it’s good to be out of that sticky business!
———————

On a more serious note, Mr Horowitz, you need to check your facts better before printing stuff that only reflects your flawed assumptions.
The e-mail you claim I sent to former Council Woman, Joan Beardsley WAS NEVER SENT TO ANYONE but the City Attorney, and that by my own mistake.
No addressees were ever redacted or erased because there were never any there to start with!
Sometimes, I do write down my thoughts in Eudora while they are fresh because I find that later it greatly assists my memory.
Maybe you should try the same?

I request an immediate retraction of the false information you have posted and an apology from you on this egregiously erroneous assumption.
How dare you evoke such a false memory of my wonderful former colleague, with whom I -and the entire community- had nothing but the deepest respect!

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Larry Horowitz

Aug 04, 2008

John,

On April 5, 2007, I sent to you a copy of your April 25, 2006 to Joan and wrote,

?If your email was in fact written to Joan Beardsley, which it appears it was, it might be too late to apologize for chastising Joan for correctly challenging staff?s calculation; but, it?s never too late to admit your own mistake in defending this error.?

Several months later, I followed up my April 2007 email with another asking for your reply.

You have known I had this email for well over a year but you never denied sending it to Joan, and in fact provided this email to Joan Hoisington as if it had been mailed.

If, in fact, you never did send this email to Joan Beardsley, then I for one am glad.  But the fact is that you wrote it, you provided it in response to a public disclosure request, you knew that I had it, and you did not deny you had sent it when asked about it over a year ago.  I offer no apology because you had ample opportunity to correct this misunderstanding.  Your statement that you did not send this email is on this comment blog for everyone to see and believe, if they so choose.

By the way, how can you say that you wrote down your thoughts in this email to assist your memory, and then claim this is a false memory?  It cannot be both your actual memory and a false memory.

More importantly, when I asked you about your email to Joan Beardsley ? twice ? why did you not respond then?

Finally, you may recall that after you criticized my first article I responded by saying, ?I have no desire to enter into a power struggle with you about this issue.?  You just couldn?t leave this alone and had to write an ad hominem attack on me on your blog which provides for no response.  How far do you want this to go?

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Larry Horowitz

Aug 04, 2008

To the readers,

I thought it might be helpful to understand why I have taken the time to respond to John Watts? personal attack on me.

For several months before the Bellingham Comprehensive Plan was adopted in June 2006, I was working closely with Joan Beardsley and several City Council members to address critical errors in the city?s land supply analysis.  At every turn, I was confronted by staff and certain Council members, and my input was rejected out-of-hand.  While the city?s stated policy is to encourage public input, in reality only public input that supports its pre-determined course of action is encouraged.

Joan was quick to understand that these significant errors created fatal flaws in the city?s analysis and could not justify the expansion of the city?s UGA.  We understood that the easiest argument to win was the battle over the comp plan?s internal inconsistencies involving the city?s Park level of service.  Even while Joan was being treated in Little Rock, AR she emailed me and thanked me for my work.  On June 9, 2006 she wrote:

?Thank you, Larry, for having this meeting and keeping me informed.  I want people involved to know that I would like this issue of inconsistency fixed.  I asked for that to happen during council meetings.  We were told the differences would be reconciled and corrected, and so I am dismayed to hear that they haven’t been.  Plus, your issue of having a target LOS that we cannot afford is a real concern, and I am glad you brought it up again.  I am still in Little Rock, AR but will travel home today. I was not able to be at the council meeting where, I assume, the comp plan was adopted and so I didn’t get to see that this inconsistency remains.?

We all know that our failure to understand history enables us to repeat it.  As long as we allow the city to reject public input that conflicts with staff?s pre-determined course of action, we might as well remove ourselves from the process.  I believe that understanding the history behind the UGA expansion debacle will help us avoid similar predicaments.  And that is why I am willing to be the lightning for critics like John Watts

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g.h. kirsch

Aug 04, 2008

If anything good is to come of this unfortunate dust up between my two friends, it is the reminder of our lost friend, and her sincere concern for her community, even as she approached the end of means to help it.

If anything good is to come of this, perhaps the current council, most who knew Joan Beardsley well, will remember her again and find a way to correct these errors that troubled her to the end.

Joan was a model of simplicity, integrity and honesty.  I am willing to allow John Watt’s e-mail chastising her, and know she would not have found it improper, even if he had sent it to her. 

Not that she would have let it slow her down.

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John Watts

Aug 05, 2008

An indiscriminate ‘scorched earth’ policy isn’t likely to win friends and positively influence people in the way desired.
Also, any display of raw anger & defensiveness suggests the feeling that this is more of a zero-sum, win-lose situation, that focuses on personalities, at the expense of truly addressing the underlying issue(s).
Since I much prefer a different approach, it seems clear we are continuing to talk past each other, unproductively.
That sort of exercise -except for its cheap entertainment value- is not likely to be fruitful, and is therefore a waste of time.
So, unless considerable ‘lightening up’ can be accomplished, the potential for honest debate is severely hampered.
Of course, these comments apply to both of us.

‘Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.’ - Aristotle

PS- Thank you for removing the objectionable link.

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Tip Johnson

Aug 05, 2008

Well, I had occasion to talk with Joan about this thousand acre dilemma - and its relation to the Greenways ballot and the Hundred Acre Woods debacle.

Joan’s memory, and reasoning, did not seem to suffer from any eudora syndrome.  She remembered accurately that the mayor and council promised $8 million, and she cringed at the artificial conflict the council and administration had created between supposedly under-served north-enders and supposedly selfish southsiders.

Politics can be a gruesome, distasteful and dirty process.  That’s why folks like Larry Horowitz are so valuable.  Some genious of political comedy once pointed out that the value of political agitators is analogous to that turning part in a washing maching: They get the dirt out!

Indeed, politics can, in theory, be a rational process.  But that requires the participants to use facts and sound reasoning, actually listen to and glean value from differing views - and not clutter the process with histrionic objections, revisionist stories or unsubstantiated accusations.

Good luck, Larry.

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Larry Horowitz

Aug 05, 2008

John,

Thank you for recognizing that our current ?mutually assured destruction? approach is not only mad but unproductive.  That is why I stated earlier that I have no desire to enter into a power struggle with you about this issue.

If you disagree with the points I have made in my two articles, your reasoning for doing so is more than welcome.  On the other hand, comments that challenge my motives, that claim my thinking and writing are flawed without providing supporting evidence, or that suggest this dilemma resides mainly between my ears, are not very productive.

If you are interested in an honest debate, I look forward to hearing from you about your specific objections to the issues I have raised.

Thanks for enhancing the level of this dialogue.

Best,
Larry

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