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?
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?”