Daniel Kirkpatrick guest writes. He lives in the Happy Valley neighborhood and is one of several community leaders on the south side who are respected and supported by most residents.
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One gray October day, a few people gathered for a service project on a blackberry covered hillside. As the group organized their loppers, wheelbarrows, and shovels, a few more people showed up, then quite a few more. By the time the day was fully underway, over thirty people had arrived to contribute to a neighborhood goal: Building a trail through ten-foot tall brambles along the Douglas Street right of way linking 20th and 21st Streets.
That Saturday in October 1994 was dubbed “Make a Difference Day,” a day for citizens to step up and invest effort into the greater good. It was the second year of Make a Difference Day and a year after the publication of “The Spirit of Community,” a book advocating for a renewal of a sense of civic responsibility. If the number of volunteers in this trail project in Bellingham’s Happy Valley neighborhood was any indication, there was certainly movement toward increased community engagement.
During the day, the group that started at the bottom of the hill worked upward to reach a similar group working downhill. 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 “TRAIL” with an arrow were posted at both ends.
Having been one of the organizers of this event, I can attest that the volunteers that day were in positive, upbeat spirits. Most were familiar with other pleasant trails on street rights-of way in our town. If you’ve ever walked Pine Street to reach WWU, ascended the Taylor Street Stairs, or made your way from Elizabeth Park to Maritime Heritage Park, you know how much a trail adds to the quality of a neighborhood. This was Happy Valley’s chance to create a similar amenity, and that is what we did.
That same group of volunteers would be alarmed if they knew that now, 26 years later, the City of Bellingham is prepared to sell off this segment of the Douglas Street right of way, which would destroy the trail and the now-25-foot-tall conifers.
Exactly why the City is contemplating this action is unclear. Given that pedestrian access is an explicitly endorsed use for street rights-of-way, it seems curious that this trail would be in jeopardy. Knowing that natural areas and open space are specifically-named goals of the Happy Valley Neighborhood Plan, one wonders why those trees are being threatened. Since volunteerism is a widely known and celebrated quality of our town, it is hard to say why a citizen-built trail is at risk of being bulldozed so that a developer can build a larger building on his adjacent property.
Perhaps we can find the answer to these mysteries. But if there is to be any chance of saving this trail and the trees alongside it, the process of vacating this right-of-way for the benefit of a developer needs to be halted.