The proponents of the Metropolitan Park District (MPD) won the election. And many citizens now think the control of Chuckanut Ridge rests with the new park commission. But it does not. Here is a look at the legal reality and possible scenarios as the year unfolds.
Let’s start with the legal reality: The new park district has zero control over what happens to the Chuckanut Ridge Park land. And it cannot take any control because the park is owned by the city. The Bellingham City Council and mayor control the park. The election did nothing to change that. Really.
What will happen is that the new park district will offer to pay the $3.2 million loan on the city’s behalf in exchange for terms. Supposedly, those terms will be that no development will ever take place in the Chuckanut Ridge Park. Unfortunately, the MPD is powerless to make that guarantee because it has no legal control over the park. So, it will try to cut a deal with the city council: the loan payment in exchange for a no-development guarantee.
Let’s assume the council agrees to guarantee no development. In that case, the MPD will need a partner. Because the park district commission plans to dissolve after the tax is in place and the loan and terms are agreed upon, it will need a partner that will continue to exist and can enforce the terms with the city in the long run. Otherwise, there will be no watchdog in place to ensure the city doesn’t violate the terms sometime in the future.
A likely partner is the Whatcom Land Trust. In that case, the city would grant an easement to the land trust that prevents the development of homes. However, there is the good chance the easement will also include locking up much of Chuckanut Ridge as a nature preserve and bar the public from access. Signs saying, "Stay on trail" - and whole areas with no trails. The proponents may have a different definition of a park than most of us. The Whatcom Land Trust is very used to managing easements that bar the public from some areas. We, the public, may have fewer acres of park we can actually enjoy than if the park district had failed. A partnership with the land trust was not what voters agreed to.
Another possible scenario is that the council says "no" to any terms. They could decide the MPD is welcome to pay off the $3.2 million loan by taxing the south side, but not agree to any terms in exchange. In that case, what could the MPD do? Would the public back the commission and pressure the city council to agree to the terms? Maybe not. After all, we are a city and Chuckanut Ridge is of value to the whole city - not just to the south side. The MPD only represents a minor fraction of Bellingham voters.
The council and mayor must act in the best interests of all of Bellingham. Chuckanut Ridge is a city wide asset - not just a south side play thing. The entire MPD initiative had several screwy issues and the voters were not told the truth, even in the official voter's guide. They were led to believe they were saying yes to a tax in exchange for all of Chuckanut Ridge becoming a park. Not true. It is now for our city council and mayor to deal with it. And they are not bound by a minor fraction of the city trying to dictate to the entire city how to run our parks system.
Bellingham has a fine park system. Let’s keep it that way, unified under the city parks department. Because once we start allowing little fiefdoms, we will pit neighborhood against neighborhood for park land and money. We, as a city and a community, can still influence our city council and mayor to look at all options before accepting this loan payoff. This issue is still unfolding. The law and the best interests of all Bellingham should prevail.