The 100 Acre Wood Shakedown

By
• Topics: Bellingham, Chuckanut Ridge,

Update: On Wed eve, Nov 11, the forest district commission voted to keep the 2021 levy the same at 28 cents. A follow up article will posted in a few days.​

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When less turns out to actually be more: The conjured rational hiding the real reason for a tax increase.

Since 2014, most south side Bellingham home owners have been paying an average of an extra $100 in property taxes each year to pay the $3,000,000 cost of buying the Chuckanut Community Forest Park, colloquially known as The 100 Acre Wood. Following a 2013 levy vote, selected neighborhoods imposed this tax on themselves when Bellingham City Hall said it could not afford the entire cost of the park. As part of this, a new government agency, the Chuckanut Community Forest Park District, was formed. It’s job - and promise - was to manage payment of the debt and then vote itself out of existence. It was estimated to take 10 years.

Due to additional taxes from increased construction in Fairhaven, we now have the ability to pay off the entire debt next year, 2021, a good three years early. The levy would end and management of Chuckanut Forest Park would be moved to the Bellingham Parks Department.

But, as Max Weber taught us a hundred years ago, bureaucracies tend to see their primary mission as the continuation of themselves. And so the commissioners of the Chuckanut Park District are planning a vote to decrease the tax rate for 2021. Why? From emails and a look at their September and draft October minutes, their rational has emerged. They are doing this in order to allow the park district to continue to exist a few more years. The truth appears to be that after seven years, these commissioners have not completed their trail plan nor their Master Plan. If they cease to exist, the planning would fall to the Bellingham Parks Department, and they do not trust Bellingham Parks to do it and they fear the city will be too slow in finishing the Master Plan - a plan the forest district has not completed in seven years. Now they want to extend their government agency a few more years so they can finish the Master Plan. Max Weber had it right.

Red outline of Chuckanut Forest in south Bellingham
Red outline of Chuckanut Forest in south Bellingham. Click to enlarge.

So, they conjured the rational that commissioners want to lower the levy to bring relief to taxpayers in this hard time of pandemic. But the truth is that south side property owners will end up paying an unknown increase in taxes before the debt is paid - maybe $40,000 more, or perhaps as much as $100,000 more. The park district incurs monthly bills for legal counsel, secretarial services and other fees that will continue in future years. And don’t forget the interest on the debt that will extend for an extra two or three years. Adding insult to injury, one commissioner will come up for reelection next November and the forest park district must pay the county auditor about $8,000 for each commissioner election.

On Saturday morning, Nov 7, the forest district sent out a notice of a public hearing - via Zoom - for this Wednesday, Nov 11. It said documents were available on its website. I looked, and there were no documents. I wrote them asking. Later on Saturday, two spread sheets were posted but with no explanation. As of Monday evening, another document had been posted, and on Tuesday more information was posted explaining their thinking - rather late and after my making several inquiries. Basically, this change to our taxes was being done under the radar and without the knowledge of thousands of south side home owners who will be paying the additional taxes.

The five park district commissioners are unpaid volunteers and are committed to the good of our community. And in speaking to some, not all will vote for this tax change that is really a tax increase. But they have a project, and they have power, and they do not want to let go of it, even if it costs the rest of us tens of thousands of dollars for no additional benefit. With an extension of a couple years at our expense, they are considering constructing a building for meetings and amenities and possibly a parking lot. This is not the way to relieve taxpayers.

Northwest Citizen has covered this issue in 61 articles since 1996 when we broke the news that a major residential development was planned for this sensitive natural area. For 24 years this website has provided a venue for those writing for and against the creation of this forest park. And for those who were for and against the special levy - which many people felt should be paid by the whole of Bellingham.

Voter Pamphlet Feb 2013 - promise made to voters.
Voter Pamphlet Feb 2013 - promise made to voters. Click to enlarge.

Now is the time to quickly pay off the debt and finally turn the management of this forest over to the city of Bellingham. This was our goal 20-some years ago. It is senseless to stop just before the finish-line, especially when it is not necessary. Who knows what economic changes may come in 2022 that could damage the tax base. We have learned that the unimaginable can happen, and in quick order.

On the park district website is Whatcom Treasurer Steve Oliver’s analysis of each year’s tax revenue, cash flows, and loan balances. It clearly shows that next year, 2021, the bond debt can be paid off, and leave a $200,000 balance. This $200k could be contributed to the Parks Department for use in trail construction in the forest. And the five commissioners could arrange to work with the parks department in the continued planning of the trails and completing the Master Plan - the plan they have not done in seven years.

The park district commissioners should fulfill their original 2013 promise to the voters and south side property owners by paying off the bond debt and dissolving the park district commission. We can then celebrate a 24 year community effort to bring the 100 Acre Wood into protection as a forest under our city parks department. And we can leave any buildings and other amenities to the future.

Attached Files

About John Servais

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

John started Northwest Citizen in 1995 to inform fellow citizens of serious local political issues that the Bellingham Herald was ignoring. With the help of donors from the beginning, he has [...]

Comments by Readers

Tip Johnson

Nov 11, 2020

I agree with author’s logic. Lowering the levy rate and extending the district’s life will cost taxpayers more. But if commissioners don’t trust the city, it is for good reason. 

it was the city that illegally zoned the property for density it could not support. This wagging tail of the Chuckanut formation is all steep slopes and wetlands - which is why it remained undeveloped for so long. Then, through decades of citizen opposition to development, the city refused to re-examine and revise the illegal and inappropriate zoning, creating a phantom value that made acquisition difficult.  Finally, at the eleventh hour, the city advised they could not afford the only property available to expand Fairhaven Park to meet the city’s own standards, and created the novel park district approach to saddle a proximate benefit area with the cost. 

There’s a very rich lesson about zoning here, but now it is preserved and parks should take the lead. Citizens will still have every opportunity to participate in planning for trails and amenities. 

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John Servais

Nov 11, 2020

Tip, good of you to note the bad track record of the city on this.  Hopefully with Greenways stalwart Seth Fleetwood as our mayor, the Parks Department will be more sensitive to citizen concerns as the future of the Chuckanut Forest is managed.  The city parks department has the expertise that the forest district commissioners lack for completing the Master Plan.  And we Bellingham residents can then work to insist that we have a voice in the process and preserve the sensitive natural environment of this forest park.  But first we need three commissioners of the five to vote against this tax change at tonight’s meeting. 

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Michael Chiavario

Nov 11, 2020

The article leaves out the key to the point of continuing the Park District a little longer: having a legal government body whose mandate(in addition to paying off the loan) is to steward the environmental preservation of the Woods. 

This is the underlying motivation of the Commissioners to extend their mandate while lowering the tax rate. the additional cost will be so amall per household as to not be noticed, and still less than was expected when the levy wass originally passed in 2013.

As Tip pointed out, the City can not necessarily be trusted to handle zoning and such appropriatly and, in the case of the Master Plan, in the best interest of environmental integrity of the Woods. I know all of the folks in the positions at COB who will be overseeing the Woods Plan and I don’t distrust or dsirespect them. However, oversight by an agency whose sole mandates are to 1) pay off the loan and 2) protect the environmental integrity of the Woods, is a good thing.

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John Servais

Nov 11, 2020

Michael, the mandate was only to pay off the debt, not to steward the the woods.  Indeed, the promise to voters - see graphic of “Statement For:” - specifically says it wil pay the debt and turn the forest over to the city of Bellingham for management.  

The opponents of the levy in 2013 pointed out the commission could extend its life beyond paying the debt and might do other projects because state law allowed a park district, once formed, to do most anything it wanted.  The proponents of the levy promised to not do any more than pay the debt and said the opponents were just using scare tactics. 

Now we have the commission preparing to do exactly what the opponents said might happen and the proponents said would never happen.  See full page of the 2013 voter pamphlet for all pro and con statements and rebuttals, or click link at bottom of article for larger size pdf.

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Tip Johnson

Nov 11, 2020

Michael, I understand the sentiment, though feel the property is now safely preserved.  Your argument probably should have been the Commissioner’s lead instead of ‘pandemic tax relief’, which will also “be so small per household as to not be noticed”.  I think that is the real issue here.

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Michael Chiavario

Nov 11, 2020

The CCFPD Mission Statement:Our Mission: The mission of the Chuckanut Community Forest Park District is to ensure the entirety of the property is protected in public ownership in perpetuity, with respect for its ecological, recreational, and educational functions and to serve as a fiscal mechanism through which the District, via a tax levy, will repay the City of Bellingham for the Greenways Endowment Fund loan.

The CCFPD “will be dissolved within one (1) year from the date the City of Bellingham (“City”) files a petition for the Park District’s dissolution. By Interlocal Agreement, the City may not file a petition for the Park District’s dissolution until two things happen: (1) the loan made from the City’s Greenways Endowment fund is paid off; and (2) the Chuckanut Community Forest Park Master Plan is adopted by the City. The loan appears likely to be repaid by the end of 2021 or 2022. The Park Master Plan is currently expected to be initiated by the City in 2021 and completed in 2022. Assuming the City promptly files a petition for dissolution at its earliest opportunity, the Park District may be dissolved in 2023. Before the Park District dissolves, it intends to transfer the conservation easement, in perpetuity, to a qualified organization.”

John, both of these purposes for the existence OF CCFPD are consistent with the arguments in the voters guide. The Woods cannot be said to be protected in perpetuity until the Master Plan is done and the conservation easement is passed on to another organization. The Conservation easement  was done in full public view with much opportunity for participation. To imply that there is some other nefarious prupose for the proposed changes to the levy is just incorrect. To undermine the hard work of the commissioners(all volunteers) to perpetually protect this public asset with these spurious arguments about a hidden tax hike is much ado about nothing. 

As far as costs for lawyers goes, the largest cost for legal work has been to respond to a failed suit by some south hill residents that was designed to kill the CCFPD before it’s primary mission of paying off the loan for the woods was complete. Every public organization needs legal representation. The original expectation of 10 years of property taxes to citizens to pay off the land will likely still be met, albeit with less actual tax being paid as a percentage per household than would have been if this assessment change is allowed to go through.

I do not understand what your purpose could be, John, in stirring up unfounded concerns about the fine work of the Commissioners that has only served to protect the land through a vehicle that was established in a democratic process. It is frustrating and baffling to me that you would use your jouranlistic skills and this forum in the way that you have with this article.

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Vince Biciunas

Nov 11, 2020

Thanks Michael, for making the exact points I was hoping to make here in response to John’s partial assessment of the situation:

The Interlocal Agreement and Conservation Easement, contracts between The City and the CCFPD, specifically state (as Michael quoted above) that the District dissolves when the monies are collected, AND, the Master Plan is completed.

Johns’ comments misrepresent the issue of the Master Plan. That is a process and document presided over by the City and Parks Department specifically, and despite our requests in years past, is only budgeted to begin in 2021! So it is not up to the CCFPD Commissioners to start or finish any such Master Plan. That is a City-led citizen participation exercise. I do hope it starts in the coming year as budgeted, despite our pandemic situation! Meanwhile, the Commissioners have made some efforts to engage the community to start thinking about trail layouts and issues around dogs and bicycles and other uses in the forest, but rightfully, notthing yet is official nor decided. When the time comes, I expect the Commissioners will have only as much input as every other interested party.

Also, to set the record straight, again, as Michael noted above in the CCFPD Mission Statement, the purpose of the Park District was not only to collect the levy funds, but also to preserve and protect the forest. It is on that basis, you might recall, that the legal challenge by the Ferlins and others back in 2016 failed in the WA Supreme Court. The CCFPD Commissioners intend to protect the unique nature of the forest, I am sure, and as we understand most of our neighbors desire.

In full disclosure, I was an elected Commissioner since the beginning in 2013 and served my full six year term. I am no longer an elected official, and I feel that gives me a bit more freedom to speak out. I do not have a position on how the vote on the levy amount should go at tonight’s meeting. I am not sufficiently informed about all of the financial particulars this year.

Vincute (Vince) Biciunas

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John Servais

Nov 11, 2020

Michael and Vince,

Simply put, the commission can legally continue to exist after the deb is paid, and thus can do trail planning and the Master Plan.  That is a separate issue and has little do do with extending the tax for more years. 

The tax should stay at 28 cents per thousand as it has been for years and the debt can be fully paid next year, 2021.  The promise to voters was the debt would be paid.  Purposely reducing the levy and extending it years is a violation of that promise.  All other issues can be resolved during 2021 - and the commission can even legally extend beyond 2021 without the levy.  

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John Servais

Nov 11, 2020

8:30 pm  - The forest district commissioners voted at their meeting this evening to keep the levy rate the same for 2021 - at 28 cents per thousand of valuation on property. Good.  I will write an article about this decision, what it means and does not mean, and what are the future issues this commission will be dealing with. 

The good news is the commission can now easily pay off the bond levy in 2021.  The bad news is they also voted to aprove a 2021 budget whereby they will pay $652,000 of the bond debt, leaving a balance of $9,000 for 2022 - while leaving themselves a balance of $232,000 for use on ?? in 2022.  Yes, if you are confused, they can and should pay the extra $9,000 at the end of 2021.  More in the article. 

 

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Wendy Harris

Nov 12, 2020

Here are a few things you left out. The park commissioners are some of the finest people I have met since I moved here. I do not question their scruples, but I sure do question those of the city and its Parks Department. What has been a bigger scam on city residents than the Greenways Fund? We were promised things like habitat and restoration and received none… Only cougars in people’s yards because they are hungry and have nowhere to go since we colonized their land. Perhaps they are not eager to have the 100-acre wood turn into another waterfront because there have been a few times the city wanted to do something really stupid and harmful, like put in bike trails.  How about the fact that this land was highlighted for years as the highest priority for conservation because it served as linkage to land and water of regional significance. You can find it mentioned in the very first city wildlife and habitat study, which they turned around and ignored. That work, by Ann Eissinger remains the seminal work on city native animals and plants. The city ignored that information because developers were willing to pay money. If the commissioners want to stick around longer, it might be because they need to keep the city from doing something stupid, but frankly, I would take them at their word. 

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Bill Geyer

Nov 12, 2020

I agree the District priority is the voters’ mandate to pay off the loan.  The official February 2013 Ballot Measure published by the Auditor included the proponent’s statement, by Chuckanut Community Forest District Steering Committee: 

STATEMENT FOR:

The singular purpose of this Park District is to repay the loan that enabled the City’s purchase of the Chuckanut Community Forest (aka Chuckanut Ridge), thereby assuring its preservation as a park, forever.”

Proposition 1 passed based on this promise.  Members of the Committee went on to become elected District Commissioners.  Covenants made to voters must be honored.  We are fortunate that the District is financially healthy due to property owners paying the District property tax.  The District Treasurer, Whatcom County Treasurer Steve Oliver, reported to the District Commissioners the total estimated revenues for 2021 are beginning cash $203,947 + tax collections $720,803 = $924,750 revenue.  Treasurer Oliver reported 2021 beginning loan balance is $650,827 + $11,454 = $662,281.  Add in the 2021 ending balance of $9,806 and the total amount to retire the loan in full is $672,087 final loan amount.  It is undeniable the District, and its citizens, has the cash to pay off the loan in total in 2021.

The District last night adopted a budget of $690,479 including $625,500 for the loan payment, not enough to pay the loan in full.  A budget amendment should be adopted to increase this line item by $46,600 to $672,100 to fully pay off the loan in 2021.  If adopted, this would leave the District with $18,379 for other 2021 expenses.  The District approved $64,979 for other expenses which is easily covered by existing cash. 

In summary, 2021 total revenues of $924,750 less final loan payment $627,087 leaves $252,663 cash for operating expenses.  To honor the 2013 election promise to the voters, this path should be implemented immediately. 

Re preserving the site in perpetuity, the current recorded covenant could be conveyed by the District to “The Public”.  Instead of being held by just a single purpose District of 5 Commissioners, the covenant would be controlled by all citizens.  What better way to give standing to the true owners?  Equally important this would convey to the rest of Bellingham that the south neighborhoods agree to return as participants in citywide parks planning and maintenance instead of isolating this valuable asset to the control of the few.  

Re completing the “Master Plan” and the City 2023 schedule, this is easily solved.  The District appropriates the funds now to complete the Plan with a transparent public process, hires the necessary consultant (if needed), dockets the plan by April 1, and completes the City review/approval by December 1.  In short, the District Commissioners can take steps to move this forward without waiting on a City schedule focused on more important issues.   

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Jon Humphrey

Nov 12, 2020

They City always gives rsidents the same excuse when it comes to paying for anything that’s truly good for the environment or our citizens. For the city to collect such high taxes and turn around and say they couldn’t afford the $3 million for this location is a lie. Yet they do the same thing over and over again. For example, they are doing the same thing with the WMBC and their proposed parking lot. Now, while I am against mowing down 2 acres of old growth forest for a parking lot when a greenway can just be conected to the existing parking at Lake Padden, the city has also given the WMBC the same run around. They always say they can’t afford to do the right thing, then tell organizations to raise the money themselves (which is like an additional tax), and they eventually raises taxes on residents anyway. No one really knows what they do with all of the tax money they take in. We do know that they grossly overquote any work that they do by at least 3 times over the cost of other towns, do it without a Dig Once Policy (aka in the least efficient most environomentally damaging way possible), and take forever to complete it, usually with horrible compromises that make little sense. For exmaple, Mount Vernon installs underground conduit with 144-count fiber in it for anywhere from $120K to $180K a mile. Eric Johnston quoted over $600 K for the same work. This is well above the national average as well. Of course, if you’re the Trillium corporation, they will find millions to give to you in a lease, not purchase but lease, for your land and allow you to continue logging on it. In short, the COB has no intention of preserving the environment unless they can line the pockets of some corporation that has harmed it for decades along the way. Need I bring up the Waterfront again? Does the COB ever do anything other than come up with excuses not to use our tax money for the citizens that pay taxes?  

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Thomas R. Scott

Nov 13, 2020

I find it key that the original voter mandate may be indicated per the proponent/opponent arguments.

The vision of the Commissioners came later.

I would think the voters’ mandate takes precedence to and provides the structure within which the Commission is mandated to perform.

The only way the mandate could have been modified since the levy is through challenged Commissioner campaigns where the winning campaign included changing the original mandate while opposed by a “status qo candidate” and then calculated as the inverse of incumbancy.  That is a successful challenger might be accorded more weight to their campaign planks. Conversely, a challenged yet successful incumbent’s mandate should be accorded less of a mandate given the inherent advantages of incumbancy.

My point is that I would think the original mandate likely stands mostly or wholely unchanged.

Aside from that, as John aludes, ample opportunity to form plans has been available to the Commission.  A reasonable time frame is two years or less but three or four would not be too much of a stretch.  More than four years is a stretch.  Time to pass the torch on that.  Even if it became a mandate at some point after 2013, 7-8 years without completion is not a winning argument to be allowed to keep at it.  Frankly, it is an argument to end it and move along.

One additional argument for ending the Commission is that the park is a resource enjoyed by a wider community than just the currently taxed areas.  Ending the Commission would also pass the burden to the wider community who have access to this resource.

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