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Mayor Is Asked To Preserve Trail

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Update Thur, May 6:  There were administrative mistakes at city hall that prevented the mayor from phoning Daniel back.  Today Seth phoned Daniel.  

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This letter is posted with permission from Daniel Kirkpatrick.  The mayor emailed back to Daniel on the 28th, “I would enjoy talking to you in person.”  Since then, the mayor has not taken Daniel's calls nor called back.  - John Servais

Seth Fleetwood, Mayor, City of Bellingham

28 April 2021

Dear Seth:

On Monday, April 26th, the Bellingham City Council approved a developer’s application to vacate the Douglas Avenue Right of Way (ROW) in order to add additional units to his project. I urge you to veto this street vacation.

In 1993 I worked with many of my neighbors in Happy Valley to build a trail on the Douglas Avenue ROW between 20th and 21st Streets.  This was a “Make a Difference Day” project and was sanctioned by the City Parks Department.  We had watched as numerous street ROWs were vacated in our area, resulting in increased density and reduced open space while enriching developers.  Our goal was to use the ROW for its intended purpose:  To make it easier for people to get around.  A secondary goal was to preserve open space and limit density in one of the densest parts of the City.

In the summer of 2020 a developer approached the City seeking to vacate the very ROW upon which we had built our trail, by now in continuous use for a full generation.  The application should have been denied outright:  City ordinances prohibit the vacation of ROWs that are already in use for public transportation purposes.  The City Hearing Examiner – for reasons I cannot fathom – accepted the developer’s premise that the ROW was not in use, without apparent due diligence.  After all, the City’s own trail map has shown our Douglas Avenue trail since at least 1996 – see the circled area on the attached scan.  Nonetheless the Hearing Examiner approved the vacation request.

Last December, when word got out about the Hearing Examiner’s ill-advised recommendation, the City Council was deluged with input from neighbors decrying this vacation request.  The City Council consequently punted the matter back to the Hearing Examiner.  Upon a second review, the Hearing Examiner made no recommendation on the vacation request, again for reasons I cannot fathom.  It was particularly striking for her to comment that, while some of the City’s requirements on vacating streets were not met, others were – as if the laws on the books were to be applied only as advantageous to a predetermined outcome.

Well, this week the City Council – again to the great dismay of myself and others in Happy Valley – approved the ROW vacation request.  It is alarming to get the sense that the City of Bellingham is disregarding citizens’ concerns, while also treating its own statutes as relative.  

You alone can correct this disturbing situation via a mayoral veto.  I ask that you review this case and take courageous action.  It’s not just Happy Valley residents who are watching.  Anyone who has worked to improve their neighborhood, on their own time and with limited City support, has a stake in seeing the City of Bellingham stand in support of its citizens – especially when a developer wants to maximize profit at the expense of the public good.

On behalf of those of us in Happy Valley and throughout the City, please veto the Douglas Avenue ROW vacation.   Thank you.

Daniel Kirkpatrick, 1132 19th Street, Bellingham WA 98225

Comments by Readers

Tip Johnson

Apr 30, 2021

It will be unfortunate to have to go through this exercise again. When city staff colluded to vacate right-of-ways around Hoag’s Pond to benefit a retiring public works administrator, citizens mounted a referendum to overturn the decision. Mere notice of the referendum caused then Mayor Asmundson to take a closer look. He then vetoed the measure. The council overruled the veto, but when the referendum was easily qualified, voted to rescind rather than suffer the embarrassment of a public campaign.

This case features a disturbingly cozy relationship between Planning staff and a land use consultant and member, until only recently Chair, of the Planning Commission.  It doesn’t meet the City’s own policies for vacation and ignores relevant state statutes. The Hearing Examiners findings include conspicuous errors of fact. 

And it importantly tries to establish a precedent for essentially up zoning property without public review. In this case an undevelopable right-of-way, already opened as a public way, could add up to seven units to an already approved ten units. The trail would become private and subject to the whims of the now and future owners. 

Why are private property rights frequently championed by the city , while public property rights receive little attention or support?  If we are to succeed in creating connected, walkable neighborhoods, we will need to challenge and correct this lopsided oversight. 

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Jamie K. Donaldson

Apr 30, 2021

P.U.!,” short for Latin puteo “that stinks,” and it certainly does.

Since when does a small progressive city go through the plannning and review process to end up taking away a publicly-created and city-sanctioned trail and greenspace that have been enjoyed for decades?  As Bellingham continues to grow and fill in, we should be creating pocket parks, greenspaces, community gardens and pedestrian byways—not removing them, especially in densifying neighborhoods.  I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs of the statues that were invoked by those on both sides of this issue, but I do understand the value of trails and trees.  I use the Douglas trail myself and find the mature trees, bird song, and shade a very welcome respite from the concrete and bustle.  It’s called quality of life.

So our only recourse now is for Mayor Fleetwood to veto the city council’s decision that will effectively take away this public good for a developer’s private gain?  Then, as has been popularly said before, Mayor Fleetwood, please make it so.

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Dianne Foster

Apr 30, 2021

Most of us who supported Seth for mayor did so because we thought he would be more helpful in fighting vulture capitalist developers than histrionic April Barker.   So far,  I’m not seeing much difference,  but there is still time.    We raised almost $2000.00 in Sehome and York neighborhoods in 48 hours to stop the teardown of the historic town of New Whatcom by Hammer Properties on Billy Frank Jr. Street,  and appealed to the Mayor,  Council,  and Hearing Examiner to stop this crime by big money.   (These houses on BFJ street were the early homes of prominent Bellingham citizens,  each unique in architecture,  built from old growth timbers now in the landfill).   Nothing came of it of course,  as developers rule.   Once they end single family zoning,  I expect Hammer and Hansen will own everything,  from which they will extract huge profits as absentee landlords,  and we can expect more teardowns for expensive student housing.   On the other hand,  the old Aloha Motel project is truly affordable housing from which there will be neither private extraction or teardowns of beautiful old places.   It is around the corner from my house,  and I welcome these new neighbors.   Some research I did noted that Hammer has several LLC’s,  one of which is “Billy Frank Jr. LLC”(!).   What an egregious twist on the name of this saint who believed in historical preservation; he must be rolling in his grave.

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g.h.kirsch

May 01, 2021

Though it was long ago, I still remember Hugh Fleetwood leading the opposition to Syre’s mall project, Bellis Fair, in a protected wetlands.  I hope Seth does too.

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Aaron Brand

May 01, 2021

I am in favor of maintaining pedestrian friendly rights-of-way, but it seems to me that we are trying to find solutions to a housing crisis right now. Is there not a way to increase density (which, if I’m not mistaken, improves housing options) while maintaining a trail in this location?

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Paul K Schissler

May 01, 2021

That was a surprising vote from the Council; ought to have gone the other way.  I hope Mayor Fleetwood vetoes the Council decision.

Lessons from the Hoag’s Pond episode say gear up for a referendum now.

Lessons from the other end of Happy Valley Neighborhood, at 15th and Harris, say nearby neighbors might be wiling to support of a ROW vacation ONLY IF the requester offers to build high-quality homes that are owner-occupied and permanently affordable for people with incomes less than the median income. The City agreed to vacate 15th between Harris and McKenzie ONLY IF Kulshan Community Land Trust found more community investment to add five more homes so that Matthei Place would have 14 homes on less than one acre. And the City retained perpetual easements for pedestrians, bike, and utilities throught the former ROW. 

Lessons from us over at Fairhaven Neighbors say City Hall will pay more attention when you hire an attorney to raise questions on your behalf. 

And really, does that appraisal of the Douglas ROW pass the smell test? I guess the appraised amount is not an issue for the Hearing Examiner process, but how much does land for that many homes cost, usually?

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Hue Beattie

May 02, 2021

The hearing examiner should have her salary examined.  The council has forgotten, and I think Pinky Vargas never knew it; that what’s good for the Neighborhood is good for the city. I watched the deliberations on zoom and would like to commend Councilwoman Lisa Anderson for seeing thru the charade and voting to deny the vacation.

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Mayor Is Asked To Preserve Trail

By John ServaisOn Apr 30, 2021

Update Thur, May 6:  There were administrative mistakes at city hall that prevented the mayor from phoning Daniel back.  Today Seth phoned Daniel.  ------This letter is posted with [...]

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