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The Scheme to Turn Green-Spaces into $Green

Neighborhoods beware: City Hall is selling our public rights. Your neighborhood could be next.

Neighborhoods beware: City Hall is selling our public rights. Your neighborhood could be next.

By

Editorially adapted from Tip Johnson’s email reply to a citizen asking, “What are we to make of Mr. Lilliquist’s reply to John Blethen?  I’m curious what you think.”


Note: See Pandemic Mode

Bellingham City Hall is setting a dangerous precedent. They are proving they can and will sell off public spaces in exchange for density. These public spaces are all around us, currently reserved for public use. If you are interested in trails, neighborhood connectivity, livability, walkability, open space, habitat, or wildlife corridors, you should pay attention. Starting right now.

A neighbor recently copied me an email exchange between Michael Lilliquist and John Blethen regarding the Douglas Ave. right-of-way (ROW) trail. Their emails related to an ordinance that strips public rights from a 26-year-old neighborhood-built trail built under the City’s “Make a Difference” neighborhood program. Councilman Lilliiquist approved selling these public rights.

Opposing the measure was John Blethen, who was on the Parks Department Advisory Board for many years and has worked with Greenways and Bellingham Parks for decades. He has a good deal more Greenways knowledge and experience than Lilly. He sent Lilly a concise summary of how the Douglas Ave. trail played into a comprehensive network of trails in the neighborhood and asked him not to approve the measure.

In his reply Lilly says, “The Douglas Ave connector is now a permanent public access easement, in place of the right of way.” This is utter, non-sensical doublespeak. The trail was already a “permanent public access easement.” And we didn’t need it to be “in place of the right-of-way“ because it actually WAS a public right of way. It would have stayed that way forever, except for the ordinance Lilly approved. He sold our public rights to a developer and now is either befuddled or prevaricating. Maybe he drank the proverbial density-at-any-cost beverage. Here is a brief outline of what Lilly did.

One of the “conditions” of the Restrictive Covenant the City Council “imposed” upon the developer is to provide, “A 30-foot-wide, non-exclusive easement for public access…”  The existing 26-year-old trail was entitled to and used the full width of the 80 foot ROW. So the public loses substantial ground with this supposed “accommodation” from the developer.

The Covenant further specifies, “…the owner shall improve the existing trail… to a standard approved by the Parks Department including… stairways where necessary to accommodate grades and alignment…”  But this isn’t a “win” for the public. Moving the trail into a 30 ft. easement will require a a nice, straight set of concrete stairs to meet grade and alignment standards. Currently, the existing trail accommodates the grade with switchbacks in a natural setting.

What Lilly actually means when he says there will be a “permanent public access easement, in place of the right of way,” is that the pubic access will be “improved” with concrete. But the trail and green space are finished.  

You can see the file under the name “Preliminary Trail Plan,” in the Hearing Examiner’s record. 

City staff and the applicant’s consultant at first pretended they didn’t know the trail was there. Then at the last minute, they miraculously submitted an engineered drawing of stairs to replace the trail – a fully prepared, engineered drawing including detail insets of pre-approved city standard specifications for stairs. 

The Covenant also allows, “..driveways, walkways, stairs, and retaining walls and other similar non-habitable features” to be built on the vacated right-of-way. The applicant’s consultant  would not guarantee that the property outside the 30 foot easement would not be fenced for private use. 

Stairs are what will be built; the trail will be destroyed. Our public rights to a small green-space were mystically transformed into more density, much more money for the developer, and concrete stairs for us.

In the record of proceedings, you might notice that Bellingham Parks Department never weighed in, even upon remand. Yet the Parks Department is in charge of these public assets and the trail appears on the city’s official trail guide.  It’s almost as if they had specific instructions to lay low. And speaking of low...

…Consider that the applicant’s consultant is a Bellingham Planning Commissioner and until only recently was the chair of that body. His expiring term was extended earlier this year by City Hall. The whole set-up reeks of an all too cozy relationship between city staff and the development community, with a planning commissioner profiting from his position. Lilly and Mayor Fleetwood have supported it every step of the way, despite...

…The hearing examiner stating that “Given the ample evidence of a pedestrian use and public interest in such use… vacation Policy 2 could arguably require automatic denial of the application.” Further, she declined to make a determination on five of 11 city-adopted vacation policies, all of which must be met for the vacation to proceed. It was all ignored. 

They say the trail is preserved, but it will end as a concrete stairs. They are stealing our public rights - actually selling them for $18,000 - so the adjoining developer can “maximize density.” That is a matter of record, regardless of Lilly’s assertions otherwise.

As a lifelong student of good government, I am thoroughly disgusted. A referendum is our last resort, but we better get busy, share widely, and get 2,475 qualified signatures by September 9th. Or, in the event you have too much money or an inheritance you don’t need, other legal remedies may be available. Otherwise, for resources and instructions on how to correct this legislative debacle, and set in motion administrative reform of these policies, please see https://nwcitizen.com/entry/a-call-for-citizen-action 

Finally, “Thanks,” to city staff, who sat on this for months so they could sneak it out during the height of summer vacation. And a special “Thanks,” to Mayor Seth Fleetwood, who feigned concern but systematically stalled citizens to purposely waste more than two weeks of time for this referendum. 

Comments by Readers

Dianne Foster

Aug 17, 2021

 Tip,

Where should we send the completed referendum petitions?

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Kay Kammerzell

Aug 18, 2021

***The printable LEGAL PETITION (for registered city voters only) is HERE. Signed petitions can be mailed to Save the Trails, 1050 Larrabee Ave, Ste 104 #382. To acquire pre-printed petitions or to arrange pick-up of signed petitions please write .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)with “Petitions” in the subject line. If you are printing your own petitions,  please select two-sided printing. Alternatively, the second page can be stapled to the first, but it is a requirement that the full text of the ordinance appear on the petition. It is useful to tape a petition, showing the ordinance, to the back of a clipboard, to facilitate viewing.

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Kay Kammerzell

Aug 18, 2021

Tip - This makes me so angry.  Greenspace, trails, and walkability are such an important part of the fabric of a community.  I hope the citizens of Bellingham rally to make sure this does not happen as it could set a precedent for taking back other greenways and trails…paving the way for unnecessary/unwanted development.

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Vince Biciunas

Aug 18, 2021

Hey TippyCanoe, 

I just wanted to catch your attention! 

It’s rude and disrespectful to use a nickname for an elected City Councilperson. Please edit your piece above and use Michael Lilliquist’s real name instead of your made-up one. 


I do support your position and have already signed your petition, but when I read the rude part of your article above, I had to just stop. You can fix this.

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Jeffrey Bodé

Aug 18, 2021

Tip, I’m collecting petition signatures from neighbors and friends.  The QR code to the petition page has been popular. Can another code be posted to this article, too?  Thanks, either way.

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Tip Johnson

Aug 18, 2021

Hey Vince,

I actually had a canoe I named “Tyler 2”.  But, full disclosure, Tip is short for Tippy Tiger. My legal name is Charles, but my dad was Chuck and my older sister, Charlotte, was Charlie. I was a handful and got a nickname.  It stuck.

Lilly has been in common use for Lilliquist for some time.  I didn’t make it up.  It’s shorter, easier and not intended disrespectfully.

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Margo Terrill

Aug 18, 2021

I don’t know enough about politics and the law to have a firm opinion as to whether this sets a bad precedent so I have to let folks who are better informed than me make the call on that aspect of this situation. I went to look at the trail in question. Honestly, I would love to jump on the bandwagon because I hate being the odd man out and I know I’m going to get scolded for this by folks who don’t agree.  But, this one particular trail, in my humble opinion, is better off being turned into concrete stairs.  It’s very steep and has not been maintained. There is a very deep hole a little way up.  Taken as an isolated case, I have no problem with the developer making this trail safer and more easy to maintain. 

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Tip Johnson

Aug 18, 2021

Hi Margo,

Yes, it is a bit of a goat trail and has not been properly maintained. However, it could be improved as a trail, as it is, in the full width of the right-of-way and achieve much lesser grades than with a stairs, and keep the natural setting. 

The real issue is the precedent of selling off right-of-ways without meeting the City’s own vacation policies, to create extra density for developers. In this case there are other procedural irregularities,too, but the hope with the petition is to kickstart a reform in City right-of-way management. I hope you can see the benefit to that. 

Thanks. 

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Vince Biciunas

Aug 18, 2021

Hi Tip, 

As one who has an eminently ‘teasable name’, I get it. But your explanation still falls short, in the RESPECT department. I have never seen ‘Lilly’ in print, no matter how prevalent this nickname might be, and by whom. It still strikes me as disrespectful. I wish you would retract it, just because. And no, I have not communicated with Michael about this.

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Margo Terrill

Aug 18, 2021

 I am definitely in support of the City following all policies in all cases and not making special exceptions without going through the proper channels and having good, environmentally well vetted, reasons to back-up what it does.

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Elisabeth Britt

Aug 19, 2021

Thank you, Tip, for covering this story.

This trail may be subject to ADA regulations. For the purposes of this discussion, an ADA trail “is a route that is designed, designated, or constructed for recreational pedestrian use or provided as a pedestrian alternative to vehicular routes within a transportation system. 

The trail in question is an established multi use trail, as it serves both bicyclists and hikers. Hence, three sets of stairs will be an impediment for bicyclists and some hikers. I had a 93 year old neighbor who hiked the Fairhaven trails daily. He had a physical disability that made climbing cement stairs difficult. 

Bellingham has been cutting back on ADA parking spots throughout the city while expanding access to people without disabilities. And, I while I can appreciate the city’s commitment to making Bellingham bicycle and pedestrian friendly, I am disheartened by the lack of concern for the rights and wellbeing of the disabled who also call this city home. Back in the 1990’s, a man named Kurt Dessauer worked very hard to make this city assessible for people with disabilities. It is impossible to describe the sense of helplessness a person in a manual or motorized wheelchair feels when they encounter a set of stairs on a trail or at the entrance of a building. A good motorized wheelchair can climb switchbacks, as long as the trail is wide enough to accomodate it. And the disabled enjoy using our city trails, when they can access them.

In my opinion, the city’s plan to alter this trail will cause substantial harm to the historic and natural features or characteristics of the trail.  Additionally, the plan will substantally alter the nature of the setting and its original purpose. The trail, which was built with public funds was intended to connect people with nature while walking. Fences and other obstructions will not be people friendly in this setting. 

It would be interesting to hear what an ADA attorney would say about this proposal. 

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Tim Paxton

Aug 19, 2021
In Washington, a person claiming a prescriptive easement must prove that he or she (and/or a predecessor in interest) used another person’s land for 10 years, and the use was (1) hostile; (2) open and notorious; (3) continuous or uninterrupted; (4) over a uniform route; and (5) exclusive.
 
Also, it reads like anyone / person who has used this trail for at least ten years can file a prescriptive easement on this important public trail, not just the City.  The City can abandon their ROW claim but that doesn’t appear to negate the existing claims by others for a Prescriptive Easement.
 
Is the City going to use the taxpayer to guarantee that a prescriptive easement won’t be established in the near future? That sounds like a gifting of public assets to the developer to me.
 
Elizabeth is right about the ADA aspect and it is possible if the City again violates the ADA regulations they could risk losing other Federal Funds.  I.e. HUD Housing funds,  EPA Clean up Funds, Road/Transportation funds, etc.
 
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Liz Marshall

Aug 20, 2021

I am following this important topic and support everything that Tip and other knowledgeable people say. I would like to see what Elisabeth Britt said in an article. I hadn’t known about some of her points. It is an important aspect to the whole subject.

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Michael Riordan

Aug 24, 2021

I’ve walked that trail with Elisabeth at least a half dozen times and witnessed the 93-year-old neighbor she mentions a few of those times, slowly walking back uphill and occasionally resting. I cannot imagine him ever negotiating such a concrete staircase.

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