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.