After three hours of back-to-back comments from 82 residents, Whatcom County Council voted 5-2 Tuesday night in favor of taking ownership of 8,884 acres of land abutting Lake Whatcom to create a park for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding.
The park’s size and proximity to Bellingham would make it one of the largest of its kind in the country, according to the Trust for Public Land.
The land, currently managed by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for timber harvesting, will be “reconveyed” or transferred to the county following approval by the state board of recreation. The next phase will be a lengthy planning process weighing a multitude of competing ideas for how the land will be managed.
County residents crowded the council chambers to capacity, with lines of standees snaking out the doors and latecomers filling extra chairs provided in the foyer. Residents who had signed up to speak were given up to two minutes to comment on the proposal.
The majority of opponents against the reconveyance cited increased costs to county taxpayers, unnecessary restrictions of the timber industry and the belief that the land would be better managed by the DNR.
Supporters suggested the reconveyance would improve quality of life, offer more recreation opportunities, attract new businesses and protect the Lake Whatcom watershed, which provides drinking water to over half of Whatcom County residents.
Mark Perry, owner of Perry Pallet in Ferndale, said the reconveyance would harm an already hurting regional lumber industry.
“Lumber is crucial for a variety of local businesses,” he said. “Local lumber is best because of shipping costs, and reconveyance takes away a viable source of local lumber.”
Matthew Dunn, who has started several tech businesses out of Bellingham, spoke in favor of the resolution.
“Quality of life brought me here and kept me here,” Dunn said. “My companies provide family wage jobs, and I would argue that quality of life here is a major part of what has brought over 700 tech companies to Bellingham.”
Some of those opposed said the resolution should be put before all county resident voters for an advisory vote, while others argued that after six years of debate it was time for the council to come to a decision. After the public hearing closed, council member Peter Kremen’s motion to vote on the resolution was immediately followed by Bill Knutzen’s motion to send the resolution to residents for an advisory vote. Council then voted 4-3 against holding an advisory vote.
Knutzen motioned to amend the resolution by specifying that the county would maintain full control of the land. Many of those who spoke against the reconveyance said they worried management would fall to an outside party, who would either shape the park to its own agenda or be ill-equipped to manage it.
“I want to assure people that management won’t go to a special interest,” he said.
Nonetheless, Knutzen’s motion failed 4-3, and the original resolution was put before the council for discussion and a vote.
“I am convinced that this will be a net positive for our economy, local recreation and the watershed,” said Ken Mann. “I want Whatcom County to control its own destiny. Sometimes, if you want to write your own destiny, you have to write the checks. We’ve listened to a lot of voices tonight, but I also listen to a voice that wakes me up every night for milk. Her name is Phoebe, and she’s my daughter. Her voice, my son Atticus’ voice, and the voices of all the kids in Whatcom County – those are the voices I’m listening to.”
“I don’t want this to become a ‘whoops’ for the county further down the line,” Knutzen said. “We may not have sufficient funds to properly manage this land,” he added.
The county would restrict logging on the land, a fact that has been cast by those in favor of the reconveyance as a boon to water quality, but Barbara Brenner and Knutzen said there is insufficient evidence to suggest the reconveyance would improve water quality in Lake Whatcom.
“The department of ecology has said reconveyance will not improve water quality,” Knutzen said.
“It won’t fix water quality issues,” Brenner agreed. “The liability of a park that big will be too much to manage. We don’t have the money.”
“The benefits are great, and I think we have a golden opportunity,” Kremen responded. “We have more than $6 million in the conservation futures fund, with more money coming in each year, to help pay for the management of this land.” The conservation futures fund is the result of a levy begun in 1993 that collects 6.3 cents for every $1000 of assessed property value.
Coming out in support, Carl Weimer said, “We’ve talked about this for six years. We know about the recreational opportunities, the economic opportunities and the ecological benefits. But I’m voting for this because of what a wise fisherman said: parks represent love and happiness. I’m not going to take my daughters and wife to go tour the new jail, or a new room in the courthouse. But I will, hopefully, take them to enjoy this new park.”
Chair Kathy Kershner also voiced her support of the resolution.
“I expect that we will have lots of public input, with an advisory board made up of members of the public and a very vigorous review during which you will all be able to give your input,” she told the crowd just prior to the board’s vote at 11 p.m. “We’ve heard from many groups that recreation is a prime industry to bring in, and I think this park will do that. I want to encourage the use of volunteers for trail building, and I don’t support any tax increases for this. It’s got to pay for itself. I want us to work together to make this thing the best that it can be.”
The county park department will begin planning once the reconveyance is complete. Of the 82 residents who spoke during the public hearing, 53 were for and 28 were against the reconveyance, with one commenter lobbying to develop the land for motorized use. Chair Kathy Kershner tallied the list of people who signed the sign-in sheet and marked their view on the reconveyance but didn’t wish to speak at 57 for and seven against.
In other council business, an ordinance to change the speed limit on Lincoln Road from Blaine city limits to Harbor View Road from 35 mph to 45 mph was introduced. A public hearing on the ordinance will be held at the regular county council meeting on March 26.