BELLINGHAM - A coalition is gathering signatures for a ballot measure to create a metropolitan park district that would tax its property owners to repay part of the cost of acquiring Chuckanut Ridge on the south side.
If enough valid signatures are gathered - 1,100 are needed - by Sept. 21, voters in the district would decide in February whether to form the district and elect five commissioners who, in turn, would raise property taxes within the district to generate more than $3.2 million.
The money would repay a loan of the same amount, plus interest, from the city Greenways endowment fund that is supposed to be used for maintenance, not land purchases.
Money from the fund was used to help pay the $8.2 million price tag for the city's purchase of the 82-acre Chuckanut Ridge, also known as the Hundred Acre Wood, in August 2011. The city, at that time, gave itself six years to repay the loan from the endowment fund.
"We want to make sure that everyone feels that the Greenways endowment has been made whole," said Robyn du Pre, a member of the steering committee working to put the measure on the ballot.
The city bought the land from Washington Federal. The property had previously secured loans made by Horizon Bank, and Washington Federal took over those loans after regulators shut down Horizon in early 2010.
Should voters decide to form the Chuckanut Community Forest Park District, property owners in the district would pay 28 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. The owner of a $300,000 home, for example, would pay $84 a year.
The district's boundaries, roughly, would encompass southwest Bellingham - south of Western Washington University and west of Interstate 5 to the water.
The district would exist for no more than 10 years.
"We get in. We pay the loan. We go away," du Pre said.
She said some city officials had expressed concern about creating another level of government that could be confusing, but, du Pre noted, such districts exist elsewhere in the state.
When the City Council approved the financing plan to buy Chuckanut Ridge, members said the sale of a portion of the property could be used to cover the more than $3.2 million, if no other means could be found.
Options for paying back the loan from the endowment fund are expected to be considered by the council early in 2013, but du Pre said the park district is a solution.
"It has been a long-stated community intention to preserve this property," du Pre, who owns a home in the proposed district, said of the effort to protect the land from development. "This is the only realistic option we've come up with to repay that loan and to secure all of the property."
In addition to the loan from the endowment fund, money to pay for Chuckanut Ridge came from $4.5 million from the Greenways III levy that voters approved in 2006, and $500,000 from parks impact fees collected from the south side.
Du Pre expressed confidence that enough signatures would be gathered.
"There's very strong community support for this property," she said. "The question has always been how do we pay for it, not whether it's worth saving."
The ballot measure also would respond to a feeling among some people in the community that if the south side wanted the property, the south side should pay for it, according to du Pre.
"We're taking people at that word and we're saying, 'OK that's fair.'"
The Chuckanut Community Forest name comes from Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, who had proposed rezoning 88 acres on Chuckanut Ridge to create the new forest while leaving another 25 acres of city-owned property in the area zoned residential multi-family.
The city-owned parcels proposed for that rezone included some of the 82 acres the city bought from Washington Federal, as well as smaller parcels the city bought in 2001 and 2002.
Under Linville's proposal, the 25-acre parcel that was originally part of the Washington Federal property would be kept residential as a possible way for the city to recoup the loan from the endowment fund. But the council voted July 23 against considering such a zoning change, at least for another year.
FIND THE PETITION
Petitions to put a ballot measure before voters to create the Chuckanut Community Forest Park District can be found and signed at Firehouse Café, 1314 Harris Ave., and at Trek Video, 1213 Harris Ave.
To learn more, including the boundaries for the district, see chuckanutcommunityforest.com.
Chuckanut Community Forest also has a Facebook page.
Only voters living in the proposed district will be able to sign the petition and, should enough signatures be gathered, to vote on it in February.
People who want a petition can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach KIE RELYEA at email@example.com or call 715-2234.