BELLINGHAM The Whatcom County Council will take up the proposed Lake Whatcom watershed land transfer proposal again on Oct. 9, after more than 200 people turned out Tuesday, Sept. 11, for a Whatcom County Council public hearing on it.
Updated at 10:45 a.m. Sept. 12
The transfer would shift 8,844 acres of forest lands from state to county control a move that proponents say would help protect the lake while enabling the county to create a massive new park.
After hearing from opponents of the transfer, Council Chairwoman Kathy Kershner said she was convinced that it needs further study.
Its really unclear to the public what this park is going to look like, Kershner said Wednesday. I want a good community vetting of what the park would look like, and recreation plan put into place.
The plan should include cost estimates, she added.
County management of the property also should be clarified, Kershner said. She wants information on what kind of tree-thinning or land-clearing might need to be done after the county acquires the land.
The delay will give the council time to consider a compromise proposal developed earlier this week by council member Sam Crawford.
In an attempt to address the timber industrys concerns about loss of timber jobs and public timber revenue, Crawford has proposed the subtraction of 1,755 acres from the 8,844-acre original proposal.
Crawford said the 1,755 acres he proposes to keep under state control are areas that are still harvestable with little impact on lake quality.
County Parks Director Michael McFarlane told the council that they have some flexibility to scale back the original proposal if they choose to do so. Kershner said the Tuesday meeting adjourned after 1 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12.
When the meeting began, the crowd of well over 200 people filled every seat, crammed the standing room at the back of the council auditorium and spilled out into the County Courthouse rotunda.
Testimony at the hearing underscored the sharp division of opinion within the community.
Bellingham resident Shane Roth said a yes vote would give council members a chance to prove they are serious about protecting the lake, which is the source of drinking water for Bellingham and surrounding areas.
There is no action you can take that is cheaper, Roth said. There is no action you can take that will have less impact on private property rights. Gaythia Weis, another Bellingham resident, said she had recently moved her small software company here partly because of the areas recreational opportunities.
Parks actually do promote jobs, Weis told the council.
But opponents say the land transfer would do little to protect the lake, while eliminating timber production that generates both jobs and tax revenue for the state and local governments. The Washington Department of Natural Resources now owns and manages the land, and timber harvest in the lake watershed is subject to extra environmental restrictions.
The Department of Natural Resources has been in control and has done a wonderful job, lakeside resident Donna Clark told the council. Youre making a big mistake.
Bellingham resident Riggs Nelson asked how the county would pay to develop and maintain such a large new park.
We dont need another park of this size, Nelson said. We cant afford the parks we have.
Many county residents said the proposed conversion of state timber lands to park lands is a major change in land use policy that should get public scrutiny and review by the Whatcom County Planning Commission.
On the councils agenda was a resolution formally asking the state to transfer the land, which is divided into two roughly equal blocks on the west and east sides of the lake. The land includes 4,251 acres on the west side of the lake, stretching from Sudden Valley south to the Cain Lake area, near the Skagit County line.
Also included would be 4,593 acres on the east side of the lake, including one mile of shoreline that is part of the popular Hertz trail. The land would be on all sides of the county's North Lake Whatcom Park, which is located near the end of North Shore Road. The park holds the trailhead for the 3.1-mile Hertz Trail.
The transfer would complete Whatcom County's goal of acquiring these lands for hiking, nature studies, wildlife viewing, bicycling and equestrian activities, the resolution states.
In June 2010, a state appeals court dismissed a lawsuit challenging the proposal. It was filed by Tom Westergreen, Dick Whitmore and Nielsen Brothers Inc., a logging firm. The court said the challenge was premature, dismissing it but leaving open the possibility they could re-file it.
In May 2012, the council voted 5-2, with council members Barbara Brenner and Bill Knutzen opposed, to ask the state Board of Natu-ral Resources to approve a legal redesignation of the affected properties to make them available for transfer to the county, and the state board approved that plan.
At that point, land transfer advocates thought they had prevailed, but since then opponents have mounted a last-ditch effort to derail the deal, and they turned out in force on Tuesday.
If the council approves the resolution endorsing the land transfer, it would then go back to the states Board of Natural Resources for final review, McFarlane said.
Reach JOHN STARK at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2274.