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 public hearing on it.
The transfer would shift 8,844 acres of state-managed timber lands 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.
"It's 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 a recreation plan put into place. ... I would also like to have a plan that is supported by the community and not just one faction of the community."
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 also 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 industry's 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.
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.
Council member Ken Mann said he was encouraged by the enthusiastic public participation, but he contended that much of the anger against the transfer was rooted in misinformation that transfer opponents had circulated via blogs and emails.
Mann said many at the hearing appeared to be basing their anger on reports that the Whatcom Land Trust would get some kind of conservation easement enabling them to control the property after the county assumes ownership. At one point, county officials did discuss that idea in emails that opponents obtained, but that approach to managing the property was later rejected, Mann said.
"I was disheartened by the amount of misinformation, and the passion with which people were voicing this misinformation," Mann said.
Opponents are also exaggerating the impact on timber harvests, Mann said. He contended that only about 2,200 acres of the proposed 8,844-acre transfer could be logged under existing rules already in place to protect Lake Whatcom.
Carl Weimer, like Mann a strong supporter of the land transfer, agreed.
Weimer said it was disappointing to see a final vote on the transfer delayed, when council members already have the information they need to make a decision.
But Weimer also said he is open to considering Crawford's proposal to trim the size of the transfer and reduce the impact on timber harvests.
"A 7,000-acre park would still be a wonderful deal," Weimer said.
He also agreed with Kershner that the potential recreational uses for the property need to be clarified for the public. As Weimer sees it, the county land would be a low-impact recreation area. Intensive recreational use would threaten the lake and defeat the purpose of the transfer.
"Maybe we do need to have some clarity on that, and not get peoples' expectations too high that this is going to be a new West Coast mountain-biking mecca or something," Weimer said.
Council member Pete Kremen, who played a key role in developing the land transfer proposal during his years as county executive, said he too is open to considering Crawford's scaled-back proposal, although he would prefer that the entire property be transferred to the county.
The land proposed for the transfer from state to county control 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 Natural 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 state's Board of Natural Resources for final review, McFarlane said.