BELLINGHAM - Some Bellingham voters will decide over the next few weeks whether to form a metropolitan park district that would tax its property owners to help pay for the city's purchase of Chukcanut Ridge.
The proposed Chuckanut Community Forest Park District's boundaries would roughly encompass southwest Bellingham - south of Western Washington University and west of Interstate 5 to the water.
It needs a simple majority to pass.
In the Feb. 12 special election, voters in that area also will elect five commissioners who, in turn, would raise property taxes within the district to generate about $3.2 million. If the district is voted down, the election of the board of commissioners wouldn't go into effect.
The citizens' coalition that gathered the signatures to place the measure on the ballot said 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.
Supporters said the park district's sole purpose would be to repay the loan by levying the tax for 10 years. Once that's done, it will disband, they said.
The money would repay the $3.2 million loan from the city Greenways endowment fund that helped 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.
When the City Council approved the purchase in August 2011, members gave themselves six years to repay the loan.
Backers said their proposal is the best way to raise the money within the timeframe and thereby preserve all of the wooded property. Chuckanut Ridge has been the focus of community efforts to protect it - and its ecosystems - from development for more than two decades.
"It's our love of that property and our love of the natural systems," said Robyn du Pre, a member of the steering committee that worked to put the measure on the ballot.
For their part, opponents expressed concerns about the wider powers a metropolitan park district would have, as laid out by state statute, and wondered why a small group of property owners in part of the city should have to take on what they see as a citywide responsibility.
"It's not the right or the responsibility of the south-side neighbors to pay for this debt," said Phyllis McKee, an opponent who doesn't live in the proposed metropolitan park district but owns property there.
When the City Council approved the financing plan to buy Chuckanut Ridge from Washington Federal, members said the sale of a portion of the property could be used to cover the loan, if no other means could be found.
The metropolitan park district would be the mechanism for paying off that loan, according to du Pre, given that a list of other options "either (weren't) politically palatable or were going to put it so far off into the future."
Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, who said she supports protecting the property, noted that the city has multiple years to decide how to pay off that debt and that the conversation on what all the options were hadn't really started when the metropolitan park district ballot measure came up.
"The voters get to decide this," said Linville, who wasn't mayor when the city bought Chuckanut Ridge. "I'm not out here taking positions one way or another. Do I think that it's necessary to do this in order to pay off the loan and protect the property? No. But is this a way this might happen? Yes."
If voters create the park district to repay the loan, the city would still keep control of Chuckanut Ridge, Linville said.
In addition to the loan, 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.
As for opponents, they also don't like that a metropolitan park district would have power to operate independently of the city, acquire and condemn land, and levy property taxes at a higher rate than the proposed 28 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
And while supporters said the district would end after 10 years and the commissioners would stick to the intent of why the district was formed and the levy rate - with most board candidates pledging to do so - opponents said there are no guarantees.
"There's no way that the proponents at this point can either promise or guarantee what those commissioners will do," said McKee, who is part of a group opposed to the proposed district. "They're turning people loose with blank checks. I'm just stunned that people are buying into this."
In response, du Pre said metropolitan park districts have been used by communities in Washington state for nearly a century.
"We don't have any history in other park districts around the state to indicate those fears should be given credence," said du Pre, who owns a home in the proposed district. "Just because the law says we can do something doesn't mean we will do it. I find those arguments are really fear-based."
She said that the commissioners wouldn't be "appointed czars of the south side."
If people don't like what commissioners do, du Pre said, they can vote them out.
"There's numerous checks in place to ensure that park districts are responsive," she said.
Also known as Fairhaven Highlands, the property is one of the last large wooded areas remaining within city limits. The idea of buying the property was included in the Beyond Greenway levy that voters passed in 1997 and the existing Greenways III, according to city officials.
Many area residents have long opposed housing construction on the site and have worked for years to block development - including, most recently, of Fairhaven Highlands - or to convince city officials that it should be acquired as public park or open space.
Du Pre said the ballot measure would respond to a feeling among some people in the community that "if the south side wants this, the south side should buy it."
"So we said OK, we will," she said.
Opponents also said other funding options should be examined before forming a taxing district, such as a private capital campaign by park supporters, selling a portion of the site, and including the loan in a future Greenways levy.
Du Pre, who has managed capital campaigns, said they require staff and an organizational structure that doesn't exist. And selling enough of the property to recoup $3.2 million would mean letting go of a big chunk and that would harm the biological integrity that makes the property special, she added.
As for the idea of including the loan in a future Greenways levy, the City Council's finance committee has said that should be avoided because they feared it would harm the measure's chance of being passed by voters citywide.
chuckanutcommunityforest.com, to read more from the supporters of the proposed metropolitan park district as well as some of the candidates for the commission that would be formed should voters approve the district.
mrsc.org, Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington. Type "metropolitan park district" into the search window to learn about the background, history and powers of such districts in Washington state.
Ballots were mailed Friday, Jan. 25, for the Feb. 12 special election, Whatcom County Auditor Debbie Adelstein said.
Voters in southwest Bellingham - south of Western Washington University and west of Interstate 5 to the water - will decide whether to form a metropolitan park district that would tax its property owners to help pay for the city's purchase of Chuckanut Ridge.
Voters in the Concrete School District will decide on a replacement educational programs and operations levy.
Those are the only voters who will receive ballots for this special election. Registered voters in those areas who have not received their ballots by Friday, Feb. 1, should call the Election Division of the Auditor's Office at 360-676-6742.
Ballots must be postmarked by Feb. 12 to be valid. They also can be dropped off at the County Courthouse south parking lot, 201 Grand Ave., Bellingham (one block south of courthouse). The drop box closes at 8 p.m. Feb. 12.
Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.