Chuckanut Ridge, the Hundred Acre Wood, Fairhaven Highlands, Chuckanut Community Forest. Many names for one forest. Our commitment to preserve it has outlasted them all. Some care because of the clean water it provides to salmon-bearing Padden and Chuckanut creeks. Some treasure having a quiet forest in which to stroll. Some love the green backdrop it provides to the city. Kids ride bikes there, races run though it, birders come to learn its secrets. This forest is a beautiful place with extraordinary ecological value. And its right here. And it belongs to us. For now.
On Aug. 15, 2011, Bellingham City Council voted unanimously to purchase this 82-acre parcel. The community has cherished these woods for many years, and it was specifically targeted for acquisition in the last two Greenways levies. But until recently, the city was unable to negotiate a purchase of the property.
In order to close the deal, and finally end 20 years of community struggle to preserve this land, council voted to purchase it using a combination of Greenways III Southside acquisition funds, Southside Park Impact Fees, and a $3,232,201 inter-fund loan from the Greenways III maintenance endowment. The city has been clear that it must be repaid or a significant portion of the property would need to be sold to do so.
A group of Southside residents organized to develop a plan to repay the loan and save all of the property. From these discussions came a proposal to ask the residents of Bellinghams Southside to create a metropolitan park district and approve a modest property tax dedicated to repaying the loan and preserving this stunning urban forest forever.
The proposed metropolitan park district is called the Chuckanut Community Forest District. The district encompasses the area west of I-5 and south of the Western campus or, the South, Fairhaven, Edgemoor and most of the Happy Valley and South Hill neighborhoods. This past summer, needing 1,100 petition signatures to qualify for the ballot, we collected almost 1,700. Support was abundant and enthusiastic.
The ballot proposition proposes that the district be created for the purpose of levying a property tax, only inside the district, of $28 per $100,000 assessed value for 10 years, or $70 per year for a $250,000 house. This would pay off the loan and enable full and permanent protection of this park.
Appropriately, Southside neighborhoods have absorbed a lot of infill in the last decade, particularly Fairhaven and Happy Valley. Successful infill preserves valuable natural assets. Part of what makes infill work is proximity to services. As the Southside strives to prevent sprawl and accommodate growth, we must also provide the services, including parks, that will ensure that this remains a great place to live.
There is opposition to this plan. Tellingly, it is led by a developer. Detractors say a metropolitan park district is too strong a tool, there are other ways. This argument rings hollow though, when ultimately their statements lead back to a website with a petition to sell the land for development. Their agenda is clear. They repeatedly cite the statutory maximum levy as the intent of the Chuckanut Community Forest District. It is not. The petition and the ballot make clear that the intended rate is $28 per $100,000 of assessed value. They pander to fears of condemnation of land, infinite millions in new taxes and myriad abuses of power. Park districts have operated in our state for over a century without any of these things happening. To sacrifice this opportunity to baseless threats and fears would be a surrender of something much bigger than a forest.
This is grassroots democracy at its core. What this boils down to is a simple choice. If you think this land should be sold and built on, then vote no. But, if we value our beautiful setting, if we want this land preserved as a city park, if we as a community would rather leave to the future an ecological treasure than a subdivision, then now is the time to act on those values. Please vote yes for the forest, vote yes for parks and healthy recreation, vote yes for wetlands and the salmon they support. Please vote ves for the Chuckanut Community Forest District. You can learn more at ChuckanutCommunityForest.com.
Daniel Remsen has lived near the forest for more than 11 years and was first involved in efforts to protect it in 1996. He is on the campaign steering committee and is running to be a commissioner of the Chuckanut Community Forest District.