Some people loved the idea, saying it already works well in Bellingham.
Others urged listeners to lobby City Hall to stop the idea before it takes root.
The idea, presented to about 60 people at a public meeting last week, is to have community groups take over management of Bellingham's three city-run community gardens.
That might mean, for example, a group would oversee day-to-day operations of a garden, collect rental fees and pay for water, while the city would mow, till and maintain the water system.
James King, parks director, acknowledged that such a change would save the department about $10,000 a year in staff time, but said the idea transcends money.
Gardeners who come together to manage their community plots have a better handle on how things work, he said, and develop a stronger sense of community by sharing the load.
"We believe there's a better model," King said. "We've see it in other gardens."
One example discussed at the meeting is the Cordata community garden, built on private land four years ago. Until this year, gardeners there paid $35 a year to rent one of 50 raised beds. That's $5 a year more than what people now pay for one of 198 plots at the three city-run gardens.
This year, the fee at Cordata rose to $40 to cover higher water costs, said coordinator Alice Bell. Besides paying a fee, gardeners volunteer to help with various tasks, from mowing to producing a newsletter to caring for fruit trees and blueberry bushes.
A volunteer committee develops plans and a budget for the garden. Fees and money are handled by the treasurer for Cordata Neighborhood Association, the committee's parent organization.
Bell said the arrangement works well.
"If you put the investment of time into it, people just naturally start to take better care of their garden and develop a sense of community with their fellow gardeners," she said.
A recurring question at the meeting held Tuesday, March 26, at Bloedel Donovan Park, was the issue of liability insurance for groups that manage a garden.
At Cordata, the garden is covered by insurance the city of Bellingham provides official neighborhood associations, such as Cordata's. However, the extent of coverage for higher-risk gardening activities, such as operating machinery, isn't clear-cut, said Torhil Ramsay, a community outreach specialist in the mayor's office.
Two of Bellingham's city-run gardens are on city land: a year-round organic garden with 34 plots at 10th Street and Wilson Avenue in Fairhaven, and a seasonal non-organic garden with 64 plots at Lakeway Drive and Woburn Street.
The third garden, also year-round and organic, has 100 plots on private land on 32nd Street, in Happy Valley. City officials plan to terminate the lease on the property, but the owners hope the site will continue as a community garden.
At least some of the gardens were started by a nonprofit in the 1970s; the parks department assumed management in the 1980s.
Several people at Tuesday's meeting said they fear the city is pulling back from its commitment to community gardens, despite public interest in, and need for, locally grown affordable food.
"Community gardens should be a top priority, not a bottom priority," a woman told King.
John Blethen, a former member of the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, questioned whether King has the authority to change management of the gardens, and Tip Johnson, a former City Council member, encouraged people to lobby the City Council to stop King.
For his part, King said he would continue talking to people to see if groups might step forward to run the gardens. He also expressed interest in the suggestion that he talk separately to the groups of gardeners who rent plots at the three city gardens.
People interested in the future of Bellingham's community gardens can contact the Parks and Recreation Department at 360-778-7000.
Reach Dean Kahn at email@example.com or call 715-2291.