Cooperation blossoms in talks about future of Bellingham's community gardens

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 13, 2013 

Happy Valley Community Garden

Susan Clark waters her garden plot at the Happy Valley Community Garden in Bellingham, Friday, June 15, 2012. Clark says gardening is " a lot of hard work but it is worth it."

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Tensions that arose when parks officials floated the idea of community groups taking over management of Bellingham's city-run community gardens appear to be easing.

In fact, the way some people are talking now, there's hope that a more cooperative yet efficient approach could pave the way for more community gardens.

For now, Bellingham has three city-run gardens: in Fairhaven and on Lakeway Drive, both on city land; and in Happy Valley, on private land with a nominal lease.

Gardeners from Fairhaven and Happy Valley have submitted proposals to the city that encourage ways to trim operating costs while having the city continue to handle registration for the rented plots and provide water and liability insurance.

"That's the direction we're leaning," said Marvin Harris, parks operations manager.

A detailed letter suggesting "partnership opportunities" with the groups will be sent in a week or so, he said.

At a public meeting in March, parks Director James King said having community groups manage the gardens could save the city about $10,000 a year in staff time and result in better-run gardens.

While some of the 60 or so people at the meeting were open to the idea, others accused the city of abandoning support for gardens at a time when they are increasingly needed and popular.

The Fairhaven and Happy Valley gardens are both year-round and organic, with 34 plots in Fairhaven and 100 plots in Happy Valley. The garden on Lakeway Drive is seasonal and non-organic, with 64 plots.

A proposal from Fairhaven gardeners includes several ideas modeled on the approach used in Eugene, Ore.:

- Create a handbook with garden rules, fees and schedules.

- Let people register online for plots, a change that would save city staff time. The parks department already has online registration for other programs.

- Have several gardeners at each site serve as volunteer coordinators to help monitor the gardens and resolve issues and complaints, which also could save staff time.

Other ideas include composting plant materials at the garden, and replacing grass with wood chips in garden paths to reduce maintenance.

Meanwhile, the proposal says, the city should continue to set and collect fees for the plots, provide water and insurance, and handle maintenance that requires machinery or professional knowledge.

"It's really a partnership between the city and the gardeners, rather than just privatizing community gardens," said Brooks Anderson, one of the authors of the Fairhaven proposal.

A proposal from Happy Valley offers similar ideas, with gardeners taking on more ground-level duties while the city handles administration and major maintenance.

Richard Jehn, who helped write the Happy Valley proposal, said debate about the future of the gardens has brought the Happy Valley gardeners closer together. He also said his talks with parks officials have been encouraging.

"I consider it to be a very cooperative effort between us and the city," he said. "It's positive developments."


COMING UP

People interested in learning about local community gardens are invited to an open house and learning fair from 3 to 6 p.m. July 25 at the Roeder Home, 2600 Sunset Drive.

Community groups can share information about their programs, and people can learn about the Community First Garden project, which provides money, education and technical support to community gardens in Whatcom County.

For details or to reserve a table at the event, email Beth Chisholm at beth.chisholm@wsu.edu.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com.

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