Case against controversial Lake Whatcom park dismissed by state growth board

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 25, 2013 

Lake Whatcom reconveyance

The light green areas in this map show the almost 9,000 acres around Lake Whatcom that will be converted into parkland after the Whatcom County Council voted 5-2 Tuesday, March 12, 2013 to "reconvey" the land from the state, which was managing it for timber harvesting.

WHATCOM COUNTY — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

A challenge against the conversion of 8,844 forested acres around Lake Whatcom into a public park was rejected earlier this month, dealing a setback to groups that would rather see the land continue to be used for commercial timber.

The state Growth Management Hearings Board on July 17 ruled that it didn't have jurisdiction over the Whatcom County Council's decision on March 12 to transfer the land from state management into county ownership. Such "reconveyances" are allowed if the county uses the timberland for a park.

The board rules on challenges to local governments' land-use policies and rules. While the reconveyance was intended to convert land zoned for commercial forestry into a park, it was ultimately no more than a transfer from the state to the county, the board decided.

"A change in ownership is not a change in land use," the written order said.

Jack Petree, a private citizen who has written about the timber industry for decades, and a group that included foresters Tom Westergreen and Dick Whitmore filed the challenges. Westergreen said on Thursday, July 25, that his group would not pursue the case further.

"We've just run out of energy and funds," he said.

Petree said he expects to file a motion with the board Friday, July 26, asking it to reconsider its decision.

A challenge after the council's reconveyance decision seemed inevitable. The same forestry group had filed an earlier petition that was dismissed by a state appeals court in 2010 only because the land transfer hadn't happened yet.

Westergreen said he still believes the county violated its own policies by failing to protect commercial forestland, which is being removed piecemeal from the timber harvest by decisions such as the reconveyance.

"Pretty soon, we're not going to have any left," Westergreen said.

Council member Ken Mann, a supporter of the park, said he never thought the petitioners had much of a case. The conversion of the land for recreation and conservation is a net gain for the county, Mann said.

"Tourism is also in this area, based on recreational and natural resource amenities," he said. "Those jobs are real jobs and real money, and a benefit to this community."

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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