Olympia eschews reactive purchasing for city parks

The OlympianJuly 8, 2014 

There are few services a municipal government can provide that receive more public support than improving existing parks or developing new ones. Whether it’s an off-leash dog park, urban walking trails or more recreation fields, the public appetite to conserve open space will always exceed a city’s financial resources.

That’s the current situation for the City of Olympia. But rather than react to isolated requests to purchase additional parkland, the City Council has chosen to advance the required mid-term update of its 10-year parks plan.

That’s a smart decision because continuing to deviate from its long-term strategic parks plan based on flavor-of-the-day pressure from community special interest groups will only result in new unfunded commitments. The city already has too many of those.

Olympia is currently figuring out how to pay for phase one of the isthmus park, to which most of this council is committed. The city purchased two blighted properties without the $1 million it had sought from the state for acquisition and development.

As a result it can only afford to demolish the smallest of the two buildings on those isthmus properties this year, and even that requires the volunteer assistance of the 555th Engineers Brigade from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The council has received other requests for new parks. A group of citizens have asked the city to expand the LBA Park by purchasing two undeveloped parcels totaling 150 acres at a cost of about $12 million. The citizens have made a strong case, but have offered no financial assistance for a park that’s not included in the current 10-year plan.

The council could have rejected the LBA request for financial reasons, but council members chose a more responsive path.

The city will begin its parks plan review a year early with a feasibility study on the five properties within the city boundaries that meet the parks plan’s definition of a community park. In addition to acquisition and development costs that assessment should include the properties location and potential impacts on regional transportation plans, as well as how they fulfill the city’s needs for rectangular, ball fields and their relative environmental value.

If the city’s recent population growth trends continue, Olympia will need two additional community parks within the next 10 years. But it will also have to balance that need against its requirement to meet urban density levels mandated by the state Growth Management Act.

During its review, the city might find creative solutions to find that balance. For example, if the LBA Woods proposal meets the city’s other requirements, it could purchase one of the two parcels, and double-down on the other parcel’s allowable housing density. That could be tricky because the parcels have different owners.

In any case, the city has taken the prudent approach by forsaking reactive purchasing of parkland in favor of a thoughtful review of its long-term plan.

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