Mother Nature wasn’t the only one throwing Ski to Sea for a loop this year. The event’s organizers have placed the blame for their latest disappointment squarely on the shoulders of Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville.
After a poor snow season left the mountain with a small fraction of its normal snowpack, race planners were forced to redesign the race, opting to start with an alpine run and end with a mountain biking course to compensate for the loss of two skiing legs.
But with the Memorial Day weekend race quickly approaching, the seventh and final leg still had not been finalized Wednesday, May 6, as planners were waiting for clearance on their third attempt at crafting the mountain bike course, after their first two ideas were shut down.
“Less than three weeks before the annual Ski to Sea Race, the City of Bellingham has reneged on its commitment to allow the 2015 Ski to Sea Race mountain bike leg to use trails in the 100 Acre Wood area of Fairhaven,” the race planners, from Whatcom Events, announced in a statement Wednesday.
Police put the kibosh on the first plan for the seventh leg, taking mountain bikers through the hills above Lake Padden, because that would have run participants into congested traffic on the busy festival weekend.
Planners then regrouped and sought permission to run the route through the Chuckanut Community Forest, also known as the 100 Acre Wood, said the race’s executive director, Pete Coy.
“We got permission to use the 100 Acre Wood from the parks department, from public works, and from the mayor’s office, and then that was rescinded,” Coy said. “I’ve never done an event before where there’s not been a clear direction of where we’re going this late in the game.”
The race committee worked with the city departments, which own and manage the 100 Acre Wood, Coy said, and got permission before publicly announcing their plan on April 1.
“On May 1, 2015, to our complete surprise and without discussion, the City of Bellingham revoked permission for Ski to Sea to use the 100 Acre Wood,” Wednesday’s statement reads. “We immediately requested an explanation, and, after receiving inadequate responses from the City, we met with the mayor in person on Monday to determine why the City has backed out and to request reconsideration of the decision.”
The race planners’ statement says they don’t feel they’ve gotten a plausible explanation from the city yet, and they felt the decision had nothing to do with the course design, the planning process they engaged in, or whether the May 24 race would have any impact on the environment.
“We wholly attribute this blunder involving the 100 Acre Wood to City of Bellingham management and its flawed reasoning,” the statement says. “The city’s explanation is simply that there was an internal ‘miscommunication’ with the city’s own legal department.”
When the parks department first looked at the proposed route, it looked doable, and they told the race planners that, said parks Director James King.
“We sent that to the Ski to Sea folks, but unfortunately we may have miscommunicated there, since they took that as a ‘Yes, you can do this,’” King said. “When we listened to the public, the people that weighed in, they had concerns, ‘Are there impacts?’”
Upon further review, the city decided that would not be a workable route for the race, King said. The city had not yet finalized that portion of the race’s special request permit before deciding the route would not work, he said.
“We’re not trying to ruin anybody’s day,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what the right answer is.”
Once Linville got more information about the route, she said, she realized there would be a higher impact on the land than should be allowed without having a management plan in place.
“My direction to the parks department was that we need to have our conservation and easement plan done before we use that property,” the mayor said. “One of the reasons we bought it was because it was so sensitive.”
“I’m very sympathetic, but once I knew all the facts, using that for a high-impact event was counter to what I’d been saying about management of that property all along,” Linville said. “I understand they’re very disappointed, and I took full responsibility with Pete (Coy).”
Linville said it became clear that the city had committed to the metropolitan park district — essentially property owners near the park who voted to tax themselves to help pay for it — to make a management plan for the property before using it.
“This particular race has created a lot of heartache for a lot of people,” Linville said. “I’m sorry about that, and look forward to continue to sponsor it and support it.”
Race planners are working on finalizing a mountain bike course over the Interurban Trail and into Arroyo Park, Coy said. The route will be announced once organizers are sure they have all of the needed permissions.