Bellingham community garden caught in debate between city, developer

A beloved community garden in the Cordata neighborhood may have had its last harvest depending on whether the city requires a developer to move forward with plans for the land it sits on.

“We don’t know if we’re going to have a garden next year,” said Sharon Pelfrey, a volunteer coordinator who has worked in the Cordata Community Garden for the last four years. “A big part of my heart is going to go if the garden goes.”

It could be spring before the 40 or so neighborhood gardeners know if they can start planting again, as the city of Bellingham and developer Caitac sort out the sequence of construction on the Larrabee Springs plats to the north of Cordata Parkway.

Five years in the dirt

The Cordata Community Garden got its start on roughly one-third of an acre about five years ago.

The land was provided for free by Caitac, which had plans to continue building houses northward. At the time, the recession had just hit, and market-driven development for the area appeared to be several years out, said Julie Guy, Cordata Neighborhood Association president.

“It looked as though there wouldn’t be any development for a long time,” Guy said.

With about $30,000, neighbors set up the garden’s 50 raised beds, each 4 feet by 16 feet, built a tool shed, and installed a deer fence, though they knew the garden wouldn’t be around forever.

“We knew from the start we were on a month-to-month basis and we could be asked to leave at any time,” Guy said.

As the economy started to recover, Caitac moved forward with construction but continued to work with the garden to ensure it could remain open as long as possible.

Last year the company spent about $100,000 to redesign the location of a stormwater pond needed for the development so it wouldn’t force the garden to be moved, according to a letter Jones Engineers sent to the city in mid-August.

“Now that they’ve built the parkway further north, they’ve also built a temporary road so people can drive down there,” Guy said. “They’ve definitely gone out of their way to assist the garden.”

Community members say the garden has helped feed many people and is a healthy hobby for those who work there.

Madelane Coale started tending to one of the garden beds this year. Coale, who lives in an apartment and is unable to work due to disability, said the garden played a large role in helping her lose 60 pounds this year as part of a weight loss program.

“The garden brought things together for me,” Coale said. “There were days when I had to push myself to go, because I knew if I didn’t, all my plants were going to die.”

Coale was able to grow fresh lettuce, carrots, radishes, spinach, herbs, cucumbers and other vegetables for her meals, and she also had space to grow flowers.

Pelfrey said the garden collectively donated more than 1,000 pounds of food to the Bellingham Food Bank this season. One bed she tends to provided nearly 100 pounds of food and dozens of dahlias to a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

“I hope (the garden) stays open,” Coale said. “It’d be great if we could find another piece of land if this one closes. All cities need community gardens.”

Changing plans

Caitac officials have asked the city to allow construction of phases 2 and 3 of their plans, building west of the garden and Cordata Parkway. But so far the city has asked they continue in phase order, putting the 1B area east of Cordata, where the garden is located, next on the slate.

The developer contends that when the hearing examiner approved their proposal in 2008, the ruling did not require the phases be built in order.

Part of the reason Caitac has asked to build to the west first is to delay building part of Kline Road as an eventual east-west connector for that neighborhood.

In November, a lawyer for the developer told City Council it appeared likely a transportation study of the area could find Kelly Road to the north is a better east-west road for that area, making Kline Road unnecessary. Kelly Road is just north of the city’s incorporated area and outside of the city’s current urban growth area.

“I just want to emphasize this is a timing issue more than anything else,” lawyer Bob Carmichael told council during a public comment period Nov. 10. “Given the city will consider other alternatives under the planning process, we would like the ability to not build that road until the city goes through that process.”

The alternative, Carmichael continued, is to force the developers to build to the east, losing the community garden for “no reason at all, if, in fact, that road doesn’t have to be built as a connector.”

Additionally, the developer does not yet have the same permission to impact wetlands near Kline to the east as it does to the west of Cordata, according to the August letter from Darcy Jones, president of Jones Engineers.

“Our current authorization will expire in about four years and we believe it would be prudent to implement the authorized wetland impacts to the maximum extent practical, under the current permit,” the letter states.

The developer plans to get permission for wetland impacts to the east eventually, but that is likely to be a long process, according to the letter.

Whlie the city and Caitac negotiate, the gardeners are keeping their eyes and ears peeled for a permanent spot.

Mayor Kelli Linville said she supports having a community garden in the Cordata Neighborhood, and she thinks the way it is managed is a model for the city.

The city’s new planning director, Rick Sepler, said the city is looking at the long-term future of the garden while it works with Caitac.

“It’s an awkward one — the garden is a pawn in the larger picture between the developer and the city,” Sepler said. “The garden is very wonderful, but not a city project or on city land. We’re trying to find a place where it could have a permanent home.”