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‘Ever driven by there on a Sunday?’ Project hopes to fix Galbraith parking nightmare

Ride Galbraith Mountain, one of Washington’s best mountain bike areas

Ride along with mountain bikers on Galbraith Mountain. Minutes from downtown Bellingham, Galbraith is rated as one of Washington State's best mountain biking areas.
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Ride along with mountain bikers on Galbraith Mountain. Minutes from downtown Bellingham, Galbraith is rated as one of Washington State's best mountain biking areas.

On a sunny weekday evening, 40 or more vehicles may be lined up on the shoulder of Samish Way near Galbraith Lane, which provides access to the miles of mountain biking trails on Galbraith Mountain.

On weekends, as many as 100 cars can be lined up on the shoulder, Eric Brown, executive director of the WMBC, told the Bellingham City Council on Monday, May 6.

“Have you ever driven by there on a Sunday?” Leslie Bryson, director of the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department, said to The Bellingham Herald about the large number of vehicles parked on the shoulder during busy times.

There’s an existing parking lot for about 30 vehicles in the area.

Located in heavily used Lake Padden Park, the lot is for mountain bikers headed to the south side of Galbraith Mountain and hikers who want to access the trails on the eastern, wooded part of the park.

“It was never built to handle that much use. It is undersized for that use,” City Council member Michael Lilliquist said, referring to the crowds and the resulting overflow parking along the road’s “barely improved” shoulder.

The issue went before the City Council on Monday because the WMBC is offering to pay the cost of expanding the parking lot there to hold a total of 140 vehicles, with longer stalls to accommodate longer vehicles with bike racks.

The Bellingham-based WMBC is a nonprofit mountain biking and trails advocacy group that for more than 30 years has served as the stewards of the network of trails on Galbraith Mountain just east of the city.

The proposed project is expected to cost $350,000 and required the City Council to approve the WMBC’s donation, which it did. The lot would be mostly gravel.

The project also would include two vault toilets — there’s no restroom there now — a kiosk with maps and information, trash cans and a station for people to get rid of their dog’s poop.

The proposed project still must go through permitting, and WMBC still needs to raise the rest of the money — it has so far raised $140,000 — to pay for it.

“Safety is the primary reason,” Brown told The Bellingham Herald about why a larger lot was needed.

Dangerous crossing on Samish Way

Galbraith Mountain has long received attention from mountain bikers far and wide for being a world-class destination and has regularly landed at the top of rankings lists.

And that means it’s become a favorite destination for tourists as well as local riders. Although a renowned mountain biking playground, it has become increasingly popular with hikers and runners as well.

Local riders include children in 20 after-school mountain biking clubs in elementary and middle schools that are part of the WMBC’s education programs.

“We have a huge increase in our mountain-bike clubs,” Brown said.

The club at Wade King Elementary School has 25 kids, while the club at Roosevelt Elementary School has 24 children, Brown told the City Council.

That’s a lot of parents trying to park and drop off their kids in an area where there’s nowhere to park, no sightline and no crosswalk across Samish to Galbraith Lane, Brown added.

And, if you’re a road cyclist, that part of Samish Way leaves you no shoulder to ride on, Brown said.

In 2015, Whatcom County government dropped the speed limit on the part of Samish Way near Galbraith Lane from 50 mph to 35 mph over safety concerns caused by inadequate parking and crowding.

But motorists’ speeding remains an issue, according to Brown.

Young_GalbraithParking01.jpg
The WMBC, a nonprofit mountain bike and trails advocacy group, is raising $350,000 to expand the roughly 30-vehicle parking lot at Samish Way near Galbraith Lane, an access point to the popular mountain biking trails on Galbraith Mountain. Inadequate parking is causing safety concerns, as vehicles line up on the shoulder along Samish Way in Bellinhgam, as seen on Thursday, May 9. Lacey Young lyoung@bhamherald.com

‘Solving a problem’

The proposed parking lot expansion will help with an existing issue, one City Council member said.

“We’re not creating more. We’re solving a problem right now,” City Council member Pinky Vargas said. “It is a safety issue, obviously, lots of people and traffic. We don’t want children on the road.”

Whatcom County government also has set aside money to design and build a new pedestrian crosswalk in the area next year to serve the expanded parking lot, according to a city Parks memo.

The WMBC said the project also would fulfill a promise it made when the city of Bellingham and the Whatcom Land Trust spent $3 million in 2018 for conservation and recreation easement rights for 2,229 acres on the mountain, essentially permanently protecting recreation there.

Private landowner Galbraith Tree Farm sold the easement rights.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board has approved the proposal with conditions, including that it minimize damage to natural systems and that the lot isn’t expanded in the future.

Young_GalbraithParking02.jpg
The WMBC, a nonprofit mountain bike and trails advocacy group, is raising $350,000 to expand the roughly 30-vehicle parking lot at Samish Way near Galbraith Lane, an access point to the popular mountain biking trails on Galbraith Mountain. Inadequate parking is causing safety concerns, as vehicles line up on the shoulder along Samish Way in Bellinhgam, Wash., as seen on Thursday, May 9, 2019. Lacey Young lyoung@bhamherald.com

Parking in the forest

Trees will have to be removed under the preliminary design for the parking lot, which has generated concern and conflict on the social media website Nextdoor.

The city is requiring oversight from an arborist and the creation of a trees preservation plan, according to Nicole Oliver, development director for the city’s Parks Department.

The expansion will cover about 2 acres, but that doesn’t mean all the trees will be cleared, Oliver told The Bellingham Herald.

Some older, big conifers that the city wants preserved will stay, although some older maple trees will be removed under the proposed design, according to Oliver.

The original design of the parking lot was modified to leave some of the big trees, she added, and to make the parking space more park-like, akin to what’s at Cornwall Park, Oliver told The Herald.

The current, preliminary design is marked with what looks like flowers or stars to show surveyed trees that the city wants to stay.

The proposal to design the parking lot around some of the big trees pleased Lilliquist, who walks the trails in that part of Lake Padden.

“I still want a park in a forest when I go on my hike,” Lilliquist said.

Bryson said the WMBC’s work will benefit more than mountain bikers.

“They are donating this to the city. It will be on city land. It will be for the citizens of Bellingham,” she said. “Galbraith is not just for mountain bikers — it is for runners and hikers. It will be for everybody to use. You can use it to go to Lake Padden as well.”

Galbraith parking lot map.jpg
This image shows the preliminary design for the expanded parking lot at Samish Way near Galbraith Lane. The flowers or stars on the map show surveyed trees that the city of Bellingham wants to stay. City of Bellingham Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Learn more about WMBC proposal

Additional information about the nonprofit WMBC’s proposal to expand the parking lot on Samish Way near Galbraith Lane is online at wmbcmtb.org/parking.

It’s also where donations to the $350,000 project can be made.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.
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