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Bellingham hopes to trim government involvement at city-run community gardens

The city of Bellingham hopes to save money by shifting the task of overseeing several community gardens to other groups interested in doing the job.

The city also plans to terminate its lease after this year for private property used for a community garden in Happy Valley. However, the three family owners of the property favor continuing to use that land for gardens.

"We had hoped the garden would be available to local residents in perpetuity," said Dr. John Hoyt of Bellingham, who owns with property with his brothers, Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt of Acme and Daryl Hoyt of White Salmon.

The city spends about $10,000 a year on staff time registering people who rent garden plots for $30 a year, monitoring use of the 195 plots, handling refunds and complaints, and doing other related work, said Marvin Harris, parks operations director.

The city currently rents plots at three locations. Two of the sites are on city property: a year-round organic garden at 10th Street and Wilson Avenue in Fairhaven and a seasonal non-organic garden at Lakeway Drive and Woburn Street.

The Happy Valley garden, also year-round and organic, is on 32nd Street between Taylor and Donovan avenues.

All three gardens will continue as usual this year, Harris said, with the hope that a new arrangement for their administration can be in place for 2014. A public meeting will be held this spring to explore ways for other groups to oversee the gardens, he said.

With maintenance money tight for parks, it makes sense to reduce city spending on the gardens while finding a better way to run them, said James King, parks director. Many others community gardens are on private property and are well-run by groups actively involved in the projects, with fees that fully cover the gardens' costs, including water, King said.

"That's the model we're hoping to work toward," he said.

Changes at the three gardens, including levels of city support, could evolve over time, he said, depending on what comes out of the talks with community groups.

"That has to be balanced with what are the needs of the community," King said. "We're not saying community gardens are bad and should go away."

Beth Chisholm, who coordinates the Community First Gardens program for WSU Whatcom County Extension, said she plans to meet with parks officials soon to discuss the matter. While the WSU office in Bellingham doesn't have the immediate resources to administer the city gardens, Chisholm said, she and other people hope the gardens can keep going.

The Happy Valley garden was part of a larger parcel that Sven Hoyt bought in the 1960s with fishing money he earned in Alaska. A student at Western Washington University, Hoyt was active in environmental groups and the Community Food Co-op, and wrote for the Northwest Passage, an alternative newspaper then published in Bellingham.

Hoyt was 24 when he drowned in July 1972 while diving off of Lummi Island. His mother and brothers agreed to allow public gardens on the property because Sven had started gardens there as well as at Western.

A year before he died, Hoyt wrote a guest column for the Western Front campus newspaper about plans for a university garden and the need for stronger ecological values.

"Food should be grown and eaten locally, much like the Indians did in past years," Hoyt wrote. "In that way crops would be more diverse, just as the general webs of nature are toward diversity."