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Legal threat, politics mar Lake Whatcom park decision

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By Ralph Schwartz
The Bellingham Herald

"I think there are certainly legitimate reasons not to support the reconveyance," said Rand Jack, a board member of the Whatcom Land Trust, adding that the reasons to support it are far greater. But conspiracy theories, Jack said, "made it difficult to have a rational conversation about the pros and cons."

Legal threat, politics mar Lake Whatcom park decision

The green areas show the parkland approved by the County Council. Photo: The Bellingham Herald

Politics was the biggest hurdle cleared by the future 8,844-acre park around Lake Whatcom, but an even bigger challenge might be lying in wait.

The Whatcom County Council's decision late Tuesday, March 12, to transfer state-managed commercial forestland to the county for hiking, bicycling and horse trails might be headed back to court.

"We filed suit before, when this first started," retired forester Dick Whitmore said in an interview Wednesday. "It wasn't ripe enough yet. It's ripe now, and so we're going to go ahead on several fronts."

A state appeals court dismissed the first lawsuit against the land transfer, or reconveyance, in 2010 because it hadn't happened yet.

Whitmore said Wednesday the county violated the state Growth Management Act by failing to protect resource land. The land transfer and park conversion will remove timberland from production.

An argument over whether to use the land for timber or recreation might be heard in a courtroom, but the political squabble that preceded Tuesday's council vote was simply counterproductive and irrational, according to those who worked on the park proposal.

"I think there are certainly legitimate reasons not to support the reconveyance," said Rand Jack, a board member of the Whatcom Land Trust, adding that the reasons to support it are far greater. But conspiracy theories, Jack said, "made it difficult to have a rational conversation about the pros and cons."

Some opponents at a public hearing Tuesday night spoke of secret, backroom deals intended to give the Whatcom Land Trust control over the new county park. Jack had emailed a draft conservation easement to county Parks and Recreation Director Mike McFarlane in December 2011, but that was hardly evidence of a conspiracy, Jack and county officials said.

"There was never any deal, never any agreement with anyone. It was just something we talked about," Jack said.

A conservation easement would protect the land from environmentally harmful uses but would not imply control over the land, McFarlane said.

"We spend half our time debunking conspiracy theories instead of debating real policy issues, and that frustrates me," council member Ken Mann said in an interview.

Council Chairwoman Kathy Kershner's vote in favor of setting up the land for a park was significant because it cut against the grain of the political rift. She joined Sam Crawford as the conservative council members to vote for the reconveyance, which passed 5-2. Barbara Brenner and Bill Knutzen were opposed.

"Republicans and the tea party folks were really, really on Kathy, so that was a politically very challenging vote," Mann said. Kershner, who is active in the Republican Party, is up for re-election this year.

Kershner has appeared at times to oppose the reconveyance, but since taking office in 2010 she has mostly been gathering information.

"To be a good representative of all the people, that means that not everyone that supports you is always going to agree with you," she said in an interview. "I made the decision based on a careful and long consideration of the facts."

Kershner said she was "saddened" that groups such as the land trust were vilified in the debate, but she didn't lay full blame on park opponents.

"I'm a bit disappointed in how the project was rolled out to the public," Kershner said. "All of the groups that spoke against it have some valid concerns about wanting to have all the information they felt they didn't have."

This was also Whitmore's concern. The threat of a lawsuit might not be hanging over the park today if the county had been better at communicating with those in the timber industry, he said.

"We have not sat down at the table and talked about these subjects," Whitmore said. "If people sat down and talked about them, you could work these things out."

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