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Whatcom council schedules hearing on 8,844-acre land transfer plan

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By Jared Paben
The Bellingham Herald

Whatcom County Council has scheduled a hearing Sept 11, 7 pm, on the proposal to transfer land in the Lake Whatcom watershed for use as parkland. A detailed park planning effort might begin in 2014.

Whatcom County Council has scheduled a hearing on the proposal to transfer 8,844 acres in the Lake Whatcom watershed from state to county control for use as parkland.

The council will consider a resolution formally asking the state to transfer the land, which is divided into two roughly equal blocks on the west and east sides of the lake. The state Department of Natural Resources currently manages the land to generate revenue for various trusts, including by auctioning timber.

The council will consider introducing the resolution Tuesday, Aug. 7; after introduction, the council would then hold its hearing at 7 p.m. Sept. 11.

The land includes 4,251 acres on the west side of the lake, stretching from Sudden Valley south to the Cain Lake area, near the Skagit County line.

Also included would be 4,593 acres on the east side of the lake, including one mile of shoreline along which the Hertz Trail currently runs. The land would be on all sides of the county's North Lake Whatcom Park, which is located near the end of Northshore Road. The park holds the trailhead for the 3.1-mile Hertz Trail.

The transfer would "complete Whatcom County's goal of acquiring these lands for hiking, nature studies, wildlife viewing, bicycling and equestrian activities," the resolution states.

Opponents are expected to challenge the plan. In June 2010, a state appeals court dismissed a lawsuit challenging the proposal. It was filed by Tom Westergreen, Dick Whitmore and Nielsen Brothers Inc. The court said the challenge was premature, dismissing it without prejudice, meaning they could re-file it.

Opponents also may decide to file a challenge in front of the state Growth Management Hearings Board, which has jurisdiction over issues involving planning under state growth law.

Growth activist Jack Petree said it's important he not be seen as threatening anybody, but he thinks there are serious issues with the proposal that need to be explored, and he's glad the council is having a hearing because it'll provide a chance to explore them. He wasn't sure if he'd file a challenge.

The council has taken steps toward the transfer.

In May it voted 5-2, with council members Barbara Brenner and Bill Knutzen opposed, to ask the state Board of Natural Resources to approve a "blocking up" of trust lands in preparation for the transfer. On July 3 the board approved that plan, which involved rearranging trust land designations to create large blocks of the transferable type. The county now will consider requesting the transfer of those blocks.

Dana Brown-Davis, clerk of the County Council, said a hearing on the resolution isn't legally required but she and council Chairwoman Kathy Kershner agreed it would be good to hold one.

If the request is approved by the council, then the DNR will go through its own process of ensuring the intended use of the land is consistent with the state outdoor recreation plan, county parks Director Michael McFarlane said. The Board of Natural Resources will make that determination.

"The assumption is they will approve the (transfer)," McFarlane said.

If approved, the ownership transfer might occur late in 2012 or early in 2013, he said.

The county doesn't yet have a specific plan for park development, although staff has gone out and looked at areas for potential trails and areas of concern, and they have conceptual ideas, McFarlane said. A detailed park planning effort might begin in 2014, McFarlane said, but that's tentative and it could be earlier.

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