Council nixes new park on Manzanita

An open space deal falls through amid financing concerns, other objections.

Islanders love parks.

That’s why voters approved an $8 million open space bond six years ago that ultimately funded 21 separate park purchases.

It’s also why friends, neighbors and members of the Williams family – which has lived on the shores of Manzanita Bay for five generations – filled City Hall Wednesday with stories about their land and pleas to City Councilors to buy a portion of it for future use as a public park.

“There’s just not a better venue on the island for a park than this,” said park supporter Jonathan Evison. “So buy it.”

Though fewer in numbers, detractors of the deal spoke out as well, saying it was too rushed, too expensive and conceded too much to the developer involved.

Then, following an extended, sometimes emotional public comment period, councilors for the first time ever rejected a proposal from the city Open Space Commission, voting 4-2 against the $1.65 million purchase of 8.7 acres of the Williams Property.

“At this point in time it would be disingenuous to vote to support this kind of debt,” said Councilman Bill Knobloch, who was joined by Kjell Stoknes, Debbie Vancil and Chris Snow in opposition of the purchase. Councilors Nezam Tooloee and Jim Llewellyn voted in favor of the purchase, and Councilman Bob Scales was on vacation.

Opponents cited myriad reasons why the deal was a bad one. Some worried that with a long list of projects already on the city’s plate, and only a limited amount of money to complete them, the park was simply a bad financial move. Others thought it had poor access or would be of little benefit to most, save for nearby property owners.

For those at the meeting hoping to score some waterfront parkland in an area where virtually none exists, and for the Williams family, who had hoped to see part of their land preserved for public use in perpetuity, the council’s decision was both surprising and disappointing.

Tangentially, it raised questions among some about how the city, now that it has exhausted the open space bond, should purchase parkland in the future.

Rejection means the portion of the property that would have become parkland now will be sold to developer Kelly Samson, who got involved in the deal at the request of the city.

The Williams family first approached the city’s Open Space Commission in April about buying 14 acres of waterfront land on Manzanita Bay.

The property slopes northwest toward the beach, and includes two existing houses, one of which was built in the 1890s.

Under the proposal, the 1890s home would have been moved nearby to make way for new houses on the old site. Proponents said the structure could have hosted events to generate revenue for the city.

Because the Williams family originally wanted to close the deal this summer, and because the $5 million pricetag for the entire property was more than the city could afford, the OSC approached Samson about purchasing part of the land.

The proposal before council Wednesday included an upland parcel, tidelands and 311 feet of waterfront for the city. Samson’s portion included nearly 11 acres to the south of what would have been the new park.

Stoknes had a number of problems with the deal. For one, there was no plan for the park. He also said there were too many restrictions on the property, a subject that caused concern among others as well. One covenant would have limited tree height on the city-owned portion of the property to protect the views of the houses that eventually will be built above it. Another regarding drainage plans for Samson’s land troubled some who thought the plans would diminish the public value of the property.

Samson said many of the concerns he heard were misguided.

“My task was to get in a position to buy the property and give the city maximum time to make a decision to purchase whatever piece they felt they could afford,” he said. “I did my part.”

‘Small’ issues

Tooloee said council members had been privy to the deal from the outset, and that it was “unfair” to reject it on the grounds that it was rushed or financially irresponsible.

“I find those objections frankly small,” he said. “Council knew all along that the only way to pay for this is with councilmanic bonds.”

But other council members disagreed, saying that although they knew of the deal early on, it has since changed.

“The deal that’s before us now is not what was before us five months ago,” said Debbie Vancil. “We all want all of these things, but someone is going to have to say no to some of these things.”

Open Space Commissioner Andy Maron said there were changes along the way, mostly involving the division of the land as the OSC worked to find a deal suitable for the city. That’s why the OSC built in a safety valve.

“What’s especially disappointing to me is that council chose not to buy it even though we provided a five-year opt-out,” he said. “The city could have bought it now with comfort, knowing that it could be sold later if things change.”

Maron said the five-year period would have given the city a window in which to work on ways to finance the purchase.

Vern Williams, who spoke along with several members of his family, was puzzled by the outcome.

“I’m disappointed,” he said. “I thought it was an asset the community would want, but I don’t pretend to know everything that’s going on behind the scenes at the city.

“Obviously there were some differences of opinion and what motivates those – I have no idea.”

Questions arose at the meeting about whether the timeline of the deal could be extended. City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs said a restructured deal isn’t out of the question, but would require discussion with Samson.

Samson said the timing of the deal wasn’t his choice.

“This is the timeline that was handed to me,” he said. “I’ve made mighty efforts to postpone it, in fact I’ve put up a lot of money to postpone it, but it can’t be postponed.”

Samson said the Williams family isn’t to blame either.

“I’m sure it seemed to some of the council members that this was rushed,” he said. “But the Williams family did what they could – five months of work went into this.”

Samson believes the timing of other events at the city may have contributed to the deal’s failure. News came this week that a second appraisal of the city’s most recent open space purchase – the Meigs Farm property – was half off the purchase price of $1.5 million. Wednesday’s meeting also saw a public hearing about the city’s six-year Capital Facilities Plan, cited by some as indicative of overspending at the city.

The Williams deal faced its own share of criticism, though, including worries about the possibility of a gate and a new private dock at the property’s north end associated with the development.

“There would have been very good access to the water,” Maron said. “Why would we do this otherwise?”

Then Maron posed another question:

“The bigger issue is how are we going to try to fund open space purchases when we don’t know how much money is available?”

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