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Open space plan ready for review

Should they spend the money all at once? How important is public access? And, if it means saving even more land, might a few houses go up as well?

The city Open Space Commission wants to hear from the public on these and other questions, as an $8 million program for local land preservation gets under way.

“We’re calling this ‘a progress report from us,’ and we need to know what people think,” commission chair Andy Maron said this week. “It may be, ‘Don’t bother us – get going!’ Who knows what they’ll tell us?”

Last November, more than 70 percent of island voters approved an $8 million bond levy for preservation of land. Since then, a seven-member commission appointed by the mayor has been devising a plan by which to solicit and evaluate parcels for purchase.

Published this week is the commission’s draft operating plan, on which it is soliciting comment over the next month.

The commission will hold a public meeting May 6; key questions that will be put to the public include:

* Mix of properties: The commission has divided lands into five categories – farm and agriculture; natural areas; waterfront; greenways and trails; and miscellaneous properties with historical or cultural significance, or educational value. Should purchases balance the categories, or are some more desirable for preservation than others?

* Public access: How much weight should be given to public access on acquired properties? Are conservation easements – which may save more land, but preclude public use – okay?

* Timing: Should the commission try to spend the money quickly, or keep some in reserve for properties that come on the market in the future? Is a three-year window for purchases appropriate, or should the commission try to prolong its work through grants and other funding sources?

* “Creative alternatives”: Likely to inspire some controversy are possible strategies for stretching the open space dollar. For example, the city could buy a large parcel, put a conservation easement on most of it, carve out a building lot or two at the corners for resale, and plow the proceeds back into the program.

“We could be saving money,” commissioner Dave Shorett said, “but there could be some resentment, because we could be seen as fostering development.”

And the big one:

* Wyckoff: Asking price for the Superfund site, coveted as a park for its stunning views and half-mile of beach, is said to be around $8 million – the same amount voters authorized for open space purchases. Should some of the bond money go to saving that parcel?

“It could be, just buy Wyckoff and we’ll go home,” Maron said rhetorically, suggesting the challenge of finding “the right mix” of parcels for purchase.

A sheaf of materials is likely to be distributed at the public meeting; comment is also sought on a draft “scoring system” by which properties would be evaluated.

At its March meeting, commissioners put their system to the test, looking at seven properties now under public ownership or purchase contract: the Grand Forest; Gazzam Lake; Suyematsu farm; Blakely Harbor Park; Gideon Park in Winslow; the “Lumpkin parcel” and associated tidelands at the head of the bay; and a wooded, 3.5-acre Miller Road property formerly owned by the county.

The result: After all points were tallied, Blakely Harbor Park topped nearly every list, while Gazzam Lake also scored high.

That suggests to commissioners that the scoring system is sound. At the same time, the group has maintained a mantra of “maximum flexibility” under which properties that score lower, but offer low cost or ready availability, might be recommended for purchase earlier.

“We realized that we can’t be a slave to the criteria,” Maron said. “This is a tool, not the be-all and end-all.”

Even without a formal process in place, the commission has already heard from about 15 persons interested in selling their land to the city, and from folks who want to see parcels in their neighborhoods saved. Shorett said he is constantly asked when purchases will begin.

“I think the public wants us to get on with it,” he said. “If we do this creatively and do a really good job, the public may say it’s worth considering another bond down the line.”

As an advisory body, the commission will make recommendations to the city council, which will have to approve all purchases. But with an $8 million bankroll, enthusiasm is palpable.

“Many committees sit around and say, ‘Gee, we have all these great ideas – if only we had money,’” Maron said. “We have money...It’s a different world.”

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The Open Space Commission will take public comment on its operating plan for the use of $8 million in bond funds, at 7 p.m. May 6 in the council chambers at city hall. Comment is sought through May 17. The commission’s draft operating plan can be reviewed online at www.ci.bainbridge-isl.wa.us. Information: 842-2552.

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