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Bainbridge parkland committee has complex task ahead

Committee will advise park district on parkland acquisition and development.

The shape of Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Park and Recreation District could change drastically over the next few years.

The district plans to begin taking over open space from the city; the state may unload Fay Bainbridge and Fort Ward parks to the local agency this summer; and funds will begin flowing into district coffers from a levy lid-lift passed last year to pay for more park land.

Involved in that third vein, seven community members will share the responsibility of molding future Bainbridge parks.

The Parkland Acquisition Committee (PAC), a group selected by the park board through a public application process, will advise the district on how to spend hundreds of thousands – eventually millions – of taxpayer dollars to bolster the island’s park inventory. The committee includes citizens familiar to the island’s public sphere, including chair Cyndy Holtz, who serves on the city’s Open Space Commission. But several are newcomers from a variety of backgrounds, including soccer coach/attorney Bart Freedman and real estate agent Bill Touchette.

While PAC will be dealing only with the acquisition and development of new land, its task will be complex.

The seven citizens (and two park board members) will have to fit real estate opportunities into the priorities of the park board, park users and the public at large.

“That’s going to be tough,” said park board member Ken DeWitt, who sits on the PAC. “But they knew going into this that there won’t be enough money to meet all the demands people have. So they’re just going to have to be creative.”

The Park District now has a clear picture of what resources will be available.

District Executive Director Terry Lande is projecting $1.17 million from the levy in 2009. The district has promised taxpayers that it will spend 75 percent of the new revenue on acquiring land and developing new and existing parks – roughly $875,000 this year. Of that money, the park board has decided to designate $775,000 for acquisition and large-scale development (think Pritchard Park improvements, building projects, etc.), leaving $100,000 for small projects such as playground equipment repairs.

The leftover 25 percent of 2009 lid-lift money – about $291,000 – is slated for maintenance and general operations. Lande said the bulk of that money will pay for staff to manage the new park land. New staff will be brought on as properties are acquired. Unspent money will be carried over to the next year.

Lande said it is unlikely that the district will begin any large development projects this year, but it hopes to get some small projects completed. Land acquisition is the top priority for the levy money, Lande said.

To that end, the PAC is in the midst of developing a nomination form, which any member of the public can use to suggest a piece of land for purchase. Cyndy Holtz said all island properties will be open for nomination, even if it’s not for sale. The nomination form will be reviewed at the PAC’s March 24 meeting and the PAC plans to host community forums to cull more suggestions.

“This group is very interested in public input,” Holtz said.

Once nominations are gathered, the PAC will research the properties, weigh them against community priorities and develop estimates for how much it would cost to develop and maintain the land. Then recommendations will be submitted to the park board for a final decision.

In its first few meetings, PAC members have been focused on educating themselves on existing island open space studies.

The group has pored over the park district’s 2008 user survey and newly revised comprehensive plan along with studies and surveys from the city.

On Saturday the committee took a tour of Winslow with Neil Johannsen, who served on a 2007 “Greening Winslow” task force, which found a need for new parks in the downtown area to accommodate future population growth.

Johannsen showed the committee a number of downtown properties – public and private – that the task force felt had potential as park space.

At its March 24 meeting, the PAC will hear from the city’s Non-motorized Committee. Non-Motorized Committee Chair Don Willott said he hopes the PAC will look at the need for an island-wide network of neighborhood trails, connected to main arterial trails for pedestrian and bicycle use.

Meanwhile, the park board has supplied the committee with its own list of priorities for acquisition: adding park land in the Winslow area, adding land to existing parks outside Winslow, creating new parks near city-designated commercial centers (Island Center, Lynwood Center and Rolling Bay) and providing easements and right-of-ways for new trails and park connections. Parcels with water access will also get special consideration.

Holtz said the mass of information provided to the committee has been more encouraging than overwhelming.

“It’s really nice that all of this work has been done recently, because we don’t have to go out and reinvent the wheel,” Holtz said.

Also encouraging is the state’s real estate market. While the economic slump has been tough on island developers, it could prove a boon for the park district as it looks for good value on new parkland, said board member Lee Cross, who served on the city’s Open Space Commission. She said the market is much more inviting now than it was when the city was purchasing open space.

“We were competing actively with developers who were trying to go after the same property,” Cross said. “There are now developers who have bought property but can’t build who might come to us.”

With priorities solidifying, property nominations coming soon, and levy money on its way, the PAC will soon be ready to wade into the market.

Johannsen, a former director of Alaska State Parks, said he is impresseed by what he has seen from the PAC thus far and hopes the group will bring in as much public input as possible. He said he was especially encouraged that the members appear to represent a cross-section of island park users.

“I’m pleased to see there’s a lot of fresh faces,” Johannsen said. “Often when you start to dig into public-policy issues, it seems like you see a lot of the same people at every meeting. There’s new blood here.”

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