Park failure puts open space in doubt

Something you don’t see every day on Manzanita Bay: straw men fishing for red herrings.

That is nonetheless what islanders witnessed last week, with City Council rejection of a new public park on the picturesque west Bainbridge waterway. The deal was so clouded by spurious issues – from concerns over debt financing, to whether a developer involved in the three-way transaction would be getting too sweet a deal – that the future of the open space program itself ought to be considered in doubt.

At stake was an 8.7-acre waterfront parcel with a stretch of shoreline as wide as a football field is long – quite a prize for the community, given the paucity of public water access on that side of the island – for around $1.5 million, a substantial discount. The Williams family that had stewarded the land for generations wanted to cash out, but hoped to see it preserved as a park. They worked with the city’s Open Space Commission, which pursued the property on the repeated encouragement of the City Council. Asking price for the whole 14-acre parcel was too dear, so a local developer stepped in to pick the part of the land the city couldn’t afford. But when the deal went back to the council for final approval, the council did an about-face and balked.

The result: no park. And no reason for any future land owners to offer their property to the city, and no reason for the Open Space Commission to even continue its work.

The most curious complaint among council members was the expected use of borrowed money to cover the purchase – when this is precisely how nearly every previous open space purchase has been financed. The distinction between “councilmanic debt” issued by the city versus voter-approved bonds is picayune at best; the point is, debt financing is how communities are built. Public parks are a capital asset as surely as roads and utility systems, and financing their development through bonds is a legitimate – and well-used – strategy.

If the council isn’t going to use non-voted debt to finance open space purchases, it should say so and formally disband the Open Space Commission. The demand for new parks isn’t going away – particularly in Winslow, where neighborhood activists say they’re pinched for recreational space – and land isn’t getting any cheaper. But unless a new open space bond is put before voters, the program is dead in the water.

The Williams deal was sidetracked by other, less publicized complaints about the involvement of a developer as a third-party. Some kibitzers complained that with guaranteed private access to a stretch of the Williams property beach, the developer or future landowners might use the opportunity to build a dock. So instead, the public won’t own any of the beach, and the developer owns it all – and can still build a dock. Hard to see how the public wins there.

But again, those were straw men and red herrings. The council, the city administration and the Open Space Commission really ought to sit down and consider what kind of precedent last week’s vote sets for future park purchases. Ask: When the council pledges interest in a parcel one week and turns up its nose the next, why will future landowners even come forward to offer land? And if the Open Space Commission has no guarantee that the council will fund more parks, why should they even waste their time looking for the next deal?

They might as well go fishing too.

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