Decision time soon for Gazzam fields

Gazzam Lake Park is many things to many people.Some see it as a site for a Sunday nature walk next to a sedate body of water. Others see it as an offbeat locale for off-the-beaten path activities like horse riding and mountain biking. Still others see it as the perfect place for children to perch on a swing or play in a ball game.The one thing nobody sees in this 318-acre preserve on southwest Bainbridge Island is a battlefield.

“By JIM THOMSENStaff WriterGazzam Lake Park is many things to many people.Some see it as a site for a Sunday nature walk next to a sedate body of water. Others see it as an offbeat locale for off-the-beaten path activities like horse riding and mountain biking. Still others see it as the perfect place for children to perch on a swing or play in a ball game.The one thing nobody sees in this 318-acre preserve on southwest Bainbridge Island is a battlefield.That just what it may become, however, as park district commissioners prepare to review Gazzam Lake’s master plan – and its controversial call for as many as four baseball, softball and soccer play areas at the park’s southeast corner.“This could be one of those all-time controversies – one of those things that keeps on going no matter what,” said Connie Waddington, a member of the park district’s Gazzam Lake Stewardship Committee.Last month, park commissioners began publicly reviewing the 1997 master plan, which includes 24 acres for “active-use recreation” in the form of a two-phase, four-field complex nestled between pristine wildlife habitat and an unpaved residential lane.It was their first serious look at the future of its largest single property in more than two years. The acreage is home to a dozen varieties of trees, nearly 100 species of birds – including a rare osprey nest near the proposed ball field site – and a haphazard network of trails. They center around the park’s crown jewel – a 13-acre marshland lake largely unspoiled by humankind.The issue was set aside due to the district’s stretched financial and personnel resources, which were focused for on a series of other high-profile contentious issues such as the bond issue to build a new pool and a failed plan to build an animal shelter on park property.Sure enough, however, as soon as the topic floated back to the surface, the tension did the same, as even the district’s five commissioners revealed their deep philosophical chasm over Gazzam.As Darrell Hallett, an attorney who served on the park’s master plan committee, put it at the Sept. 23 meeting: “I had hoped this would just drift away and we’d never come back to this and that Gazzam Lake would stay the way it was.”That option, though, is the only one all parties agree is not a viable one.History lessonControversy has checked Gazzam Lake all through its acquisition and plan development process this decade.In 1994, a citizens’ group sought the support for several youth sports groups, who saw in Gazzam an opportunity to gain badly needed new playfield space for its burgeoning volume of participants – growth that ran parallel to Bainbridge’s decade-long population explosion.Led by the Bainbridge Island Land Trust, they pieced together a $5 million funding package that included state grants ($1.725 million), Kitsap County impact fee revenues ($400,000), private citizen donations ($118,000), as well as a $500,000 discount on the appraised asking price by the property’s owners, the Black family.Altogether, Bainbridge taxpayers were asked to pay less than half of the going market rate – $6,900 per acre from a $14,000-per-acre appraisal.Some of the money – notably the county’s contribution – was expressly contingent on including ball fields.Coupled with the park district’s $2.575 million bond issue request, the groups started spirited campaigns in anticipation of a February 1995 islandwide vote. Many islanders said they would support the Gazzam purchase only if no ball fields were built.Others said the ball fields were the only reason they supported it. Still others grumbled about taxes in general.Such polarization of popular opinion had proponents holding their breath on the big day – but their fears were for naught, as Bainbridge voters backed the bond issue with 63.7 percent of nearly 5,800 ballots cast.Meeting morassIn 1996, the district convened a 23-member advisory committee, carefully balanced between disparate interests, to draw up a master plan to decide how best to share the hidden park with everyone.The group, chaired by Annita Baze Hansen, was given free rein with one exception. Chuck Field, then the district’s executive director, said that given the provisos by which some of the purchase money was procured, not considering ballfields was not an option.That didn’t sit well with the more environmental-minded members of the group, and set what member Yolanka Wulff called a “contentious tone.”“There would be a lot of phone calls the night before a meeting, especially when a big vote on something or other was coming up,” Wulff said. “We’d say ‘please show up – all the ball field people will be there, we need more trail people there.’”After a year, the committee found enough common ground to present a finished report. The plan included a two-phase approach to the active recreation area, each of which included a full-size soccer field and a Little League regulation softball/baseball field.It recommended forming another group – a Ballfield Advisory Committee to explore other island sites that might be more suitable for play areas than Gazzam Lake Park.The committee, chaired by John Rudolph, studied more than a dozen possible locales between in late 1996 and early 1997. It first uncovered a possibility on Phelps Road, adjacent to Hidden Cove Estates – a park now largely completed and ready for play in the spring of 2000.It also located the Lovgreen Road gravel pit site abandoned by the county, a site that could be acquired for much less than market value. Negotiations are ongoing with the park district.The committee also, startlingly, recommended that only the first phase of Gazzam Lake’s ball field plan be put into play. The second phase, located south of the twin water towers just off the park’s Deerpath Lane entrance, was decried as too steep and too potentially hazardous to surface and groundwater drainage.Dust off the planThe Gazzam Lake Master Plan gathered dust while the district moved ahead with more expeditious plans for ball fields at Hidden Cove, Sands Road and Rotary Park.But the commissioners have come back to it now, as they always knew they would.“My feeling is that Gazzam Lake ought to be bumped up to the top of the priority list as soon as possible,” commissioner Daryle Schei said.That’s a sentiment not shared by all of his fellow board members, however.“Most of the people who have called me are just adamantly opposed to the ball fields,” Chris Llewellyn said. “My feeling is that if this is going to be delayed so long by fighting, then we ought to look someplace else.”Those sentiments are echoed among members of the public.“It’s like putting in a McDonalds at Hurricane Ridge,” Hallett said.Joanne Croghan, who has sat on the park board during Gazzam Lake’s journey from fantasy to fruition, disagrees for two reasons.One, she said, the island’s south end has no play field complex other than at Blakely Elementary – which she called “the Blakely drainfield.” Two, the district is duty-bound to honor a promise.“If I were voting today, I don’t know what I’d do,” Croghan said. “But I do know what I would not do, which would be to say to the youth sports groups, ‘Thanks for your help, but we changed our minds.’”The district is limited in its options. It’s not as simple as looking to another of its parks to place ball fields – most have restrictive covenants that preclude such expanded use. And it’s not as simple as buying another tempting piece of property, such as the Lynwood Center sand pit “triangle” or the county’s Vincent Road landfill property.Because the park district – unlike its fellow junior taxing entity, the school district – is precluded from collecting impact fees, it has no capital reserves for such maneuvers. The district banked some $800,000 for island ball field development from the bond measure, but diverted about half to to develop the Hidden Cove and Sands Road complexes. Investments have brought the balance back to well over $500,000, and in time may cover the amount Field estimated in 1997 would be needed to develop just the first phase of the Gazzam ball field proposal – $600,000.Before commissioners can even consider the dollars, however, they have to consider the debate. Key questions include:l How would the district ensure that animals, birds and significant flora won’t be adversely affected by clearing and development of a Gazzam ball field?l How would the district act to mitigate the noise and water drainage impacts on its Deerpath Lane neighbors?l How would the district design the access point to Deerpath off Baker Hill Road for ideal sight and safety considerations?l Would the district be willing to subject the Gazzam ball field proposal to an islandwide referendum-type vote?l Suppose other ball field space were to materialize?That latter is something each commissioner wishes would happen, if for no other reason than to take them off the hook.“I wish somebody out there would donate five or 10 acres in exchange for having the park named after them,” commissioner Dave Shorett said.Wulff said she and others opposed to Gazzam ball fields would be willing to help look.“We’re all for ball fields, but it would be very foolish for anyone to consider that putting the ball fields there would not have an impact on the wildlife,” she said. “The birds and the deer and the squirrel don’t know where the boundaries are.”#####”