Deja Vu All Over Again


Seattle Times

Tuesday, November 12, 1991

Mercer Island Proposes Open-Space Trust -- Public-Conservancy Plan Would Set Precedent In Land-Use Decisions

By Peggy Reynolds

MERCER ISLAND - Three times in 22 years, golf enthusiasts have sought to turn a portion of Pioneer Park, the largest natural woodland on Mercer Island, into a golf course. All three times, the City Council rejected those efforts.

But now, in a plan without precedent in the state, the city is going a step further: It is proposing creation of a public open-space conservancy trust, under which the city would convey absolute control of its open spaces to a seven-member board, beginning with the 117-acre Pioneer Park.

Trusts to preserve open space have become common in recent years but only as private, nonprofit enterprises. Mercer Island's proposal, the subject of a public hearing this Thursday, would be something quite new, dramatically limiting the ability of future city councils to make decisions about how public open space is used.

"We decided to settle the issue by finding a way to protect our lands on a long-term basis from short-term attacks," said Mayor Elliot Newman.

The city owns a little more than 200 acres of natural woodland, about half of it in parcels smaller than Pioneer Park. While some properties are protected by deeds of gift or terms of a bond issue, City Attorney Ron Dickinson says the city might place all open space in the trust for additional insurance.

If the City Council approves the trust on Nov. 25, the city will enter "untrod ground," according to bond counsel Konrad Liegel of Preston, Thorgrimson, Shidler, Gates & Ellis. Liegel told the city's Park and Community Activities Board last week that he found one similar trust in Rhode Island, but no others anywhere in the nation.

The trust could be dissolved, but only by a unanimous vote both of the trustees and the City Council. By providing this escape hatch, "our legal advisers believe we would avoid shackling future councils," says Cindy Humphreys, Park Board chairwoman.

Under the proposal, future use of trust properties would be limited to "passive and low-impact forms of use such as walking, jogging or picnicking," and future development restricted to "routine maintenance and installation of trails, benches, signs, picnic tables and the like." A special provision would allow horseback riding on one of the three approximately 40-acre quadrants in Pioneer Park.

"There's no absolute way to protect the property unless we give it to a public charity, and that might be unconstitutional as much of our public land was purchased with general-obligation bonds voted by the electorate," said City Councilwoman Linda Jackman.

"We feel the trust agreement is strong, but we're uncertain how it will hold up in court because it's the first of its kind. We recognize that nothing is forever, but the trust puts up one more barrier against developing natural parkland."

Under current law, a simple majority of the seven-member City Council could develop Pioneer Park any way it chooses.

Not everybody agrees that a conservancy trust is a great idea, but the leader of last year's golf-course drive says he sees no point in fighting, and he's not aware of any organized opposition. Bob Barnitt believes Mercer Island "has an element that doesn't want a golf course, period, and it's more powerful (than the golfers)."

Last year, Barnitt collected 1,000 signatures on a petition asking that the city let the public vote on a golf course after obtaining financial and environmental feasibility studies. "But the council wouldn't honor that," said Barnitt.

"I still think it's wrong," he adds, "that on an island with almost 2,000 acres of trees, we can't sacrifice 20 acres to build a facility that would serve 3,000 people, that could be self-supporting and environmentally safe."

HEARING THURSDAY A public hearing on a public open-space conservancy trust will be 7 p.m. Thursday before the Mercer Island Park and Community Activities Board. The hearing will be in the council chambers at Mercer Island City Hall, 9611 S.E. 36th St.