The Reporter asked two opposing citizen’s groups to answer questions about the “Protect our Parks” petition. If the petition receives enough signatures, it will put an initiative on the November ballot requiring the City Council to replace leased or sold parkland with land of equivalent or better value, to preserve parks and open spaces in perpetuity. The initiative would also arguably prevent the building of the Mercer Island Center for the Arts (MICA) in Mercerdale Park.
What is the goal of the parks petition?
Concerned Citizens for Mercer Island Parks: It would guarantee that Mercer Island’s legacy of parkland is preserved for generations to come by establishing a “no-net-loss” requirement.
Support MI Parks and Arts: The real goal is to stop MICA and Youth Theatre Northwest (YTN) from building a new facility at the site of the old recycling center in the Northwest corner of Mercerdale Park.
What is the definition of “parkland use”?
Concerned Citizens: Park uses are established by the City Council and administered by the Parks and Recreation Department as indicated in the city’s Parks and Recreation Plan 2014-2019 and in the Master Plans for the individual parks.
Parks and Arts: The definition of “parkland” in the initiative is extremely restrictive, and therein lies a huge problem. The initiative gives a limited number examples of what is included (such as restrooms, forests and underground utilities), and with this limited restriction, it excludes any other use. The initiative also provides a list of what is excluded (such as a performing arts center, community center and swimming pool).
The most troubling part is that the initiative would exclude many other park amenities we now take for granted (tennis courts, basketball courts, swim beach, off-leash dog area in Luther Burbank, pea patch, skateboard park, bleachers, parking lot for park users, picnic areas and the sculpture park, to name just a few).
Does the initiative support changes to any existing use of parkland? What about renovations/repairs/expansions of facilities currently in parkland that would not be permitted under the initiative?
Concerned Citizens: The initiative allows all current activities, uses, repairs and renovations.
Parks and Arts: Due to the restrictive definition of “parkland use,” the initiative does not allow many changes Islanders might want in the future to better use their parks. This is not a “protect our parks” initiative; this is a “restrict our parks” initiative. The same applies to modifications, repairs or expansions involving existing facilities. As now written, the Community Center could never be expanded, and Mary Wayte Pool could never be replaced with a facility on city property.
Is the initiative directed at a certain park or project?
Concerned Citizens: No. The Protect Our Parks Initiative is directed at all parks and open space on an equal basis.
Parks and Arts: There is no question it is directed at MICA and YTN.
Does the parks petition preclude the planned MICA from being built in Mercerdale Park?
Concerned Citizens: No. The Protect Our Parks Initiative does NOT preclude the regional arts facility from being built in Mercerdale Park. The City Council would be required to: (a) hold a public hearing; (b) find that converting the parkland was necessary because there is no reasonable and practical alternative; and (c) receive equivalent or better replacement parkland.
Parks and Arts: Yes. The initiative creates impossible legal hurdles for anything other than the seven uses specifically called out (such as restrooms, forests, permanent play equipment and underground utilities). Just one of the hurdles would add so much cost to the project as to make it no longer feasible.
Does Mercer Island have any current protections in place for parkland?
Concerned Citizens: Yes, the Open Space Conservancy Trust was created in 1992 to protect Pioneer Park. City Council has steadfastly refused to place any other properties in the Trust. The Initiative is in addition to any current park protections.
Parks and Arts: The Open Space Conservancy Trust protects Pioneer Park and other laws provide additional protections for parks bought using state or federal monies. More important, however, is a history in this city that demonstrates a policy of not just protecting but expanding parks and open space. In just the last 30 years, the city has added over 100 acres on this small island to its parks and open space: Luther Burbank Park, Engstrom Open Space, Southeast 53rd Street greenbelt as well as multiple smaller tracts.
The petition prohibits “leases.” Is this the same as rentals? In other words, would the petition prevent the city from being able to collect user fees?
Concerned Citizens: Nothing in the petition prevents rentals or the collection of user fees.
Parks and Arts: This is another point of confusion this initiative creates. Any temporary use of a space may be considered by the law to be a lease. So does this mean that Music in the Park, Shakespeare in the Park, Farmers Market, sports leagues, picnic rentals and even Summer Celebration, all of which use park space, are now at risk? Currently, the city collects fees for use of ballfields and rental of other part amenities. Without those fees, the city will have to increase taxes in order to maintain our parks.
The initiative is modeled after a similar one passed in Seattle in 1996. What are the similarities and differences between the two?
Concerned Citizens: The initiative is based on the same no-net-loss principle of Seattle’s Initiative 42. The three conditions for converting parkland to non-park uses are taken from Seattle’s Initiative: the City Council must (1) hold a public hearing; (2) find the change of use is necessary; and (3) receive equivalent replacement parkland. There are no essential differences between the goals of both initiatives.
Parks and Arts: The MI initiative shares some wording with the 1996 Seattle Initiative 42 but it is the differences between the two that make any attempt to use the Seattle law as a reason for supporting the MI initiative laughable.
We know how the Seattle law works as Seattle parks have almost all of the uses that are either prohibited or left in limbo by the MI proposal. In fact, there are multiple performing arts centers in Seattle parks, which would be expressly prohibited in the MI law. The bottom line is that the MICA/YTN project would be allowed under the Seattle law. On this question of comparing laws, that says it all.