Waterfront park gains wary support of planning commission

The proposed Blackjack Creek Park is quickly winning community support, but its proponents may find themselves forced to tie up several loose ends sooner, rather than later as planned.

A handful of unresolved issues drew their first round of challenges Monday when the project came before the Port Orchard Planning Commission. Although several commissioners offered a personal statement of support for the park, the linked issues of parking and access took two hours of intense negotiating to resolve.

Even then, the commissioners did not appear confident the issues had been adequately addressed.

“I would guard you against being too specific at this time because we don’t have all the information in front of us,” said city planner Rob Wenman.

Blackjack Creek Park — tentatively named Etta Turner Memorial Park after the Rotary exchange student who died in the car crash in Bolivia in 2002 — is an ambitious project proposed by the South Kitsap Rotary as part of their 100th birthday celebrations.

The $50,000 estimated cost of the project is being funded entirely by donations obtained through numerous fundraisers Rotary has held. SK Rotary president Mike Savage said the organization has nearly reached its goal, with only $13,000 left to raise.

The project is unusual in that it seeks to turn a parking lot into a park — a feat rarely attempted, even by much larger organizations.

It will also be challenging to build; the park site lies at the mouth of Blackjack Creek, adjacent to both the creek and to Sinclair Inlet. That means it falls under the jurisdiction of both the Department of Fisheries and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, plus numerous shoreline and critical-area laws and regulations.

Complicating matters even further, in order for the park to work as planned, Rotary will need to get several variances to allow parts of the park to lie inside the required shoreline setback zones.

To help the process along, the city — which owns the property Rotary wants to use — has signed up as a co-proponent. Although the design and fundraising responsibilities were left up to Rotary, the city engineer also worked on the proposal and acted as lead agency during the permitting process.

“This proposal is being forwarded as a city proposal, worked by the city engineer,” Wenman said.

The park itself is relatively small — 30 feet by 250 feet — and is intended to be a spot for picnickers, wildlife watchers and those looking for a green place to eat their lunches.

It also will replace a rather rundown portion of the city waterfront, eliminating much of a stand of dilapidated evergreens and a good chunk of cracking pavement rarely used by Westbay Shopping Center and KeyBank, the two businesses that share the adjacent parking lot.

To eliminate the issue of parking, the city and Rotary presented the park as a pedestrian facility accessed by a walkway from the corner of Bay and Bethel Avenue.

The choice to leave parking out of the equation, however, appeared to backfire. The planning commission expressed serious concerns over the assumption the park would attract no extra cars to the lot, a concern echoed by Westbay owner Bill Cree.

In addition, the commissioners found numerous problems with the plan to lay a walkway between the park and Bay Street — the only available route would either run through Westbay’s reader board or eat up some of KeyBank’s drive-through access road.

The Rotary representatives said they planned to work out access issues later, but the commissioners appeared unsatisfied with that explanation.

“If all we’re seeing tonight is the park, how are we going to get to the park?” commission Chair Gil Michael asked.

Randi Thurston, a habitat biologist with Fish and Wildlife, also submitted a letter expressing her concern that the city was taking a good opportunity to restore the creek bank to a more natural state and, instead, “constructing a lawn.”

Rotary representatives said they were currently seeking grants and other funds to help pay for further shoreline restoration, but were unable to come up with equally concise answers to the access questions. Wenman suggested either moving the readerboard or sharing space with KeyBank in order to take care of the walkway problem.

However, with no bank representatives present, the commission was reluctant to approve any suggestion out-of-hand, especially a suggestion that could force the bank to reconfigure its traffic flow.

Cree said he didn’t mind Rotary or the city paying to move his sign, but said the parking issue was really the one he was most concerned about.

“If you lose that additional parking for the bank, they’re going to impose on my stalls,” he said. “(In addition,) to think it’ll be only foot traffic ( to the park) I don’t think will cut it.”

The planning commission finally agreed to add a condition to the project requiring the city to stripe new parking spaces on the west side of Westbay. Although there apparently used to be parking spaces there, the striping has long since worn away. Michael said having the city step up would not only solve the parking issue, but also show support for the long-term car and maintenance of the facility.

The commission also told Rotary to work out a deal with KeyBank as a condition of final approval.

The commissioners voted unanimously to recommend conditional approval of the project to the Port Orchard City Council.

The council is expected to hold a public hearing on the park on Monday.

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