A Parks Lesson Learned

A citizen, the city, a corporation, and a sound decision.

Over seven days, Laurelhurst resident Susan Marten got a crash course in civics. In so doing, she may have changed how the city's most controversial department does business.

Last year, Marten complained to the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department's Special Events Committee (SEC) when Windermere Realty and the University of Washington hosted a fireworks display, launched from a barge in Union Bay, as part of the opening of boating season and the Windermere Cup rowing regatta Saturday, May 6. Marten's concern was the impact on environmentally sensitive wetlands called the Montlake Fill, on the shore of Union Bay between UW's athletic fields and the Laurelhurst neighborhood. Birds were a particular concern; early May is the height of nesting season. Marten was told that the events committee had mistakenly overlooked the issue but would consider environmental impacts if the event were repeated in 2006, and that it would notify critics before any hearing was held.

The committee did neither before approving, on April 12, an even larger Windermere fireworks display, scheduled for Friday, May 5. Marten learned of the planned event only a week earlier, when she heard an ad for it on the radio. She sprang into action, notifying local environmental groups, the City Council, and the parks SEC. At a Parks Board meeting on April 27 — only eight days before the fireworks — embattled Parks Superintendent Ken Bounds agreed to have the SEC reconvene to "revisit" the fireworks permit.

On Tuesday, May 2, the SEC met. At the urging of Windermere, it arranged to move the fireworks barge out of Union Bay and into open water, midway across Lake Washington. Marten and birding advocates argued that the permit should be canceled, noting that even at the greater distance the impact of the fireworks on 131 species of nesting and migratory birds at Montlake Fill, and on a pair of federally protected nesting bald eagles (with eaglets) at the Arboretum, was unknown. The eagles posed a particular concern: When they hear an unusual noise from above, their instinct is to assume it comes from a predator. They abandon a nest for up to four days, leaving the eaglets to die.

But 72 hours before the event, with Windermere having spent some $60,000 on advertising, promotion, and planning, SEC members decided to move the barge but hold the fireworks as planned, with the same public viewing areas.

Along with the concerned birders and other environmentalists who marshaled for the SEC meeting, pivotal testimony came from the City of Kirkland's special events coordinator. She described how the city added a second barge for its July 4 fireworks display last year. The fireworks flushed a pair of nearby nesting eagles, who left their eaglets for three to four days. The ensuing federal investigation, the Seattle parks committee was told, came down hard on the city of Kirkland and the special events coordinator for putting an endangered species at risk.

Suddenly, Windermere and the SEC, with no real data on how the open-water location would affect nesting eagles, were considering not just environmental damage but legal culpability. Discussion continued after the Tuesday meeting, and by Wednesday morning, May 3, Windermere, at great cost, decided with the SEC and Seattle Parks and Recreation to cancel the permitted fireworks display, less than 72 hours before it was to happen. In only a week, Marten had won.

The Parks Department has had a string of recent controversies over top-down, commercially related decisions involving, among other things, the Woodland Park skate park, a new zoo parking garage, Occidental Park tree cutting and redesign, and the now-in-litigation Gas Works Park concert series. The fireworks cancellation marks the first in this series of controversies that Bounds and his department have taken prompt action based on citizen complaints. Much credit goes to Marten, the Seattle Audubon Society, and local birders for locating anecdotal and scientific evidence on remarkably short notice to back up their concerns. Credit also goes to Windermere, which, once alerted to the problem, scrambled to act as a good corporate citizen.

But credit Bounds, also, for taking a citizen complaint seriously enough to refer an issue for reconsideration. In past controversies, Bounds and Seattle Parks have been dismissive, if not overtly hostile, toward critics. Moreover, the SEC, particularly chair Virginia Swanson, worked hard to try to locate scientific data on the environmental impact of fireworks. When that wasn't adequate, the event was canceled. It was a much different trajectory than the Gas Works Park concert controversy, which similarly hinged on a lack of public notification before a decision was made and a lack of environmental review. This time, instead of ramming home a decision and getting sued, Parks tried to do it right.

Bounds has attracted so much recent criticism that he's become a political football between the City Council and Mayor Greg Nickels' office. Perhaps the parks department's new responsiveness reflects pressure from higher up. Regardless, it can only be welcome for the various neighborhoods battling recent parks decisions. Will this newfound sensitivity be a trend? Soon, the SEC considers an application for a June 10 fireworks display at Seward Park. We'll see what happens.


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