More government waste on the Horizon?

You don’t need to be Nostradamus to make this prediction: Bellingham city officials are about to waste precious staff time and taxpayer resources preparing an environmental impact statement for Horizon Bank’s Fairhaven Highlands development on Chuckanut Ridge. Shocking, isn’t it? Well, given the amount of warning city officials have received, we should at least be appalled.

The purpose of an environmental impact statement (EIS) is to study the significant environmental impacts of a proposed development. Under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), the lead agency has the responsibility to ensure that the EIS focuses on 'reasonable alternatives'. Before an EIS is prepared, the proposed development should be reviewed to ensure it meets the basic legal requirements under applicable zoning ordinances and building codes. If the development application does not comply with applicable law, preparing an EIS would be a considerable waste of time and resources.

In the case of Horizon’s development, neither the original application nor the Improved Buffer Alternative is 'reasonable' because neither meets the transportation prerequisite in the South Neighborhood zoning ordinance to either widen Fairhaven Bridge or build a connector road; nor does either alternative meet the city’s wetland rating ordinance and wetland buffer requirements. In other words, Horizon Bank has not submitted a legally compliant alternative; preparing an EIS on the proposed alternatives would be a substantial waste of time and resources.

Regarding the wetlands, the original proposal submitted with the 2005 application (2005 Submittal) misclassifies five rare and irreplaceable mature forested wetlands. Under the city’s Wetland & Stream Regulations in place at that time, these five wetlands should have been classified as Category I, requiring a minimum wetland buffer of 100’. However, the 2005 Submittal and related wetland delineation misclassify these wetlands as either Category II or III, which require 50’ or 25’ buffers, respectively. The 2005 Submittal, which is based on 50’ buffers for these mature forested wetlands, fails to comply with the city’s requirement for 100’ buffers, twice the size proposed by the developer.

When Horizon Bank submitted its Wetland & Stream permit application on November 18, 2005, its goal was to avoid the more protective requirements of Bellingham’s first Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO), adopted by Council only three days later. Under the WA State Vested Rights Doctrine, Horizon Bank would have vested its application under the more lenient pre-CAO Wetland & Stream Regulations if its application was complete and if it complied with existing zoning ordinances and building codes. Unfortunately for the bank, its failure to meet the South Neighborhood transportation prerequisite and the city’s wetland buffer requirements prevents the Fairhaven Highlands application from being vested. Although Horizon Bank had hopes of eluding the important community safeguards provided by the Critical Areas Ordinance, it failed to do so and must now comply with the CAO.

In response to Horizon Bank’s plan to develop Chuckanut Ridge, the five southside neighborhoods – Edgemoor, Fairhaven, Happy Valley, South and South Hill – created the Coalition of Southside Neighborhoods (CSN) in 2005. Recently, the CSN formed its own Chuckanut Ridge Committee to address key issues presented by this development. Members of this committee have met with Mayor Pike twice, and we are encouraged by the Mayor’s willingness to work with us to address these critical issues and to prevent precious staff time and taxpayer resources from being wasted. We have asked Mayor Pike to ensure that this development:

• Complies with the South Neighborhood transportation requirement;
• Properly classifies the five rare and irreplaceable mature forested wetlands as Category I; and
• Meets the wetland buffer requirements and other important safeguards of the Critical Areas Ordinance.

Recently, Mayor Pike has exhibited a keen understanding of financial issues, and we are hopeful that he will require Horizon Bank to submit development alternatives that comply with the Critical Areas Ordinance before the city moves forward with a resource-wasting EIS based on alternatives that fail to comply with the city's municipal code.

As a community bank, shouldn’t Horizon willingly abide by the important safeguards included in the city's Critical Areas Ordinance? Is it naive of the community to expect Horizon Bank to comply with laws designed to protect lives, property and sensitive ecosystems?

On a personal note, I’ll be pleased if my prediction turns out to be wrong!

• What are your thoughts about these issues?

• How do you feel about Horizon Bank’s misclassification of five Category I wetlands?

• How do you feel about the need for Horizon Bank’s development to comply with the CAO (which was specifically adopted to protect lives, property and environmentally sensitive ecosystems like Chuckanut Ridge)?

About Larry Horowitz

Past Writers • Member since Jan 16, 2008

Comments by Readers

g.h. kirsch

Mar 01, 2008

One would hope that any member of the community would respect the community’s expressed will when rules like the CAO are adopted and not want to loophole their way out of it.

Mr. Horowitz may be a bit naive though when he asks, “As a community bank, shouldn?t Horizon willingly abide by the important safeguards included in the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance?” 

The operative word there is “bank” not “community.”

For the uninitiated, it is not a promising undertaking to try and slide on the details when taking on Mr. Horowitz and his friends.

Development may not be stopped entirely, but I guarantee there will not be one square inch more built on than is unequivocally allowed.

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Dick Conoboy

Mar 01, 2008

You need to go no further than the zoning codes to find that the city will cherry pick that which it intends to enforce and justify it by saying it lacks personnel, money or whatever the excuse du jour happens to be.

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Larry Horowitz

Mar 02, 2008

Greg,

Thanks for your insights.  I have modified the article and added a question about being naive to think that Horizon Bank might actually consider doing the right thing regardign compliance with the CAO.

Here’s a question for you: What does “community bank” minus “community” equal?

While the intuitive answer would be “bank”, the reality is likely quite different, more like “no bank”.

A community bank is so dependent upon support from its community that it’s unlikely to survive without it.  Back in September 2005, more than 800 members of Horizon Bank’s community sent a strong message when they signed an open letter to the bank stating:

“The community members listed below strongly oppose Horizon Bank?s Fairhaven Highlands development. We are both surprised and disappointed that Horizon would risk alienating a large segment of our community whose residents contribute a substantial share of your profits. Continued pursuit of the Fairhaven Highlands development will have an adverse effect on your reputation, as well as our future banking decisions.
We urge Horizon Bank to immediately withdraw the Fairhaven Highlands development application and to embrace a strategy that will preserve this environmentally sensitive and ecologically rich land for future
generations.”

I have included links below the article to this “Open Letter” and to excerpts of individual comments from community members.

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g.h. kirsch

Mar 03, 2008

Well, perhaps to demonstrate that I am the most naive of all, let me respond to your rhetorical question with another.

What does “community bank” minus bank mean? 

I would discount the real threat community displeasure, at the scale this project will create, and point out that the bank’s valuation of its asset is more important to them.

The fact is it’s the bank’s, and most people’s, definition of community that needs to change.  They only measure the effects of their actions on their immediate interests, and minimally are concerned with the repercussions on others.

Nowhere is their any recognition that the community includes the land, the forest, the fish and other animals that rely on the web of life, or concern for the generations to come who can not represent their interests.

But everywhere this is the short sighted calculus of our economy and our politics.

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Larry Horowitz

Mar 03, 2008

Again, thanks for your comments Greg. 

Based on Horizon Bank?s remarks in their own annual statements, I?m not sure that Horizon Bank execs would agree that the measly value of its investment in Chuckanut Ridge is ?more important? than the support of their local community.  They rightfully understand that future profits of community banks depend on strong relationships with their customers and their community. 

At the same time, I agree with you that their actions are currently speaking louder than their words, and it appears they are more concerned about the short term return on Chuckanut Ridge than the real value of these long term relationships.  If Horizon?s reputation continues to sour, it won?t be long before their financial results are adversely impacted for the long-term.  Personally, I?d love to hear the opinions on these issues of Horizon?s new CEO, Rich Jacobson.

Regarding Chuckanut Ridge, the community has overwhelmingly supported the preservation of this ecologically rich and environmentally sensitive urban forest and wetland ecosystem.  Many supporters live nowhere near this property and understand that their community is impacted even if they are not directly affected themselves.  This behavior is in contrast with your description of people in our community as being concerned only with their immediate interests.  If nothing else, Chuckanut Ridge supporters demonstrate the true meaning of community, much as do those citizens involved in the fight to save Squalicum Mountain.

In my opinion, these selfless actions are cause for hope, not pessimism.

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Ham Hayes

Mar 03, 2008

Larry, I think you’ve made a good point.  As our society places increased value on environmental and social stewardship, can banks, corporations and governments really ignore their customers for long? It is likely some of these organizations have waited too long and the tipping point has been reached on what is an acceptable position with regard to the environment and development.  Those institutions that don’t embrace this shift in values are not likely to last for long.

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