City bumbles on Chuckanut Ridge extension

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Wed, Aug 04, 2010, 10:12 am  //  John Servais

Our mayor, Dan Pike, has much to answer for regarding Chuckanut Ridge. He and the Planning Department are playing a cozy game with Greenbriar Northwest Associates (GNA) and their development rights to Chuckanut Ridge. Dan is acting against the best interests of Bellingham - and is keeping even the City Council in the dark about what is happening.

Let me lay out some specifics, with some questions.

We learned this week that Bellingham Planning Department interim director, Jeffrey Thomas, granted a three month extension to GNA for their Environmental Impact Statement submittal, from July 30 to October 29. The letter from GNA's attorney, Bob Tull, requesting the extension was sent on Friday, July 23 and the extension was very quickly granted a week later, Friday, July 30. This looks like a quietly prearranged deal because the request letter is very short and the wording is almost gobbly gook, saying a "partial change of ownership" has made this extension necessary. That change took place seven months ago.

To submit this request only a week before their deadline suggests a lot of confidence in getting the extension. It also avoids any public discussion of the issue, as it happens so quickly. A normally reliable source says Planning Director Thomas only checked with David Webster, the mayor's assistant, and someone in the legal department. The mayor has been on a month-long vacation to the East Coast. So whether or not he was made aware of this extension request is a question. Regardless, the City Council has the authority to control such extensions and a check with several Council members reveals none of them knew anything about this.

Here is what I did not know until today: the EIS deadline has been extended at least once before, and maybe several times. It was set to expire at the end of March. But in March, Bob Tull requested, and then-Planning Director Tim Stewart granted, a three month extension to - you guessed it - July 30. In March, Tull cited "internal ownership change" as his reason for requesting an extension. It also appears there was an earlier extension from December 30, 2009 - but I do not have solid evidence of that.

So, here are a few questions. How many quiet and unpublicized extensions has GNA received? Why? And why has the City Council not been told of these extensions? Regardless of the citing of Bellingham Codes by Jeffrey and Tim, this issue of extensions is a Council prerogative. To not even inform them is something the mayor needs to answer for.

Now combine those unpublicized extensions with the closing of Horizon Bank and the transfer of all their assets to Washington Federal in early January - including the GNA and the ownership of the approximately 100 acres of Chuckanut Ridge. The mayor told us in January he was in negotiations with the bank to buy the land for the city. I was told by others involved that the mayor was going to keep the City Council updated on progress. So, many of us kept quiet to allow the negotiations to move forward without any public noise. With the City Council in the loop, we could wait for a good solution. One Council member told me in April, that based on Council briefings by the mayor, his understanding was that an agreement was close. Apparently since then the Council has not been kept up to date.

The city, by extending these deadlines, is actually artificially propping up the value of the land. The city is causing the property purchase to cost us millions more. The mayor is acting against the best interests of the city by allowing the extensions.  And it all seems to be quietly arranged by verbal agreement with short cryptic letters serving as the public record.

I've communicated with several City Council members in the past couple days. They know nothing about what is going on. They have no idea where the negotiations are. They did not know of the this latest extension - and only learned about it two days ago on this website. The Herald has had nothing. And of course, the Council members probably did not know of the earlier extensions as I'm posting that information for the first time here.

Since January the city has had a golden opportunity to buy this pristine land for much less than $10 million. Not all the land is needed to preserve the wetlands, springs and stream sources. The southwest third of the land is perfect for upscale home lots and could probably be sold in a few years for almost $10 million. Or the city could buy a third of the property for a few million and the bank could donate property for a park and get a huge tax write-off because the city's purchase price would set the value of the land. The city has had seven months - with the needed money earmarked in the Greenways Levy account - to cut a super deal for this land. And now here we are, eight months into it, and we learn our mayor is propping up the value of the land for the owners. Who knows - they might turn down the city and sell to some other developer - complete with very nice extensions for submitting plans.

The mayor arrives home today from his very long time away. He has much to answer for.

Tip Johnson  //  Wed, Aug 04, 2010, 11:54 am

The Council is statutorily charged with the authority and responsibility to condition every development proposal in the best interests of the community.  They have generally delegated much of that authority to the Planning Director for routine administrative matters, but also retain the overall responsibility for policy issues.

In this case, there are some very thorny issues related to the questionable vesting of an incomplete and erroneous application, and the application of outdated, inadequate critical areas standards.

The DEIS quite clearly demonstrated that the proposal as framed would have devastating effects on publicly owned wetlands and two salmon streams. The Council may very well want to weigh in on their policy of protecting critical wetlands. How long should we continue to apply standards we already know to be insufficient?


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