Massive Excavation in Archeological Zone Permitted by City Hall

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Background: A previous article detailed the absurdity of Bellingham City Hall’s development regulations that are working against a $40 million salmon enhancement effort upstream.  A city permit is allowing the construction of duplexes next to Padden Creek, including an exemption from setbacks on this salmon stream. This highlights City Hall’s lack of review, inaction toward preservation, and previous mistake in assuming the property was un-developable.

17 foot deep excavation hole on bank of Padden Creek.

Well, that’s not all.

From the start, City Hall maintained the project was exempt from review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) and issued a Declaration of Non-Significance (DNS). This despite being perched on a steep slope of “unconsolidated fill,” a landslide hazard, and within feet of a past (and likely future) Padden Creek channel. They offered reduced setbacks from the stream knowing that in time the project could not meet any setbacks.  They ignored the Channel Migration Zone. The proponent’s consultant found no evidence of wetlands

It turns out, all that unconsolidated fill is in a well-known archeological area, the vicinity of an ancient Indian village. In February of 2018, when the project was just getting started, an astute citizen wrote a city planner and asked: 

“Is it outside of the ancient Indian Village which has a state historical number (45WH47)? Has the site been reviewed?”

The project is at 8th and Larrabee. The village site extends from roughly 6th to 10th streets.

The answer: “No, not been reviewed, thanks for that.” 

The citizen asked, “If it is not, has the appropriate tribe been contacted?”

There was no reply.

So for three and a half years, City Hall knew but did not review, notify, or supervise what in the past few weeks turned into a massive residential excavation in a known archeological zone. Reports are that the pit was 17 feet deep and extended much longer and wider. The excavated dirt was immediately removed to sites known only to the project proponent.

The scene is eerily reminiscent of a similar disaster in Oak Harbor a few years ago. Eric Johnston was in charge of Oak Harbor’s Public Works when he supervised the desecration of Swinomish legacy burial remains. Now, the Larrabee project proceeds with Eric Johnston at the helm of Bellingham’s Public Works.

According to Courthouse News Service, in Oak Harbor, Johnston “…refused to stop a road project after uncovering a burial ground and outrageously offered the excavated soil, filled with bones and grave goods, as "free dirt."

Johnston was quoted, “The work on Pioneer Way is still proceeding on schedule.”

That didn’t last long.

The Swinomish Tribe sought, “damages for violation of Washington's Indian Graves and Records Act, breach of contract, violation of the Shoreline Management Act, negligence, tortious interference with a dead body and emotional distress and outrage.”

The Oak Harbor project was stalled for six weeks.

Similar to the Padden project, the Oak Harbor project area was “in close proximity to a known archaeological site,” warned Lance Wollwage, an archaeologist with the state - just as the concerned citizen here warned, early on.

Johnston got canned in Oak Harbor and then sued. According to the Whidbey News Times, “…the former city engineer…asserted the mayor created a hostile work environment that forced him to quit. Eric Johnston asked for $300,000 but settled for $20,000.” Oak Harbor’s  mayor wished “Johnston well in his new job in Bellingham” and added, “We understand that we are human,” he said. “From now on, when we do make mistakes: A. We admit the fact. B. We apologize. C. We try to figure out how we don’t do it again.” 

Coincidentally, Mr. Johnston, through Public Works, controls the water levels at Lake Padden. They currently prioritize the golf course and swimming/recreational uses over in-stream flows for fish.

Welcome to Bellingham. Is it time for our City Hall to admit the facts, apologize, and correct some patterns of behavior? 

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About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

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