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)?