For thirty years the City has created an expensive problem by adopting and defending inappropriate zoning for Chuckanut Ridge. It was adopted without any of the reviews and notifications that normally precede this exercise of police power. No one except a few realtors, the owners, and maybe a couple attorneys knew about it for years. And it wasn't the only such zoning secret. Such anomalies would gradually prove poisonous to the public trust in City planning that had been painstakingly built during the evolution of the first Comprehensive Plan and it's neighborhood approach.
When a project was proposed fifteen years later, the community first learned the awful fact of the zoning. A property the CIty had recently appraised at slightly over $3M suddenly boasted an asking price of over $20M. Developers taunted, “We bought density.” The huge increase was based solely on zoning termed “a mystery at best” by one of the City's lead planners at the time.
CItizens and neighbors rose to the challenge. They passed levies in hopes of acquiring the property, to no avail. A battle of locally epic proportion was waged while the City, inexplicably, advantaged the project at every turn. At great expense to themselves, citizens defeated the project - almost twice - except it finally defeated itself. Environmental review showed it unfeasible and the economy turned. The City finally had an opportunity and took it. They paid a high price - a fitting end for having created the phantom value. Now, how can we learn from it?
Today the City considers selling parts of this property to pay off value that never should have existed. With all due respect, it's a foolhardy aim. Just review the DEIS. Should the City tread the development quagmire that took down one of Bellingham's most established developers and a bank?
I made the same mistake. I theoretically parceled out 15 acres along Chuckanut Drive to consider for development - development in close proximity to services, in keeping with neighborhood character, not overburdening the bridge, not compromising school safety or emergency access. I considered 20 or so prime southside lots that might fetch nearly $4M, if they could be marketed. Then I overlaid the topography and wetlands. Less than half these units could actually be placed. I looked at how to get the rest. The same tar pit that plagued the owners prevailed. You can't punch roads without compromising wetlands. Wooded hilltops, sensitive slopes, and critical habitat must be compromised - all contrary to existing policies.
Yet, abstractly, the model has merit. The City should be able to buy strategic properties for public purposes, plat some development parcels to pay the freight, and preserve most. It's far better than handing unrealistic entitlements out to developers like candy on credit and scrambling to prevent catastrophies. It's just not going to work here. It's too late. The value is all phony. The City made it's mark and tainted the opportunity. But the model could work if we had good neighborhood-based planning. And therein lies the rub.
Trust has eroded. A comprehensive plan designed, ahead of its time, for neighborhood based planning was stripped of power, neighborhood goals, policies and objectives routinely trammelled. After decades of anticipating the daylighting of Padden Creek to improve fish habitat, we see planners recommend density that will turn it into a storm sewer instead. Wetlands and other critical areas are routinely developed. Time and again development forces stable neighborhoods into transition - around the University, in Birchwood, Happy Valley - everywhere. Look at the base of Alabama Hill. That's bad planning, and costs taxpayers money. Citizens do not trust the City to make good planning decisions.
Let me underscore this point: Bad City planning created the problem at Chuckanut Ridge and today undermines the public's trust in creative solutions to better planning. Today's proposal makes a mockery of the Greenways Levies that featured this acquisition and of citizens' efforts to save the property. It continues the mockery of neighborhood planning, upon which our Comprehensive Plan is supposedly based. Moreover, it is doomed to failure. There's nothing to get. The reason this property has remained undeveloped to this day is because it is essentially not developable.
In any case, if we are looking to cover shortfalls or even leverage gains in Greenways, we would more profitably and more equitably look at all Greenways together. Let's reasonably assess which might best be developed and assist with funding. Which do not compromise ecosystems, or parkland integrity, require little infrastructure, fit with neighborhood plans? Where is our best bang for the buck? Don't fixate on one property with such well documented development problems and a record of failure. Take a look around. There may be many good options.
But before we even try, let's start by restoring the neighborhood-based planning we agreed to thirty years ago, as the very purpose of our Comprehensive Plan is still expressed, even if not practiced. Let's use our land-use authorities to first help people put down roots and build community. Then help us make it even better. Let's not just build, let's build community. The cut and run development we have encouraged is the cause of expensive municipal problems - like Chuckanut Ridge. Good neighborhood-based planning is the cure.
Give it a try. Heck, we live here!