Dateline: Nov 11, 2011
A series of recent landslides around the perimeter of Chuckanut Ridge, which caused substantial property damage, several injuries and one death, has prompted a multi-million dollar class-action lawsuit by two dozen south Bellingham residents.
Investigators have determined these landslides could have been prevented if the city had properly enforced its own Critical Areas Ordinance when it approved the Fairhaven Highlands development in 2010. The CAO, which was adopted in 2005, is the city’s only law specifically designed to “Protect members of the public and public resources and facilities from injury, loss of life, or property damage due to landslides and steep slope failures, erosion, seismic events, or flooding.”
According to city officials, the CAO was not enforced because the Fairhaven Highlands project was vested under prior law. However, the Bellingham Municipal Code, which is consistent with state law, confirms that public safety trumps vested rights and allows the city to enforce current law and deny an application if necessary to protect the public. The class-action suit asserts the city was negligent and, by failing to enforce the CAO, endangered public safety.
In addition to seeking financial compensation, the lawsuit charges city officials with negligent homicide in the death of a 77-year old resident. Named in the suit are Bellingham’s Mayor, Planning Director, City Attorney, seven current City Council members, and two former Council members.
For more than four years before the project was approved, southside residents repeatedly requested that the city enforce the CAO and its unique safeguards. Direct appeals were made to the Planning Director, Mayor and Council. The suit states city officials knew – or should have known – the risk of landslides, steep slopes failures, erosion and flooding posed by the Fairhaven Highlands project exceeded any reasonably acceptable level. Enforcement of the Critical Areas Ordinance was required to mitigate these risks.
The lawsuit further claims that public access to elected representatives – a cornerstone of all democracies - was illegally denied based on an erroneous interpretation of the appearance of fairness doctrine.
The trial is set to begin next week.
This article, about a potential future event, has been written with the hope that city officials will take appropriate action now to prevent the incident depicted, as well as potential lawsuits. This article represents a last-ditch effort as all other options have already been exhausted.