Protecting the Herons: An Overview

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This overview article is meant to explain why Jamie K Donaldson’s efforts to protect the heron colony on the south side of Bellingham have been joined by other Bellingham residents, the Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club. It also covers how the process might go in the weeks and months ahead. If you have not read Jamie’s detailed articles here, this overview might help you understand the issue.

The Great Blue Heron colony of about 40 nests is in trees next to the sewage treatment plant in Fairhaven. They moved to this location in 1999 when new homes were built near their colony on Chuckanut Bay. Unlike most birds, herons live in large groups, not single, scattered nests. Thus, the herons we see at Squalicum Park or Lake Whatcom or Cordata Park or any streams or wetlands near Bellingham are likely all from the colony of nests in the woods by Post Point in Fairhaven.

If these herons are spooked by development near their nests, they may disappear - and we have no idea where they might go next. Biologists think some just perish when they are on their own. Some move to create a new colony or to join an existing colony. There is a small colony on the Lummi Indian Reservation and another near Birch Bay. There is another one in Twassassen that moved from Point Roberts after development began near their nests. There had been a huge colony of over 80 nests on Samish Island for over 90 years but they left a couple years ago when land next to their colony was cleared for a home. We think some of those herons migrated to our Post Point colony.

If we spook the herons at Post Point by building homes near their nests, they too may disappear. We would no longer see the herons flying along the Taylor Avenue Dock, nor standing motionless in some pond almost anywhere in Bellingham, waiting for a small fish or critter to come within reach. They will just be gone, and may not come back for years - if ever. This is the simple truth. They are not endangered yet, but why would we keep chasing them away until they do become endangered?

Almost ready to leave the nest. Photo courtesy of Nancy Downing.
Almost ready to leave the nest. Photo courtesy of Nancy Downing.

In late spring, Jamie K learned of plans to plat and build new homes right next to the Post Point heron colony nests. Our city planning department had issued a permit to allow these homes. Unfortunately, the permit included exemptions to the critical areas laws and our own city codes. Jamie sought out people she knew to help fund the $1,000 needed to file for a hearing - and then a GoFundMe to raise over $10,000 for legal fees to challenge this permit. The city, developer, consultant and landowner lawyered up – trying to intimidate her. Suddenly, on the day the briefs were to be filed, they backed down and didn’t file. It was over. The permit became invalid and Jamie had won… for the moment. Actually, the herons had won… for the moment.

Many others, including myself, joined Jamie K and are lobbying our mayor and city council to buy the undeveloped property that is adjacent to the heron colony from the owners for fair prices to prevent any further possible construction of homes.

If we as a community treasure the herons gracing our shorelines and streams, then we should be willing to bear the cost to protect them and not regulate against a landowner’s ability to develop their property.

That is where we are now - with hope that the council and mayor will negotiate to buy this land for a heron reserve. The two property owners are willing to negotiate.

But let’s go back a few years - with just a few specific but important details. In 2002, Jamie and others started asking the city to protect the herons by either preventing development or buying the land. City Public Works took on stewardship. Protective buffers were put in place and biologist Ann Eissinger was contracted to provide an annual report on the colony for the department.

In 2016, I learned the major property owner was willing to sell his land to the city and I petitioned the Greenway Advisory Committee. The asking price was about $550,000 for 65,000 square feet – a great price. The Greenways Committee voted unanimously to recommend purchase of the property and sent their recommendation to the Parks Board to be forwarded to the city council. But the Parks Board did nothing with it. A couple months later, the property owner lowered his price to $250,000 but as a reversible easement - a mere negotiating position – but the city was still not interested. Nothing happened until this last spring when Jamie learned of new plans to develop the property.

The city said it could prevent development through regulation; there was no need to buy the property or easement and make the owner whole. When in 2018 there was interest from a private buyer, city planning was perhaps inclined to fudge the laws a bit - maybe nobody would notice they were endangering the heron colony. Maybe they could allow 2 or 3 new homes and the herons would not be spooked. And if the herons suddenly left, then all the property could be developed. Herons gone? Well, that’s too bad. Who could have known?

Great Blue Heron along Bellingham Bay shoreline. Photo courtesy of Linda Wright Photography.
Great Blue Heron along Bellingham Bay shoreline. Photo courtesy of Linda Wright Photography.

So, that brings us to the present, August 2019. Now, the questions are: Will the city step up and purchase all the undeveloped property for a fair price? Will we give the heron colony the protection it needs? Or will there be more shenanigans? Let’s hope the council and mayor have the good sense to buy all this undeveloped property. If not, Jamie and her many supporters will be back, with the best science, plus state law and the city’s laws on her side to challenge any construction permits. Jamie K has already proved she is vigilant and determined - and she has proved that one person can demand that the law be obeyed, even when it is our local government that knowingly violates it.

The herons need help from many more of us Bellingham residents. Please email our city council and urge them in your own words to buy all the adjacent undeveloped woods for a heron protective reserve. Email to: ccmail@cob.org This goes to all seven council members - April Barker, Michael Lilliquist, Daniel Hammill, Pinky Vargas, Hannah Stone, Terry Bornemann, and Gene Knutson. Request they buy this property now - and not kick this issue to the future, risking development that will spook the herons away from Bellingham.

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About John Servais

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

John started Northwest Citizen in 1995 to inform fellow citizens of serious local political issues that the Bellingham Herald was ignoring. With the help of donors from the beginning, he has [...]