Squalicum Mountain development gets favors from county

No EIS - no real county planning concern about developing Squalicum Mountain and degrading Lake Whatcom water even further.

No EIS - no real county planning concern about developing Squalicum Mountain and degrading Lake Whatcom water even further.

Virginia Watson writes this guest article about the conflict between development interests and our laws as it unfolds in her community.

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In order to address the concerns of Squalicum Valley residents regarding the impacts of a development planned by the Vineyard Development Group LLC for the top of Squalicum Mountain, the Squalicum Valley Community Association (SQVCA) organized in 2006. While the nature and size of the project has changed since the original plans were revealed, major concerns remain. They include: the further degradation of the Lake Whatcom Reservoir; negative impacts to existing wellheads and the Valley’s aquifer; the fragmentation of this known wildlife corridor; a lack of water to service the proposed development; increased storm water runoff that will likely cause more landslide activity and the flooding of down-slope properties; noise and light pollution; and an increase in traffic flows through the Valley, on North Shore Drive along Lake Whatcom, and on Academy Street & Road. The impacts of this development will negatively affect both city and county residents.

Without requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), Whatcom County has issued a Land Disturbance Permit (LDP) and Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance (MDNS) for the construction of Squalicum Ridge Road to service 26 new houses in the watershed of this sensitive area. The County is allowing the developers to piecemeal this project by granting a permit for the road as if it were a road to nowhere. This illegal piecemeal approach avoids an EIS and does not take into account the cumulative negative impacts of the total project to Lake Whatcom and surrounding neighbors as required under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).

It is well known that Lake Whatcom is listed as an impaired water body for phosphorus and dissolved oxygen under the Federal Clean Water Act. The lake is the drinking water reservoir for 100,000 people, including the entire population of Bellingham. The Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Study for Lake Whatcom found no additional capacity for phosphorus. Yet phosphorus will be liberated through the land disturbance caused by tree removal and construction of the road, houses and driveways. It will enter Lake Whatcom, further violating water quality standards. Any increase in phosphorus above pre-developed conditions automatically triggers an EIS under SEPA, which could then require very expensive and chemical based additives to treat Bellingham’s drinking water. 

According to Whatcom County Critical Areas Ordinance Maps, the Squalicum Valley is a major critical aquifer recharge zone  (2nd largest and closest to the city) for the Lake Whatcom Reservoir. Squalicum Mountain is a geologically hazardous area, a wildlife habitat conservation area, a fish habitat conservation area, and a biologically and environmentally sensitive area. In addition, the State Department of Fish & Wildlife has designated a large portion of the east side of the Mountain as a Biodiversity Area and Corridor (formerly labeled Urban Natural Open Space on the map). This designation requires specific land management practices to protect species that are listed as endangered, threatened or sensitive by federal and/or state agencies. Whatcom County has no regulations in place to manage these lands.

But water is the main reason this area is inappropriate for development, and that includes runoff. The slopes on the east side of the Mountain have grades of 15-30%, that’s nearly twice to four times the grade acceptable for storm water discharges.  The Department of Ecology’s Storm Water Manual (2005) does not permit the dispersion of storm water onto slopes that exceed a grade of 8%. Academy Road, the road that will provide access and egress for this project during road construction and for the ensuing development that it will serve, has an average grade of 12.5%. Storm water runoff results where impervious surfaces and the removal of tree cover and vegetation interfere with infiltration. Infiltration occurs where storm water is captured, slowed, and absorbed rather than heading downhill, gaining momentum, picking up phosphorus laden soil and debris, and depositing them onto downhill properties and dumping them into Lake Whatcom as is likely to be the case as a result of this road and its accompanying development. 

Any exempt well in this area will draw water that is in hydraulic continuity with Lake Whatcom. The Lake and all the bodies of water in hydraulic continuity with it are closed to new withdrawals per WAC 173-501-040. In 2009, the County Planning Director said no public water purveyor could expand onto forest resource lands. This project is in the Rural Forestry Zone on designated forest resource land. There is no water available for these houses.

Furthermore, existing wells located below the road and the proposed development along Academy Road already run dry during the summer months, and residents experience excessive storm water runoff during the wet season. Due to existing uphill development, 40-year residents on Academy had a flood in their home for the first time in the winter of 2009. The damages were worthy of a Federal Emergency Management Agency claim. The clearing of trees from 19 acres to accommodate the impervious surface of Squalicum Ridge Road will only serve to exacerbate these problems.

Residents of the Silver Beach Neighborhood, located at the foot of Academy, are subject to the Silver Beach Ordinance under which they are fined if they do not contain all storm water runoff from their property. This ordinance, inaugurated by the City of Bellingham, aims to protect the city’s drinking water reservoir. The proposed road and the 26 uphill houses and their accoutrements will surely negate the Silver Beach residents’ and the city’s efforts to protect Lake Whatcom.

Last year the City of Bellingham and SQVCA consolidated appeals under the Land Use Petition Act in Skagit County Superior Court challenging Whatcom County’s issuance of the LDP and MDNS for the construction of the road. SQVCA is seeking an EIS before this project can proceed. This road will service 26 twenty-acre lots for single-family houses. The cumulative impacts of the entire project, including the road and all the houses it will serve, warrant an EIS under SEPA. In response to this appeal, our opponents tried twice, unsuccessfully, to eliminate SQVCA from the proceedings.

In 2011, the proponents of this development applied to two state agencies and were granted permits to construct this road. These approvals were based upon Whatcom County’s SEPA Threshold Determination which the City and SQVCA consider inadequate and incomplete. DOE issued a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System construction storm water permit, and the Department of Natural Resources issued a Forest Practices Permit that allows the removal of 19 acres of forest to accommodate this road. In order to appeal these permits it is necessary to go before the Pollution Control Hearings Board. In SQVCA appeals to the PCHB, we ask that DOE and DNR rescind their permits and hold them for review until the Superior Court decision is rendered.

These appeals are grounded in SQVCA’s mission to protect the rural quality of the Valley, its aquifer, the surrounding forestlands, and the Lake Whatcom Watershed. They are necessary to ensure existing regulations are properly enforced. During the past five years, SQVCA raised over $60,000 that was spent on attorney fees and filing fees required by the various county venues. The appeal in Skagit County Superior Court is fully funded. The two appeals before the PCHB are likely to cost $40,000. Whatcom County’s environmental review of the proposed residential development is flawed; it is inadequate and incomplete. DOE and DNR should conduct their own environmental review in such an environmentally sensitive area. The logging and conversion of forestland to residential use will have a deleterious effect on the already impaired Lake Whatcom Reservoir; the logging will take place on unstable slopes; and the proponents, as private landowners, are not subject to the strict Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan to ensure best management practices. SQVCA maintains that existing wells and homes, as well as the drinking water reservoir for 100,000 people, deserves consideration and protection under SEPA. Surely a well-informed judiciary will agree. The outcome of these appeals will have an effect on the quality of drinking water and the quality of life for both city and county residents.

The Squalicum Valley is located four miles east of Silver Beach between Squalicum and Stewart Mountains, north of Agate Bay. Here the drinking water from the community well does not require chlorination; the forest protects the water; the mountain meets the meadow; and wildlife and rural life still thrive. A small group of dedicated rural residents is working hard and paying a big price to ensure the County does not allow the illegal piecemealing of this project. If approved, the project will have a significant and permanent impact on the city’s already impaired reservoir and the resources of our rural community. Please visit: squalicum.org for more information and to help us pay our legal expenses. Thank you!

SQVCA is also working to build the partnerships and obtain the funding needed to acquire and preserve the 745 acres on the mountain and its east meadowland threatened by this development.

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