The Big Picture on Chuckanut Ridge

Nicholas Zaferatos explains why he is concerned about the park district and looks at the long and short term views if the issue.

Nicholas Zaferatos explains why he is concerned about the park district and looks at the long and short term views if the issue.


Guest writer Nicholas Zaferatos is a 40 year resident of the south side, a former Bellingham Planning Commission member, and is professor of urban planning at Huxley College.


Big Picture Thinking.  Ok, one more shot at TDRs (Transfer of Development Rights) as several of us have referenced this technique as an available financing tool that could replace the tax bailout scheme now before property owners.  For the record, I have not come out publicly opposing the measure. But I do oppose, on general principle, the continuing demands placed on taxpayers to “bail out” bad public policy that freely handed development rights to property owners of “critical areas” and “natural resources” lands in Bellingham and in the County. I question continued taxpayer buyouts and bailouts of land purchases that, under local and state laws, should never be developed. Our increased monthly water bill doesn’t just pay for the infrastructure to deliver drinking water to our homes. It also pays to purchase watershed lands because the government has been politically unwilling to downzone lands in the watershed. Its easier, in such cases, to just have the taxpayer pay for past public policy mistakes.

Yes, we planners do tend to spend an inordinate amount of time imaging more equitable avenues for addressing current and complex problems. And while it is largely theoretical ground we stand on, theories are not fantasies, but foundations upon which to introduce new ideas based on what has worked elsewhere; they remain theoretical only because they haven’t yet been attempted or proven in our locale.

If we’re going to correct the wrongs of past zoning mistakes, in some cases that means playing hardball in how we regulate properties (yes, we can legally downzone and reduce development rights, just as we can up zone and grant more development rights). In some cases, the public’s purchase of development rights makes for the best solution, but there are other tools available that can allow the private marketplace to discourage development on some sites and encourage development elsewhere, where appropriate.  The City Council demonstrated this to perfection when it established a tax incentive district scheme that encouraged investment in new housing downtown. That was a very successful example of government intervention in the workings of private markets for positive public outcomes. The result: more people living downtown and an emerging thriving downtown economy.

The TDR model has been kicked around for a while because it offers a vehicle for reallocating where development ought to, and ought not to, go, without additional public tax subsidy. But a TDR program doesn’t work on its own accord.  It can only work if we really get serious about “managing” growth. We’re off to a good start, having generally defined an urban design pattern throughout the city where more growth should occur. The comprehensive plan’s urban design element lays out the concept as “urban villages” and  designates future city expansion in urban growth areas, “UGAs”. The design concept is progressive, and if you do some research, you’ll find that our model is “spot on” as it incorporates most of the emerging principles of new urbanism, smart growth, transit oriented development, and sustainable design, each supporting sensible urban development.

There are, however, several key pieces missing for fully implementing the concept, which should be done in concert with neighborhood associations. But we do have some excellent experiences as well.  Old Town and Samish Way urban villages now seek to transform outdated and underutilized urban sites for redevelopment into new, sustaining urban neighborhoods. The neighborhood associations in these areas supported the concept, the city invested in detailed master planning studies, and our first urban villages were adopted by the City Council.

This urban design process needs to vigorously proceed for each of the other 22 or so sites designated as “urban villages”, along with each of the designed UGA areas. If we just upzone these areas without detailed master planning, we’ll only get piecemeal and fragmented development which won’t constitute vibrant new neighborhoods. These sites should be carefully planned as contained neighborhoods – complete with the provision of neighborhood elementary schools (yes, we also need to change our school district’s current habit of closing little schools and building suburban monstrosities that kids can’t walk to) as well as other essential elements that sustainable neighborhoods require – like dependable transit services, public utilities, a branch library, urban parks, and centralized neighborhood commercial services (I once advocated at the Food Coop’s annual meeting for instead of building the new store out at Cordata, we should build a series of neighborhood-scale food coops in each future urban villages, but that didn’t happen).

As difficult as this urban development path may seem, the next step is really the hardest:  we need to establish “development priority areas”. This prescribes a phasing that specifies which of these urban infill sites should be first developed, and which should be developed at a future time. Public investment for infrastructure is necessary for each development site, as it is not feasible to serve all sites at once. This also serves to limit building supply to designated districts. As market pressures increase, there comes a demand for increased development rights – that’s where the TDR bank comes in.  In time, the system can be extended to transfer development rights from areas outside the city – such as watershed lands and agricultural resource lands. The model is theoretical, I agree. It calls for a commitment to regional planning, which we don’t now have. But it’s a path towards sustainable development. 

Is this heavy handed central government planning? Yup. And that’s what makes planning most challenging. It challenges and limits individual property rights by designating when (timing) and where (location) development should occur.  By its very definition – that’s what Growth Management means. That’s how we protect important resource lands and conservation resources – by transferring development rights out of those areas and into our well planned and designated priority development urban areas.

Bellingham has, in my opinion and experience, one of the state’s most dedicated and talented staff of professional planners. We need to urge Mayor Linville and the Council to commit the necessary resources to a phased program for speeding up our commitment to designing our urban villages and UGAs, as sustainable planning, by allowing our planners to do what they do best – planning our future, rather than spending much of their time mitigating the negative effects caused by past zoning mistakes.

In the short term, the municipal park district proposal is perhaps the easiest and simplest way to solve this short term financing gap and, if passed, it certainly would take pressure off the City Council by making the problem go away. But it would still remain a piecemeal approach to solving our longer term community problem. There are “100 Acre Woods” all around us. They are called Lake Whatcom watershed, they are called Agricultural Whatcom, they are called Marine Shorelines, they are called Blanchard Mountain, they are called Galbraith Mountain, they are called Urban Greenbelts, to name only a few of our remaining gems. We need to connect the dots between protecting natural resources and, at the same time, encouraging a progressive form of development that revitalizes our urban community, builds sustainable neighborhoods, and protects valuable assets in a way that doesn’t continually burden the taxpayers of the community.

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Since 2007, this moniker has been used over 150 times on articles written by guest writers who may write once or very occasionally for Northwest Citizen, but not regularly. Some guest writers [...]

Comments by Readers

Alex McLean

Feb 03, 2013

If I parse through your essay, Nicholas, I think I’ve got a few generalizations nailed down. 1) TDRs can work 2) Urban Planning is a defined technique and not a shell game for back-room real estate gamblers 3) Bellingham has some pretty good planners and the UGAs and Urban Village schemes should, with neighborhood involvement, benefit all of us as growth occurs. Roughly correct?

Also, you state you are neither for or against this MPD. If anything, you are just queasy about more bailouts to rescue residents from asinine zoning.

Given all this, if vaguely correct, isn’t it possible that the City of Bellingham—the sole owner of this property—could impose stringent development regulations on it? Can’t they clearly define, without tedious negotiations with outside developers, exactly where trails will go, where wetland buffers will be, the housing sizes, types and locations, view corridors, drainage methodologies, percentage of trees unmolested, construction techniques,  etc.?

I would concede that, given the rabid passions of the Zero Development elements in favor of this MPD tax, and the ticklish nature of developers looking for the easiest, cheapest, route, that establishing this sort of framework—and making it marketable enough to find willing buyers—could be tricky. But where, in all of Bellingham, is there going to be any other such opportunity?

As the City of Bellingham repeatedly fails to docket developer’s goofy schemes for infill—vague plans at King Mountain and an ambitious effort to double the density for Padden Trails are two recent examples—it seems like providing a real-world benchmark, on a property entirely under the City’s control, could be a great benefit to the warring factions of planners and developers (including many of Bill Geyer’s frustrated clients) who are now clawing around for some certainty and definition in this process.

I took your Sustainable Design curriculum, a minor offered through Huxley College, and it really helped to peel my eyes and mind open to the very possible, very attainable realities of “good” development. I am now working for a company that makes modular homes which can exceed even the highest standards of the LEED program. I know, therefore, of viable alternatives to the cookie-cutter, smash-n-run neighborhoods that have defined our past 80 years of urban growth. I also know, through my fixation with Low Impact Development and, especially, green roofs, that development can be done that will have zero impact on down-slope water quality. This froo-froo hippie stuff costs money, of course, but if there was ever a market for it, well ... this would be the site.

This MPD tax, for what amounts to 0-25ish acres of currently un-docketed property, will exceed the tax rate I am currently paying for the entire Greenways program and its city-wide efforts. According to one of that program’s more recent inventories (found here, on this super-secret page: the program has purchased at least 733 acres to date and, one presumes, none of these can touch the comparative expense of this minor slice of land and it’s zoning-related boost to stratospherically exorbitant cost.

My thought, as unpopular as it is, is that we develop SOME of this property like a toddler’s firework: safe and sane. Whatever is leftover in the derelict loan, anything that proponents feel they can manage paying for themselves without plundering all the wallets in Happy Valley, could be retired through a good ole’ fashion fund-raising campaign. I’ll pledge to buy the first $100 cookie at that bake sale far sooner than I would endorse taxing myself TWICE for a property that provides so little benefit to me and my neighborhood.

Ultimately I am saying that this MPD is offering a scorched-earth policy of zero flexibility and, potentially, a lot of external damage for clobbering all other alternatives to dust. While I’m hugely sympathetic to its origins, and the perceived need, I have to lean toward the editorial offered by the Cascadia Weekly’s Tim Johnson which he summarized by saying; “Our eternal complaint about Chuckanut Ridge endures: It is a passion that cares little for other coincident issues unfolding alongside it.”

How you end up voting is none of my business.

I, however, think these other “coincident issues”—roughly a dozen of them that I can think of—are cause enough to jam me solidly in the “no” column. For this bail-out, I’m bowing out.


Nicholas Zaferatos

Feb 04, 2013

Thanks for your reply, Alex, you did a fine job summarizing my main points.  In addition, you suggest that some amount of infill development at an appropriate scale that emphasizes low or no impact, might also be possible on portions of the site that isn’t critical habitat.  Assuming that there are some suitable sites, the city certainly can and should give due consideration to using the sale of such properties as part of a repayment strategy, as others also have suggested. As part of the sale, the city can prescribe strict development standards both as regulations and as deed restrictions, which are more permanent than regs alone.

As you suggest, it could serve as a demonstration of sustainable building practices. There is a growing segment in our community that isn’t well served by the limited choices in conventional market housing. I would guess there is demand for “living building” housing alternatives based on “zero net impact” to the environment. But anything out of convention is challenging. Recall when a group of Seattle architects first proposed “cottage housing”– convention said it wouldn’t work – too quirky for banks, to weird for local zoning. After taking risks, they couldn’t keep up with the demand. We had to change our own zoning codes to allow for the first co-housing project in town and more co-housing projects have followed. We had to negotiate a state water right exemption just to collect rainwater. Kulshan Land Trust’s fabulous cluster housing project on the Southside had to jump through very costly hoops to built a wonderfully affordable neighborhood. The living building challenge (USBGC Cascadia Region) has prompted creative new ways in thinking about buildings that complements, rather than impacts, our environment. CR could offer a perfect site for such a design challenge.

As the property is now publicly owned, the city can, and should, formulate a landscape, conservation protection, and public access plan for the property, and provide for some level of housing, if that’s deemed suitable, that meets sustainable design standards.  LEED gold? Platinum? Why not Living Building to help promote a new design standard for our community? I could only imagine our city planners’ delight in receiving an assignment from our Mayor to initiate a sustainable design plan for the site (every planner’s dream). And there are plenty of highly expert resources in town that might lend technical assistance, to name a few: Sustainable Connections, Futurewise, The American Institute of Architects Sustainable Design Assessment Team, Western Washington University, ReSources, and the NW Chapter of the American Planning Association, not to mention plenty of very gifted private sector architects, builders, engineers, and builders.


Tip Johnson

Feb 04, 2013

I might be slipping into minutia here, but…  The real rub here is that the City may learn nothing.

The magic wand zoning approach to creating bogus property value has already been discussed.  I have earlier excoriated the unwholesome zoning that entitled owners to constantly repeat, “I bought density” while perpetually threatening legal action based on their ‘vested rights’.  That’s not planning, it’s abuse.

The lesson the city refuses to learn is that no one ever intended to build 700 some units there.  It was just blackmail, a ruse.  That’s why it was originally zoned for twice as many units.  As long as it’s absurd, make it twice as absurd.  Then, various negotiated density reductions and wetland conveyances in return for personal tax benefits can help legitimize the original deal. That’s not planning, either.

The fiasco begins with the City’s magic wand, but could only persist with the City’s steadfast, negligent refusal to review the zoning error.  Each readoption of the plan absent such review lent an ‘assumption of validity’ to the zoning condition.  This problem continues unabated.  There has never been a proper review. 

I have not opposed the district and will gladly pay the tax.  But my support is less than enthusiastic because of policy integrity problems with this approach. 

First, the City is off-base suggesting they can develop without properly reviewing the zoning. I doubt there’s much to be gained trying to wrest home sites from this tar pit.  That’s what the DEIS showed:This is not a development property.  It’s why it was never earlier developed and why the phony zoning approach was needed to create value. It’s also the whole reason it was eventually purchased by the City.  The City’s current threat of development continues the same blackmail on exactly the same basis, if a slightly different scale.

Second, others have pointed out that this effort may poison the well for future Greeways. I’m less concerned with that because the North/South Greenways divide was a cheap bogus political expedient originally introduced to add confusion. If further Greenways fail, it will be due to this fallacy originally pitched by the Greenways committee, but now hewed to by those predisposed to oppose Greenways.

Third, this isn’t a parochial issue and shouldn’t have to suffer a parochial solution driven by parochial interests.  This is a regionally significant acquisition that binds our interurban properties and will expand Fairhaven Park into a Gateway to the Chuckanuts.  No other property can do this and it is a foolish opportunity to compromise.

Fourth, should the measure succeed, the tax will be imposed on some of our city’s richest and poorest residents.  Residents of Edgemore will see modest annual tax increases.  Tenants in Happy Valley will see monthly rent increases. I shouldn’t have to spell out the lack of equitable public accommodation inherent in this scheme. A larger base would soften the impact.

Fifth, I understand the City Council has already discussed taking the district over after elected commissioners have imposed the tax.  That’s a cowardly tactic, but entirely consistent with the lack of spine the City’s failure to address any of the foregoing issues also indicates. We always hope public policy will be more transparent.

Six, I generally agree that TDRs could theoretically help this problem, particularly if integrated with ongoing urban village schemes where such magic wand entitlements are already being programmed as give-aways.  But hey! Since they are already being given away, asking for community benefit in return might constitute a ‘takings’! Plus, it will still require that missing inch of spine - and any associated central nervous systems.

Finally, there is one potential funding mechanism available that I have earlier encouraged without response.  Issue a subpoena to the Delaware Secretary of State for details on the blind WestEden Development corporation, now defunct but originally officed in Lynden. They first consolidated the property, organized the fraudulent zoning, sold it for property development and have hidden behind Delaware laws ever since.  Sufficient residual value may reside within the former principals’ estates, their heirs and successors, that the ill-begotten gains might cover a substantial part of the sadly unfunded remaining margin of phony value the City originally granted them.


Delaine Clizbe

Feb 04, 2013

This threat is the most interesting and informative yet!  Thank you all for sharing your wealth of knowledge.

I like the idea of building on a very small portion of this property and having that building done in the greenest greenest way possible.  I think there is a market for such building and there are folks who will pay the added cost.  Remember, I am a mountain biker and a runner, so I am certainly not ever going to speak against parks.  But we must establish our parks in a fair, transparent way.

One idea that I proposed to the City Council and to Mayor Linville is that we use a portion of the low income levy that was just passed to pay off the loan.  We then build some limited low income housing on the land.  These low income units could be built to the highest environmental standards and we could really raise the bar on what type of dwelling we expect low income folks to live in.  My idea would look something like the Varsity Village complex with duplexes or quads nestled amongst the trees.  The City would own the land so they would have total control of how many units could be built.


Steve Wilson

Feb 04, 2013

Thanks for expanding your comments Nick.

Here’s some background to the South Neighborhood growth since the 1980 Neighborhood plans were established(which includes the bogus upzone of the woods that Tip mentions).  In 1980 South Neighborhood had approximately 175 predominately single family homes, many of which continue to exist off the grid of Bellingham sewer systems.  Over the past 30 years South has added nearly 600 predominately multi-family units to their neighborhood.  This newer housing is exclusively along transportation corridors, and adjacent to sewer services and shopping facilities.  We feel like South has grown ‘smartly’ over the past three decades and has more than tripled their housing stock.  We don’t qualify for the NIMBY award so many folks want to give us.

Also, the recent Comp Plan for Bellingham has allocated an urban village designation for an area of South Neighborhood at 30th and Old Fairhaven Parkway.  When we attempted to get traction for moving this forward we didn’t get taken seriously because of the potential development of Chuckanut Ridge.  There were other factors that aren’t relevant for the current discussion.

Perhaps this thumbnail sketch of our growth pattern will help some to understand our resistance to developing even a portion of the woods.  We don’t need to do that.  If the goal is simply to provide more housing then we can accommodate it elsewhere IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD.

I think you have many good ideas for promoting smart growth.  I’m not so sure about how much time, energy and money the City of Bellingham is willing to devote here.  They seem a bit overworked and underfunded currently.  I’ll remain hopeful that common sense will prevail and South neighborhood will get to resume their smart growth patterns in the future.


Nicholas Zaferatos

Feb 04, 2013

Some very intriguing and informative dialogue is ensuing. Tip, I know of no other that has so thoroughly researched our public policy history, as you continue to unveil the “not-so-in-the-public-interest” histories that have led us far a field from what many are trying to achieve … using John Friedman’s terminology, “the good society”. Naively enough, the PC once motioned to reopen consideration of the CR zoning history, but that motion didn’t get very far. Likewise, the commission once put forward its desire to incorporate the GP site for inclusion in city center planning, but, at the time, that was tantamount to being un-American. One of my past student classes imagined life after Bellis Fare by conceiving the site as a future neighborhood – that too was unimaginable as we continue to out-compete neighboring jurisdictions to retain tax base. Despite the fact that malls are becoming a thing of the past, we’re still allocating city space and infrastructure at our edge as if that’s our path to a good society instead of reinforcing retail in our city center.

You were involved in the early grassroots movement of the 70s, led by community organizer Joe Brown, which organized Bellingham’s first neighborhoods as a political basis for engaging in community planning. That led to the city’s adoption of neighborhood based planning, supported by then city planner Jean Gorton, the organization of more associations, and the appointment of a formal neighborhood advisory panel. What’s missing is the transition of this citizen-based movement of “inform and consent” to a true neighborhood-initiated system of planning. As Sherry Arnstein (1969) wrote in her now classic “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”, the pinnacle of democratic lies not at the bottom rung of the ladder where the realm of manipulation and therapy of citizens exists, but at the top of the ladder—the delegation of planning functions directly to neighborhood units, where city planners and engineers and environmental experts serve a technical role supporting locally conceived plans. If we are to further legitimize the role of citizens in neighborhood planning, a radical shift is needed from an adversarial posture to one of undertaking a much broader responsibility in the interests of the entire community, including figuring out growth accommodation in addition to protecting our valued resources. Antagonism is healthy for good democracy to work, but it needs to progress beyond confrontation into the realm of consensual solution making. As you stated, Steve, neighborhoods like York and South and others have already stepped up to the challenge by inviting consensual planning to begin for new urban villages. Those are important critical next steps.


Delaine Clizbe

Feb 04, 2013

Thread not threat:)  In my last post.

Since this thread seems to be about solutions I wanted to encourage people to check out what the folks in Anacacortes did when faced with the potential of the City logging their playground.  They fund raised!

This 3.2 million is not a huge figure.  Having the community come together to fund raise a portion or all of that loan, builds community. People coming together to accomplish a common goal.  A non-profit could be formed to deal with maintaining the forest too.  Imagine, neighborhood kids working to pick up trash, cut down blackberries and build trails in THEIR woods. 

At this point, this Metropolitan Park District is tearing this community apart.  It really is sad!


Donald Duck

Feb 04, 2013

The MPD isn’t tearing me apart. I know it will be a tickytack subdivision when they are done with it, so I voted YES.


Mike Rostron

Feb 05, 2013

“If the goal is simply to provide more housing then we can accommodate it elsewhere IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD.”  Steve Wilson

Exactly!  When speaking of the bigger picture never forget the devil is in the details.  There is in fact plenty of available space for infill in Bellingham, yet once again the city council will be reconsidering the hated and discredited “infill toolkit”  for inclusion in single family zoned neighborhoods, although we have been repeatedly assured it would never be used there!  So much for trusting to city leaders to act in our best interests. 

The city council, planning department, and planning commissions are all doing their best get rid of single family zoning entirely in Bellingham, and they use the tired and blatantly false straw man argument of sprawl and loss of farm land as an excuse to destroy the city’s older residential neighborhoods.  City leaders are committed to developing the Georgia Pacific site, even though it is thoroughly polluted and will further decimate downtown - just as they are hell-bent in growing the airport for Canadian travelers regardless of that impact to citizens here. 

The same kind of brilliant foresight that went into allowing the mall to be built so many years ago is still at work here.  Bellingham leaders are mostly staunch supporters of developers and growth at any cost.  There is no meaningful discussion of how to slow or stop rapid population increase in Bellingham, nor is there any questioning of the assumptions behind the concept of constant of population growth as “beneficial.”  Yet there are ways to moderate growth and proven benefits to steady-state or at least very slow growth.  We seem to be led by a group of rabid developers and their sycophants all intent on remaking our pleasant small city into another Seattle or Bellevue, and no matter who we elect with their usual campaign promises of “preserving neighborhood quality of life”  they mostly turn on the neighborhoods once in office.

Although I cannot vote on this issue I am very sympathetic to your reasons for wanting to form the MPD.  City leaders cannot always be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to preserving the most valuable assets of neighborhoods, be they parklands or the historical integrity and quality of those neighborhoods.  Creative solutions become necessary.  There might be other good fund raising opportunities (other than selling off part of the park to developers) including perhaps bake sales (hey, the girl scouts make a lot of money that way…), benefit concerts, dunk tanks with popular public figures, and so forth.  One might dispute the actual details of the boundaries of who should be included in this tax base, but at least someone has stepped up with a solution which will work to complete the process of saving this park land for future citizens.

There may be better solutions, but it is debatable whether they would be implemented in time, and it appears the MPD, if passed, will get the job done.



David Stalheim

Feb 05, 2013

I hope that people review the City’s “Feasibility Analysis Report” on TDRs and PDRs that was completed just four years ago on this subject.

Also, Whatcom County has 14,593 existing vacant parcels in rural and agricultural areas. It has pending applications to create another 3,693 (last time I checked a year ago). That is over 18,000 development rights outside the City.

In Lake Whatcom watershed, there are 1,929 existing vacant lots (959 in rural areas alone).

That is a lot of development rights that are already “on the market”.


Nicholas Zaferatos

Feb 06, 2013

Thanks for your comment, David. You know well better than most of us the conditions in the county. This is precisely why I suggest the city develop a TDR system internally, at least initially, as a mechanism to prioritize transfer rights of high value in town—like CR. Of those 18,000 potentially buildable sites, that number probably doesn’t represent rights that have been classified as currently available for transfer, but rather, potentially transferrable? Please correct me if this assumption is wrong. Please also note the link doesn’t quite get to the referenced page.  The direct link to the pdf report is:

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