Fairhaven Highlands

History & Background from 2005

Why didn’t the city purchase this property as part of the Greenways program?

Past and present City staff, Greenways Advisory Board members, and City Council members have worked diligently, using open public processes, to meet the legal requirements and the intent of voters supporting Beyond Greenways levy. While some of this property was pursued with interest by the Greenways program, the ballot language forwarded by the City Council and approved by voters in 1997 did not commit the city to buying the Fairhaven Highlands tract. However, Levy proponents and the Greenway Committee earmarked $1.6 million dollars for this property, recognizing it would only pay for a portion of the site.

Though no purchase and sale agreement was ever in place, negotiations took place between the city and the property owner regarding a 45-acre portion of the property. An appraisal conducted for the City indicated a value of $1.47 million for the 45 acres. The owners responded they were seeking $6-$7million for the 45-acre tract. Though discussions continued over the years, City officials and property owners were never close to reaching an agreement.

The previous owner did donate 16 acres to the Whatcom Land Trust, who transferred the property to the city in 2000. Negotiations with other area property owners were productive, and efforts shifted toward area properties with willing sellers around the Fairhaven Highlands site.

Since 1997, about 136 acres have been secured on Bellingham ’s Southside by the Greenways program, including about 100 acres near the Fairhaven Highlands site.

Why is the city allowing any development on this property?

Anyone can ask to build anything on property they own, and the city must allow them to build if the proposed development meets city, state and federal laws. City officials are obligated by law to allow property owners to use their land in conformance with existing land use and other regulations. In fact, State law says that if someone submits a complete application, and it meets the land use regulations, the City must decide on the application within 120 days. City officials will review this proposal against current land use, environmental and other regulations, using procedures outlined in Bellingham Municipal Code, and approve or deny it based on applicable laws.

Why doesn’t the city condemn the property?

Condemnation requires public necessity. It would be very difficult to successfully claim public necessity justifying eminent domain in a court of law. Even if the city did make a successful claim, there is not sufficient funding to pay for the property to fulfill such a claim.

Why doesn’t the city impose a moratorium on this development?

Development that is allowed under current rules can be stopped only for health and safety reasons (such as lack of sewage treatment plant capacity). The city received an application on April 18, 2005 for a development that is proposed under current land use and other regulations. While the review process will determine the extent to which the proposal meets the detailed requirements of these regulations, no urgent health and safety considerations are apparent that would justify stopping the application and review process.

Why should the Southside residents have to absorb infill?

All Bellingham neighborhoods will absorb additional residents as the city population increases during the next two decades. Some neighborhoods have more capacity than others, including several neighborhoods on the Southside. Many neighborhoods in the central and north portions of Bellingham have already had significant infill development. Those neighborhoods have fewer parks, less open space, and fewer trails.

The city population is expected to increase by at least 31,600 over the next 20 years. State law, the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan and our current city Comprehensive Plan require us to accommodate the forecasted growth primarily through “infill”. Infill is defined as development that occurs on vacant lands within existing city boundaries (as opposed to allowing growth to occur in the rural and agricultural areas of the county).

To accommodate the forecasted growth, more than 15,000 new homes, apartment and condos will be needed. While all city neighborhoods are expected to infill, some neighborhoods have more undeveloped land than others. The Fairhaven and South Neighborhoods (where the proposed project is located) have fewer total housing units than most other Bellingham neighborhoods. Encouraging development in areas close to employment centers (like Fairhaven and WWU) is consistent with adopted city goals and policies.

How will transportation problems be evaluated and prevented?

The developer proposing the Fairhaven Highlands project is required to pay for a traffic study to show how much traffic this development will generate. Based on the results of the study, and the review by the city, he will then propose (and pay for) improvements to handle the additional traffic. He also will be required to pay certain transportation impact fees to provide street improvements designed to address the traffic problems created by this new development. Part of the city’s review process for this proposed development will be to approve or require modifications to these traffic plans and calculate appropriate impact fees.

This proposed development and others have generated questions about city’s proposed transportation “level of service”. This is a state-required component of the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Setting an appropriate transportation level of service requires city officials to carefully balance many interests, especially when dealing with growth and development.

In 1995, the City adopted “Level of Service E” for arterial streets during the hour when the highest traffic volumes are recorded. This level allows some congestion at certain times of the day, such as “rush hour.” Allowing some traffic congestion also encourages alternative transportation, avoids the additional public costs of building new roads and widening existing ones, and minimizes the amount of impervious surfaces that damage the environment.

If the city adopted levels of Service D or C, it would require wider roads and more of them. This would drive up costs for city government, as well as require additional impact fees from developers, which would then increase the costs of new homes. Furthermore, new and wider roads would promote faster driving speeds, create more hazards for pedestrians and bicyclists and discourage walking, biking and transit, which are transportation options the city encourages to reduce congestion and pressure on the environment.

Can the Mayor or City Council stop this development?

The only realistic way for this development to be stopped is for someone to purchase the property, and then for that owner to decide not to develop.

Why doesn’t the city purchase it now?

The developer has not expressed an interest in selling to the city and there are not funds available to purchase this site for the amount that would be required ($15 million to $20 million) if the property were for sale.

With only about $1 million remaining in the land acquisition budget of the 1997 levy, and with the success of purchases around the Fairhaven Highlands site and Chuckanut Bay , the Greenway Committee, Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and City staff are reluctant to spend the remaining funds in South Bellingham . Recent efforts have focused on parkland acquisition projects in North Bellingham .

How can citizens influence how this property is used?

Citizens can contact the developer and work to influence the layout of the development, the amount and location of the open space, the proposed transportation plan, and other details. Citizens can testify during the various public comments phases of the city’s review process, and citizens can participate in the Environmental Impact Assessment now underway.