Neighbors fight proposed height of Bellwether Gate
The Port of Bellingham has committed $180,000 to fight two permit appeals disputing the height of the port’s Bellwether Gate project. And win or lose, these appeals could set a precedent for Bellingham’s waterfront development.
The dispute is over height additions to a four-building development on 3.1 acres between the two Anthony’s restaurants on the waterfront near Squalicum Harbor.
The height changes, which would amend the project’s height limit from 35 feet to 50 feet, would result in three of the development’s four buildings rising to 38 feet tall and the other building coming up to the 50-foot amended limit.
The case, which has delayed the project’s next phase of development, will come before the city hearings examiner in May and before the Shoreline Hearings Board in June. The tallest building is slated to house engineering firm CH2M Hill, which currently has 250 employees at its downtown location on Bay Street. The firm would be able to hire an additional 200 employees with the new facility.
Philip Rosellini, a Bellingham attorney, is one of 13 appellant individuals and groups fighting these height changes mainly on the ground that taller buildings diminish their waterfront views.
“These (waterfront) developments have the best views in town, but they kind of rob everyone else,” said Rosellini, whose office sits atop Holly Street overlooking Bellingham Bay.
Lydia Bennett, the port’s real estate director, told Port Commissioners that a small view reduction from a few appellants is minor compared to the benefits of an ambitious infill project.
“I think the appeal is frivolous and we will prevail,” Bennett told port commissioners at an April 15 port meeting.
Bennett said 40 percent of the requested funds will be used for view experts and the rest would supplement the legal defense fund.
Rosellini said his appeal is not just about these height additions; it’s about a 10-year-old promise from the port.
After the completion of the Bellwether Hotel, Rosellini said, the port wasn’t supposed to develop any more buildings taller than 35 feet but now they have amended their permits to do just that.
“They want to develop their property like they own it,” Rosellini said. “Apparently they just don’t care.”
However, Bennett said, over the years the Bellingham community’s priorities have shifted toward infill projects.
She said that Bellwether Gate’s height additions would lead to underground parking structures and fewer parking lots, more jobs in the city center, and increased pedestrian accessibility to the waterfront.
“Here was an opportunity that we felt executed the vision of the community,” Bennett said.
While it may be an opportunity for the community, both sides of this appeal see it as a precedent-setting opportunity to affect future waterfront development.
Bennett said this decision will dictate to what extent projects that meet infill guidelines will be upheld by the city.
“If this appeal results in a lack of infill, it could raise some serious questions toward overall waterfront planning and development,” Bennett said.
When the port commission approved the money to fight the appeal, port commissioner Doug Smith said he thought the appeals could be landmark decisions and the port would only get one shot in both appeals to prove its case.
“We need to get this right,” Smith said in the port meeting. “The ramifications could be huge.”
Rosellini agreed with the latter.
“If they get away with this, I think they are free to do whatever they want,” Rosellini said.