Blue Water, Green Buildings

Group aims to show that the differing sides of the Lake Whatcom watershed building moratorium can both get what they want – new homes without causing environmental impacts on the city’s water supply.

Bob Ross, owner of Ross Architecture, believes low-impact building techniques could not only convince people that some development can take place in the Lake Whatcom watershed, but that construction could take place during the winter months, a time of year that is typically off limits because of the rainwater runoff moving across the site and into the lake.

by Dave Gallagher
   The question of whether the Lake Whatcom watershed should be further developed is something that has been hotly debated for years, especially when the County Council is pondering a building moratorium.
   One local business group thinks they have a solution to satisfy both sides of the issue.
Focus Northwest started out as a business-networking group, where members would provide tips or leads on new clients or customers.
   That’s the way group-founder Susan Templeton thought it would go, until at one meeting some of the members began debating the six-month building moratorium the County Council had placed on the Lake Whatcom watershed area.
   “At one point, someone asked ‘Well, what are we going to do about it?'” said Templeton, a mortgage lender for the Loan Network. “As one of the people who started this group, I thought it would be interesting to debate it a little more and see if we could come up with some answers to this vexing issue. I felt there was possibility of finding a constructive solution.”
   This month a committee of that group will select a site in the Lake Whatcom watershed and attempt to construct a demonstration house that has no measurable impact on the lake. The home will be constructed under Leadership Energy Environ-ment Design (LEED) guidelines, as well as using “green” methods to make the home significantly more energy efficient than most other homes. They hope to begin construction of the home within a year.
   By taking on this project, Focus Northwest hopes to convince those concerned about pollution in the lake that some development can take place without hurting the water supply, while at the same time show the development community that one of these homes can be constructed without busting their budget.
“We want to demonstrate that this can work for everyone,” Templeton said. “Even for those who don’t believe the water’s getting polluted by the development of the area, we want to show there are commercial advantages to designing homes that are well-constructed and create a cost savings in the long run.”
   At press time the committee – which includes Templeton; Gary Gallant of ReMax; Analiese Burns, owner of Common Ground Environmental Consulting; Brandon Nelson, owner of; and Bob Ross, owner of Ross Architecture – had narrowed its search down to three sites, and hoped to have a final site selected by the end of June.
   “We started by looking at 120 lots in the watershed area,” said Ross. “We wanted to find a site that has challenges that were typical for the area and build a house of typical size (no more than 2,000 square feet). If we can show that not only a construction crew can come in and build a home but that someone can live there without disturbing the lake, it may help give our leaders answers they’ve been looking for.”
   Ross believes this low-impact way of building a home will not only convince people that some development can take place in the area, but that construction could take place during the winter months, a time of year that is typically off limits because of the rainwater runoff moving across the site and into the lake.
   “I think adding the ‘green’ aspects to the design will also show homebuyers that it is a sound investment,” Ross said. “Thirty years ago these ‘green’ homes were simply called well-built homes.”
   Ross left RMC Architects about a year ago to open his own design firm specifically so he could work on low-impact and green designs for homes and commercial projects; he recently earned his LEED certification.
“I felt like I needed a change, and I wanted to take more time in designing projects,” Ross said. “With these methods, a designer is thinking about the project from more of a holistic standpoint, making sure the design benefits not only the people inside but the area around it.”
   Templeton said it was important for a group like hers to make an attempt because they have no other agenda than trying to find a solution.
   “We’re not a government group, nor are we a trade organization that might be viewed by the community as having our own agenda,” Templeton said. “We’re just residents who represent many different parts of this community. In this group we have a biologist, an attorney, I’m a real-estate lender, and a lot of other people pursuing different careers. We just care about finding a solution to this problem.”

Mistakes of the past
   For decades Whatcom County has been wrestling with this issue of how much development should take place on a lake that represents the drinking supply for more than 80,000 people. The watershed area has played host to a variety of industries for more than 100 years, including timber, but it was in the 1960s and 1970s when there were major chunks of land platted for future residential development, including the Sudden Valley area.
   It wasn’t until after development plans were finalized that members of the community started voicing concern about the water quality of the lake. It was around that time that some community leaders realized this develoment may have been a mistake, Templeton said.
   “Once you have platted the land and hand out property titles, what are you going to do?” Templeton asked. “That’s the problem our local government has been trying to figure out.”
   When some studies from the Department of Ecology began showing that the water quality of the lake had begun deteriorating, the County Council put in an emergency building moratorium in place until they could figure out what to do next. The City of Bellingham does not have a building moratorium on its side of Lake Whatcom, as most of that part of the watershed is already developed.
   “It’s a tough position to be in – you don’t want to risk further deterioration of the lake, but it is difficult to tell what is causing the problem. At the same time you have property owners who have made this investment and are being denied some basic constitutional rights,” Templeton said.
   The problem is exasperated by the fact that the area is going through a population growth spurt, which is creating more demand for homes.
   “Whenever you have a growth period, things get sloppy when it comes to design and construction,” Ross said. “That sloppiness is something we can’t afford to have in the watershed.”
   Templeton and Ross don’t think that building low-impact houses is the only solution to this issue; a multi-pronged attack is needed. Having the area completely built out would create further water-quality problems, even if it was done with low-impact methods, because it would be too densely populated.
   “Sudden Valley has already traded 1,200 lots to convert them into permanent green space, and the city and county have been purchasing other undeveloped plots,” Templeton said. “You couldn’t go completely the other direction either, of having the county buy up all the undeveloped land, because they don’t have that kind of money. Creating a situation where care is taken when doing some further development – while as a community preserving as much untouched land as we can – is the best way to go.”
   More information about Focus Northwest can be found at


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