By Isaac Bonnell
Very few issues in Bellingham have the capability of drawing more than 200 people to a public hearing. But there’s something about Fairhaven Highlands that just gets people riled up.
On Oct. 20, city officials and consultants heard four hours of public comment against the proposed development of Chuckanut Ridge, an 82-acre parcel of land located between Chuckanut Drive and Old Fairhaven Parkway.
The purpose of the meeting was to gather input on the draft version of a recently completed study that outlines the potential environmental impacts of development on the site.
Frank James, who founded the group Responsible Development several years ago to protest against Fairhaven Highlands, was the first to comment and set the tone for the evening. Specifically, the sections of the environmental impact statement (EIS) that address traffic and the wetlands were inadequate and unacceptable, he said.
“This EIS needs to be done correctly, and if it’s not, quite frankly, we’re going to sue,” James said.
Bob Tull, a local attorney representing Greenbriar Construction, the project developer, also attended the meeting and said he appreciated the level of scrutiny the public applied to this complicated document.
However, the focus sometimes strayed from the environmental issues.
“The striking thing about this meeting was that a lot of people continue to want a different outcome and they really wish that the environmental information supported them more than it does,” Tull said.
What’s in the EIS
With more than 500 pages, the EIS examines the potential impacts that development would have on everything from the soil to the air, to aesthetics and cultural resources.
The study, which took more than a year to complete, looks at eight different alternatives for development and weighs the impacts of each. As required by law, it includes a “no action” alternative to see what would happen if no development occurred.
The alternatives are:
No Action Alternative: The property would remain as a privately owned wooded lot.
Alternative 1A, 1B and 1C: Based on the 2005 development plans, these alternatives include 558 multifamily units and 181 single family units and buildings up to 10 stories tall. Alternative B would add two lanes to the Fairhaven bridge. Alternative C would upgrade the emergency access road that connects with 24th Street to a fully developed, two-lane street.
Alternative 2A and 2F: Based on the 2007 proposed site plan, these alternatives include 722 multifamily units and 17 single family units and buildings up to five stories tall. These site plans have larger buffers around wetland areas than the 2005 plan. Alternative F upgrades the emergency access road to fully accessible connectors.
Alternative 3: This is the “split site alternative.” It takes away the road between the two largest wetlands and uses two-lane roads from Chuckanut Drive and 24th Street as access points.
Alternative 4: This plan is similar in design to Alternative 2F except that the southern portion is all single-family units. It includes 688 multifamily units and 51 single family residences.
One criticism that came up repeatedly at the public hearing was that the EIS examined only “all or nothing” development, meaning that all of the alternatives besides “no action” assume that 739 units will be built.
This was done to determine the maximum impact of the proposed development, Tull said.
“What we want people to focus on is that all these alternatives are really attempts to describe specific development footprints,” Tull said. “None of the designs will be more extensive than what has been studied.”
Transportation was also a key issue at the hearing. A development of this size will add a lot of traffic to an area that is already incapable of handling the current level of traffic, said James from Responsible Development.
Indeed, the key difference between most of the alternatives is the layout of the roads. Whether the main access road is Chuckanut Drive or 24th Street or both, the increased traffic is going to be hard to handle, said city planning director Tim Stewart.
“The study confirms that we have an issue with transportation impacts,” Stewart said.
Public comment on the draft EIS is open until Nov. 12. After that, all of the comments will be compiled and addressed in the final EIS, which is expected out around March 2010.
Once the EIS is finalized, Tull said he and his client can then begin working on a final design to submit to the city for permits.
“We’d like to get this phase of the process done so we can get into the details and come up with the best design and phasing,” Tull said. “It’s going to take a while to sort out, but projects of this type take a while to get through the review process and then work out a design.”
Compiling the EIS is really the first step toward making a more informed decision about the proposed project, Stewart said. The final decision on the project will come when the developer applies for a permit.
“That will be the decision of whether this project gets developed,” Stewart said. “I expect that whatever decision we choose, there will be an appeal.”
Public comment still open
If you would still like to submit a comment about the environmental impact statement (EIS) for Fairhaven Highlands, you can do so by submitting a letter to Nicole Oliver at the Planning and Community Development Department. All comments must be received no later than 5 p.m. on Nov. 12.
To view the EIS and learn more about the project history, visit www.cob.org and search for ‘Fairhaven Highlands.’