Inside Fairhaven Highlands

Bob Tull, spokesman for the development team working on the project, talked with the BBJ about goals, plans, and progress

The Fairhaven Highlands project (see arrow) continues to be a magnet for controversy on the Southside.

    Fairhaven Highlands.
   To some, it’s seen as the destruction of dwindling green space within city limits. To others, it’s the development of a compact neighborhood, a smart alternative to sprawl.
   At any rate, the proposed 85-acre development south of Fairhaven Park, off Chuckanut Drive, has been the source of much debate and discussion on the Southside and around town since late 2004, when Greenbriar/Northwest Associates purchased the land for approximately $18 million.
   And, with developers moving ahead with plans, and others talking about ways to purchase and preserve the land, the 739-unit housing development is likely to be a hot-button issue again this year.
   The Bellingham Business Journal sat down with the development’s spokesman, Bob Tull, a land-use attorney who represents the property’s owners, to discuss the project.
   On a gray, drizzly morning, Tull, who’s been involved with the project since the early 1990s, having also represented its previous owners, talked about the history of the land, the developers’ current plans, and what the community may expect to see at the site this year.
    BBJ: Give us a brief history of this property.
The city, with its Comprehensive Plan and land-use regulations, designated this property in the late 1970s, with final action taken in 1980, for zoning that allows approximately 14 units per acre.
   The prior owners imposed conservation easements, or covenants on the land, that reduced the density by about half.
   The current owner is a limited liability company called Greenbriar/Northwest Associates and it’s widely known that’s a co-venture between Greenbriar Construction, headed by David Edelstein, and a subsidiary of Horizon Bank.
    BBJ: What do the developers like about this site?
It’s a location that will allow very convenient residential opportunities and had been identified decades before (the developers) came along as being an appropriate place for this density.
   It’s also a site that will provide some opportunities for beauty. By retaining as much vegetation as possible, people will have trails nearby that will connect to other trail systems. The city has acquired an enormous amount of land in this area for long-term preservation, and we’ll connect with some of those trails.
   Also, it’s close to Fairhaven and there will be some portions that provide nice views.
    BBJ: What are Greenbriar/Northwest’s plans for the site?
739 housing units, consisting of a mixture of single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, and multi-story buildings; perhaps some five- to 10-story buildings.
    BBJ: What had to be done at the property before developers submitted plans to the city?
A lot of work has been done by the previous owners, including traffic analysis, stormwater analysis, flora/fauna analysis, wetlands analysis, water and sewer capacity and a draft environmental impact statement.
   That kind of work had been done in public view in the 1990s. The prior owners waited to see if the city wanted to purchase part of the property for Greenways and also gave the (Bellingham) school district some opportunities to buy. Eventually, both the city and school district decided not to go forward.
   When Greenbriar came onboard in 2004, they started looking at all the prior work and what made the most sense.
   In April (2005), in order to start the formal process, the first step was an official neighborhood meeting. Prior to that time, the owners had met with a variety of community members, neighborhoods and other folks to talk about the plan.
   Following the neighborhood meeting, it was clear that people who disagreed with the project were going to make an attempt to change the laws that were in place for more than 20 years. To protect Greenbriar’s rights, we filed an application; that way, even if there had been a successful effort to modify the rules, we could still go forward. That’s why we rushed ahead.
   We’ve said that we still want to have more dialogue with neighbors and other affected people, and continue to refine some elements of the project design, and that’s still happening.
    BBJ: Has an architect been selected yet?
Dave Christensen is involved. He did a fabulous job conducting some design charettes in November and has an ongoing role. There are also some other design folks becoming involved, but I can’t release whom yet.
    BBJ: Going back to the April neighborhood meeting, and since then, what are some of the biggest concerns about the development you’ve been hearing from nearby residents and others?
If you go back over the entire period, the concerns revolved around three major things.
   One is that the Comprehensive Plan of the city continues to call for eventually constructing a road from Chuckanut Drive through this parcel, or near this parcel, to Old Fairhaven Parkway. A lot of people who live on the east side of the project have most of their concerns derive from that.
   Will there be a new road? That will be a city decision.
   It’s our belief that the size of the project we’re proposing will not necessitate that road being constructed. If construction of that road eventually takes place, we’ll make provisions and work with the city, but traffic studies in the past, and recently, make it clear this project and other activities projected to take place don’t necessitate the road at this time.
   The second big topic is that people would prefer, and I think it’s natural for all of us, if we’re used to living next to a pretty piece of property, that it not be changed. That’s completely understandable, but not realistic.
   There are other people who really want to preserve relatively big, natural areas inside the city. That brings us to the debate of ‘If we don’t develop with some intensity inside the city then we have to keep enlarging the city.’
   Some enlargement is appropriate and necessary but the goals of the Growth Management Act, and longtime goals of the Comprehensive Plan, are to bring as much of our future population into the city.

Bob Tull, a land-use attorney representing the owners of the Fairhaven Highlands project, said that although private purchase of the land for the use of maintaining it as greenspace has been discussed, no discussion of a purchase is currently ongoing.

   BBJ: Are these new concerns?
Everyone knew about these issues in the ‘90s because there was an application for a prior development, and no changes were made or even suggested at that time.
    BBJ: What have the developers done, or what can they do, to alleviate concerns?
We’ll likely exceed the buffers and be better in many situations. Depending on how we’re able to place buffers, it’s possible that much of the project won’t be visible at all to the public, unless they drive into it.
   How tall these buildings will be can be a factor of the regulatory process and marketplace. Those types of issues will be looked at and discussed and debated.
   In the meantime, we’ll go forward with the application, but we’ll be completing and reviewing detailed environmental analysis and doing some specific design work on significant portions, so everyone will have better ideas of the specifics of particular areas — what buildings will look like, how they’ll work — so that will give some more detailed information.
   As we make these design refinements, they’ll be discussed more formally, and as we complete these scientific investigations they’ll be submitted to the city, so they’ll be out there for people to see. It’s the natural process of refining our ideas and then starting to engage in a technical dialogue with the various regulatory agencies.
    BBJ: There are several parties interested in raising money to buy this property from the developer. What’s the latest on that situation?
At the moment, there are no discussions taking place with us.
   The debate is prominent in front of the City Council as we speak. There are two different community elements engaged in this discussion with city staff and council working on what size of tax levy should go forward and how it should be spent, and that’s a debate that looks like it will continue for several more weeks.
   Council has to decide whether to put a ballot measure before voters, and for how much money, but that’s not a debate we’re a part of. If they decide they want to own some of this property, then certainly discussion would begin, but there haven’t been any discussions with city officials on that.
   We’ll watch to see what, if anything, the council and electorate may want to do. It appears the debate is between those who want to focus on this property and those who don’t feel it’s necessary.
   Last summer, with the group Responsible Growth, the chief opposition group to this project, we had some very specific proposals that would have allowed for, if the public came up with the money, a full or partial purchase.
    BBJ: In your best-case scenario, when could ground be broken on this development?
Because we know these processes take time, I would think at the earliest, this fall.
   These owners are not infinitely patient, but they’re quite patient and want to do this project right.


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