Preserving Pristine Squalicum Valley
by Virginia Watson
Virginia Watson has been a resident of the Squalicum Valley for 29 years. She is a founding member and the current president of Squalicum Valley Community Association (SQVCA).
irginia Watson has been a resident of the Squalicum Valley for 29 years. She is a founding member and the current president of SQVCA.
After a series of lengthy hearings held throughout the fall of 2010, Whatcom County approved the construction of Squalicum Ridge Drive on Squalicum Mountain in the Lake Whatcom Watershed as if it is merely a road that will have little or no impact on the water quality of the city’s already impaired reservoir, Lake Whatcom.
The Whatcom County Hearing Examiner’s decision was dated Jan. 19, 2011, and ignored all of the City of Bellingham’s objections brought forth in its appeal. The county’s failure to adequately protect the drinking water resource for nearly half of its population leaves this formidable task to the city and its supporters. (See this issue of Whatcom Watch, page 11, Whatcom County Council votes 47 and 48.)
The Squalicum Valley Community Association (SQVCA) organized in 2006 in order to address the concerns of Squalicum Valley residents regarding the impacts of a development planned by the Vineyard Development Group LLC for the top of Squalicum Mountain. While the nature and size of the project have changed since the original plans were revealed, major concerns remain. They include: 1) the further degradation of the Lake Whatcom Reservoir, 2) negative impacts to existing wellheads as well as the valley’s aquifer, 3) the lack of water service for the proposed development, 4) increased stormwater runoff that will likely cause more landslide activity and the flooding of downslope properties, 5) the fragmentation of this known wildlife corridor, 6) noise and light pollution and 7) and an increase in traffic flows through the valley, on North Shore Drive along Lake Whatcom and on Academy Street and Road.
This road will provide access to 26 twenty-acre lots for single-family homes. There is no water available to build these houses. In 2009, then county Planning Director David Stahlheim said no public water purveyor could expand onto forest resource lands. This project is in the Rural Forestry Zone on designated forest resource land. Lake Whatcom and all the bodies of water in hydraulic continuity with it are closed to new withdrawals per the Department of Ecology (DOE). Consequently, there are no new wells allowed. Ignoring the closure, DOE said the developer is entitled to one exempt well. That’s enough water for only four to six houses. Any well in this area will have to draw water that is in hydraulic continuity with Lake Whatcom or rely upon water trapped in shallow pockets beneath the mountain’s surface.
The Chuckanut sandstone that comprises the mountain is not a reliable aquifer. In most cases, a well in such a location will run dry during the summer months. Once a house is built and its water source fails, this failure constitutes a public health emergency. Such an emergency could result in the circumvention of the Washington State Growth Management Act’s prohibition of urban services (water/sewer) in the rural forestry zone. Such an emergency is preventable. According to the Whatcom County Hearing Examiner, these issues can be addressed when the building permits necessary for each individual dwelling go through the permit process. Shouldn’t the County’s Department of Planning and Development Services prevent and not precipitate such emergencies?
The DOE described the Stormwater Management Plan for the road as adequate during the fall 2010 hearings. It may be adequate for the road alone, but it is not adequate for the ensuing development that the road will serve and facilitate. The slopes on the east side of Squalicum Mountain have grades of 15 to 30 percent. The DOE’s 2005 Stormwater Manual does not permit the dispersion of stormwater onto slopes that exceed 8 percent.
According to the Whatcom County Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) Maps, the Squalicum Valley is a major critical aquifer recharge zone for the Lake Whatcom Reservoir, and Squalicum Mountain is a landslide hazardous area, a wildlife habitat conservation area and a fish habitat conservation area. Whatcom County approved the construction of Squalicum Ridge Drive to service 26 new watershed homes in this sensitive area without requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required under Washington State’s Environmental Protection Act (SEPA).
The county is allowing the developer to piecemeal this project by granting a permit for the road as if it were a standalone project. This illegal piecemeal approach avoids an EIS and does not take into account the cumulative negative impacts of the total project to Lake Whatcom and surrounding neighbors. In addition, the State Department of Fish and Wildlife has designated a large portion of the east side of the mountain as a Biodiversity Area and Corridor (formerly labeled Urban Natural Open Space on the CAO maps). This designation requires special land management practices to protect species that are listed as endangered, threatened or sensitive by federal and or state authorities. Whatcom County currently has no regulations in place to ensure such lands are managed properly, providing no protection for any listed species.
In Whatcom County, parties can appeal the decisions of its hearing examiner to the county council. SQVCA joined the city of Bellingham in its appeal to the council. These appeals were considered by the council at its meeting on April 12. The hearing examiner’s decision was affirmed. The council’s decision is final unless appealed to Superior Court. With the help of attorney Barbara Dykes of Salish Law LLC, former Snohomish County Hearing Examiner, SQVCA filed an appeal in Skagit County Superior Court as we are convinced that it is not possible to prevail in an action against Whatcom County in any Whatcom County venue.
The City of Bellingham is taking its appeal to Skagit County Superior Court and continuing to challenge Whatcom County’s issuance of a Land Disturbance Permit and Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance for this road. SQVCA is seeking to have an Environmental Impact Statement become a requirement before this project can move forward.
Whatcom County’s Department of Planning and Development Services, its hearing examiner, and its county council all ignored the illegality of allowing this project to go forward in piecemeal fashion. This road will service 26 twenty-acre lots for single-family houses. The cumulative impacts of the entire project, which consist of the road and all of the houses it will serve, warrant an EIS under Washington State’s Environmental Protection Act (SEPA).
SQVCA’s appeal also seeks to remedy Whatcom County’s appeal process, which is out of compliance with state statutes. Only one administrative appeal is required before an appeal can be heard in Superior Court under SEPA. Whatcom County requires two: before the hearing examiner and before the county council, increasing the amounts of time and money that must be spent by all parties involved in the appeal process.
Located just east of Bellingham between Squalicum and Stewart mountains, the Squalicum Valley is a special place where water is delivered to homes free from chemical processing, where the forest protects the water, where the mountain meets the meadow and where wildlife and rural life still thrive. SQVCA hopes to receive the fair and favorable outcome in its neighboring county that eludes it in our home county. This action supports SQVCA’s mission to protect the rural quality of the Valley, its aquifer, the surrounding forestlands and the Lake Whatcom Watershed.
During the past five years, SQVCA raised $38,000, which was spent on attorney fees and the filing fees required by the various county venues. With $8,000 more, the legal expenses for the current appeal in Skagit County Superior Court will be paid in full. This small group of dedicated rural residents is working hard and paying a big price to ensure the county does not allow the illegal piecemealing of this project which will have a significant and permanent impact on the city’s impaired reservoir and the resources of our rural community. §