Squalicum Mountain Watershed Road to Nowhere Can Go Forward
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).
On Friday, April 6, 2012, the City of Bellingham and the Squalicum Valley Community Association (SQVCA) had their day in Skagit County Superior Court.
The issue before Judge Susan Cook was whether the county’s issuance of a Land Disturbance Permit (LDP) and Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance (MDNS) for the construction of Squalicum Ridge Road violated the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). The attorneys for the city and SQVCA asked the judge to remand the permits back to the county and to require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The city and SQVCA were not successful.
Why Is an EIS Needed?
Lake Whatcom is listed as an impaired water body under the Federal Clean Water Act, and it is the drinking water reservoir for 100,000 people.
According to designations shown on Whatcom County Critical Areas Ordinance Maps, the Squalicum Valley is a major critical aquifer recharge zone for the Lake Whatcom reservoir and Squalicum Mountain is a geologically hazardous area, a wildlife habitat conservation area, a fish habitat conservation area, and a biologically and environmentally sensitive area.
The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife has designated a large portion of the east side of the mountain as a biodiversity area and corridor.
The slopes on the east side of the mountain have grades of 15-30 percent, and the Department of Ecology’s “Stormwater Management Manual for Western Washington” (revised 2005) does not permit the dispersion of stormwater onto slopes that exceed eight percent.
Every exempt well in this area will draw water that is in hydraulic continuity with Lake Whatcom. The lake and all the bodies of water in hydraulic continuity with it are closed to new withdrawals per Washington Administrative Code 173-501-040.
Existing wells located below the proposed road and accompanying development along Academy Road run dry during the summer months and residents already experience excessive stormwater runoff during the wet season.
Residents of the Silver Beach neighborhood located downhill from the proposed road are subject to an ordinance under which they are fined if they do not contain all of the stormwater runoff from their properties.
The Department of Ecology is on the record stating that there is only one exempt well allowed to serve all of the 26 parcels. One well provides enough water for four to six houses per Ecology.
Incredibly, Whatcom County issued this Land Disturbance Permit and Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance for the construction of Squalicum Ridge Road, a two-mile-long road on Squalicum Mountain in the Lake Whatcom watershed to service 26 new houses in this sensitive area without requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The county is allowing the developers to piecemeal this project by granting a permit for the road as if it were simply a road. This approach avoids an EIS and does not take into account the cumulative impacts of the entire project (the road and 26 houses), to Lake Whatcom and surrounding neighbors as required under the SEPA. These impacts include: further deterioration of the Lake Whatcom reservoir, increased stormwater runoff and decreased well recharge for existing residences, fragmentation of a known wildlife corridor, noise and light pollution, and increased traffic during and after construction on the portion of Academy Road that is not built to county standards.
The proponents’ attorney stated in Superior Court that there are no plans for development beyond the road. He also stated that there are no plans for timber harvesting. The Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CCRs) attached to each parcel, reveal the proponents are retaining the right to harvest the timber on 80 percent of each twenty-acre parcel. The proponents as private landowners are not subject to the strict Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan to ensure best management practices. These CCRs place responsibility for the maintenance of the road’s stormwater facilities with a non-existent homeowners’ association.
Maybe the proponents will not build all 26 houses themselves. They are, however, building a road in order to sell parcels for development in the Lake Whatcom watershed now, while retaining the right to clear the forestland later. The results of both actions will negatively impact city and county residents. It’s a win-win proposition for the proponents and a lose-lose proposition for the rest of us, including the parcel buyers who will likely discover a lack of water availability hampers their ability to obtain a building permit.
SQVCA had been working hard to build the partnerships and obtain the funding needed to acquire and preserve the 745 acres on the mountain and its east meadowland threatened by this development. As part of this effort, SQVCA commissioned an appraisal at the landowners’ request and at a cost of $7,500. A few weeks ago, the landowners returned the appraisal to our attorneys and said they will not negotiate nor sell their land to SQVCA or any of its representatives. They cited the litigation as the reason for this change of heart. This costly bait and switch brought dismay, because it was never a secret that SQVCA was taking a two-pronged approach to protecting and preserving Squalicum Mountain: litigation and land acquisition. Maybe it was the appraisal result that soured the deal? The property is worth $3.8 million. That’s considerably less than the offer of $10 million SQVCA made last year that was refused and is considerately more than was paid for it.
What is the purpose or the merit of the county’s Critical Areas Ordinances Maps when they are ignored during the permitting process? It appears the Department of Ecology (Ecology), as an agency, is nothing more than window dressing. Its mission statement sounds great. Its Total Maximum Daily Load Study clearly states what must be done to turn Lake Whatcom around and yet there is nothing in place to require the county or landowners to comply with its recommendations. The county and Ecology ought to protect areas they’ve identified as sensitive or impaired.
In 2011 the proponents of this road and development applied for and were granted from two state agencies permits required to construct this road. Ecology issued a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System construction stormwater permit and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued a Forest Practices Permit for the removal of the 19 acres of forest to accommodate this road. In order to appeal these permits it was necessary to go before the Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB). The PCHB issued a letter upholding the Forest Practices Permit. This letter is not necessarily a final decision.
The appeal of Ecology’s stormwater construction permit continues. Recently, during depositions of Ecology staff our attorneys learned that Ecology sees this project as requiring phased review. Ecology also stated that it was not aware of the potential for timber harvesting on each parcel when it issued the stormwater permit for the road. Ecology is relying on the existing forest and vegetation to provide the necessary dispersion area for the stormwater runoff generated by the road alone. Ecology stated each individual parcel requires a stormwater permit.
These appeals are grounded in SQVCA’s mission to protect the rural quality of the valley, its aquifer, the surrounding forestlands, and the Lake Whatcom watershed. Ecology and DNR should conduct their own environmental reviews in environmentally sensitive areas. The conversion of forestland to residential use and the subsequent logging will have a deleterious effect on the already impaired Lake Whatcom reservoir. SQVCA maintains that existing wells and homes, and the drinking water reservoir for 100,000 people deserve protection from the impacts of new development.
We are all in this together. Please visit squalicum.org for more information and to lend your much-needed support.