The Gristle

Traffic Snarls
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TRAFFIC SNARLS: We’re hearing reports of jam-ups along the freeway north of Bellingham.

Despite an impassioned presentation to Whatcom County Council last week, Mayor Kelli Linville didn’t get any assurance of county assistance for a major stormwater project for a new Costco and related developments at Interstate-5 near West Bakerview Road.

The mayor and Bellingham’s public works director last week sketched plans for an innovative solution for wetlands to service the development scarcely a month after County Council approved a $2.5 million grant and loan for the stormwater system through the county’s Economic Development Investment (EDI) program.

Linville urged the county to continue their partnership in investing in regional infrastructure. In particular, she sought their support for a $4 million 13-acre regional stormwater facility that could service a new 160,000-square-foot Costco retail shopping center and an adjacent 144,000-square-foot retail center along with substantial other commercial developments on roughly 80 acres along the Bakerview corridor at a critical interchange with Interstate-5. While in the Legislature, Linville championed a regional approach to stormwater, a more comprehensive alternative to ineffectual site-by-site wetlands mitigation.

Along with an EDI grant and loan, the remainder of the project would be financed through the city’s surface and stormwater utility funds, Bellingham Public Works Director Ted Carlson explained to council.

County Council pushed back against the city’s presentation, finding a lack of comprehensive data in the sorts of traffic congestion such retail development might add to an already congested interchange.

“Even before all of these existing developments were constructed, the day that interchange opened it was a transportation nightmare,” Council member Pete Kremen summarized, requesting a cumulative accounting of traffic impacts from existing and planned development in the area.

Sam Crawford echoed Kremen’s concerns, noting his reluctance to enable additional major development unless he was convinced improvements at the Bakerview interchange could handle the extra traffic. Crawford escalated the tension between county policymakers and city administrators by suggesting that while he had no conceptual problem with using EDI funds for regional stormwater solutions, the county is not particularly invested in retail of this kind going to the City of Bellingham.

“I hope you all agree that Bellingham is a part of Whatcom County,” Linville cautioned, reminding council of the goals of comprehensive planning under the Growth Management Act. “We’re trying to absorb the regional impacts by having partners.

“We don’t make many of these requests for county EDI funds,” she said.

A few miles north of Bakerview, where Bellingham’s urban growth area touches the edge of the City of Ferndale, is the Slater Road exchange, an area long considered ripe for retail development. Slater Road itself connects back to Bakerview along a subsystem of county roads, themselves serving as a relief valve for traffic congestion in the area.

Council’s struggle with regional transportation planning intensified in late October, after the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs greenlighted the application of Lummi Nation to place 80 acres they own at the interchange of Slater Road and I-5 into trust status, essentially removing the property from county (and city) tax rolls. Lummi Nation purchased the land from a private owner in November 2011. Their application was the first attempt the tribe had ever made to extend their holdings of trust land beyond the reservation, land ceded by treaty, and it is a strategic parcel indeed—gateway not only to Lummi’s own tribal operations, but also a central freeway access to Ferndale and beyond, to Cherry Point. The tribe applied to retain this ripe parcel in agricultural use. The Bureau last month approved the application of fee-to-trust status for the 80 acres and, potentially perhaps, up to 150 acres.

The mayors of Ferndale and Bellingham expressed concern at the federal decision regarding the future of that property, which is located within the shared growth areas of the two cities, injecting uncertainty that complicates joint strategic transportation and commercial planning between the communities. Ferndale, in particular, noted the trust status could cost that city as much as $57.6 million in anticipated annual sales tax revenues if undeveloped as taxable commercial property, dwarfing any revenues that city projects to collect from the completed Gateway Pacific Terminal. The City of Ferndale was unable earlier this year to ink an agreement on a sales-tax sharing agreement with the tribe.

“It’s probably a logical assumption the Nation is going to pursue that area for retail development,” County Executive Jack Louws advised County Council. “Whether that transpires, I can’t guarantee at this time.”

The BIA approved the application with the understanding the area would remain in agriculture, a use Lummi Nation Chairman Tim Ballew II asserts is the tribe’s goal for the property.

“For the foreseeable time being it’s going to remain in agricultural use,” Ballew said. “There are no development plans that we’re ready to pursue.”

Ballew said the tribe was motivated by a desire to recover traditional lands lost in the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, and to additionally enhance the natural assets of lands bordering and yielding access to Lummi Nation. Lummi Nation, he said, holds a stake as a partner in regional planning.

The move is brilliant jiu-jistu from the tribe, using the tools they have to create a pain and pressure point in future negotiations with Whatcom County, as well as a potential new tribal bargaining chip with Whatcom’s largest population centers.

The county and its cities appear ready to listen.

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