Sudden Valley

Bellingham’s farthest neighborhood hangs in the balance

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” —William Butler Yeats

Sudden Valley, the woodsy hillside/lakeside resort that grew to be Whatcom County’s fourth-largest population center, noted for its quiescent beauty and waves of internal conflict, meets a critical point in its history this week.

“The fatal destruction of our community,” Board President Larry Brown says, “has already begun.”

Brown’s warning appeared in an eight-page mailing by a group of Valley residents organized as Sudden Valley Vision 2020. They’re pushing for a “yes” vote in a special election underway this week, among members of the Sudden Valley Community Association. A 60 percent majority “yes” would allow the association to borrow as much as $12 million to repair and rebuild community-owned assets that are giving way to age and neglect.

“Things in Sudden Valley have been dying for many, many years,” Brown writes.

The measure provides for a monthly assessment of up to $36 per building lot, to pay off the 18-year loan. Mailed ballots are to be returned by July 8 and counted at a general meeting on Saturday afternoon. The vote is by building lot—one lot means one vote. If you own three lots you get three votes.

Both sides of an increasingly uncivil dispute agree that important parts of Sudden Valley are headed downhill. Examples:

• Forty miles of narrow, failing roads, owned by the association, with steep curves and culverts preparing to go south for the winter. An estimated four percent need immediate repair.
• A marina with a failing main bulkhead and a lack of required firefighting equipment. (The slips and docks will have to close next year, Brown says, unless the fire marshal’s directives are met.)
• The “ice barn,” once a popular ice hockey rink, now housing SVCA’s store of emergency supplies, equipment and official records, is suffering a midlife crisis with serious gaps in the roof and a rotting timber frame.
• The main swimming pool leaks and its decks are giving way.
• Tennis and basketball courts are spider-webbed with cracks.
• Maintenance buildings have been declared unsafe and unusable. Portions of the maintenance yard, known as Area Z, are contaminated by long-ago fuel spills and leaks. Someone will be required to clean it up and dispose of the soil.

The board of directors decided in May, by a one-vote majority, to ask SVCA members to approve the borrowing and the assessment that comes with it. Supporters and opponents say it’s a crucial moment in the affairs of the 46-year-old community. That’s about all they agree on.

Critics of the plan are organized as Members for Responsible Revitalization. They need to produce just more than 40 percent of the vote to block the revitalization plan. Members insist they’re not against fixing things—especially the roads—but they reject the idea of the big loan and the $36 a month.

Former SVCA board member Mike Ashby says the board should have placed the projects on the ballot individually, with cost estimates for each, so members could choose which improvements they want to pay for.

A leading critic of the board majority and of General Manager Mitch Waterman, Ashby says the program should focus on road upgrades and the marina. He objects specifically to housing the South Whatcom branch library—along with a number of other community functions—in a proposed new 18,000-square-foot community center. The SVCA administration wants the center as a replacement for community-owned barns dating back to the Corning Ranch days of the 1950s, when cattle and horses occupied the valley and things were a great deal more peaceful.

Ashby blames the decay and financial dilemma on board members “without proper knowledge or background.”

“The association has been run for years like a Tupperware party with a $4 million budget,” he said.
Board member Eric Trower, who opposed the borrowing plan for months, has changed his mind and is now an outspoken supporter.

“This revitalization, if it’s approved, can only enhance values for our entire community,” Trower said.

He supports combining the repair projects into one major package, with the goal of completing it in the first three years: “We need to start these crucial projects now while interest rates are low.  If we did them separately they could be four times as expensive.”

Financial disputes are common to homeowners associations and condominiums. But a quirk in Sudden Valley’s by-laws creates a special predicament.

When the board of directors completes its annual budget each year, it’s automatically adopted unless 60 percent of the SVCA’s votes reject it. That’s the spending plan.
It takes a separate vote, with 60 percent voting yes, to increase dues needed to fund that same budget. So a minority of members can always block any dues increase needed to meet the budget.

Sudden Valley currently collects annual dues of $76 and change per month for developed lots and $66.69 for undeveloped lots. Way too low for what has to be maintained, according to David Schwindt, a consultant to troubled homeowners associations who took a look at SVCA’s books last fall. He warned the members that catching up with urgent needs one piece at a time could require monthly dues of $300, maybe more.

Part of the association’s financial squeeze resulted from a desire to keep the place rustic. In the 1990s, the SVCA encouraged its members to combine building lots and give up unused development rights. The idea was to maintain the woodsy character of the community and protect Lake Whatcom, the drinking water source for Valley residents and a 100,000 others.

Suddenly Sudden Valley was like a small guy in a large pair of pants. Fourteen hundred fewer building lots were producing dues to maintain the same amount of roads, parks, pools, boating and golfing amenities and commonly owned buildings, all growing older and more demanding.

This is far from the first time the peace of the Valley’s been churned up by the intensity peculiar to homeowners’ associations. The SVCA went through five general managers in five years. During one turbulent year, its members had to choose 12 directors for its nine-member board, as one after another the directors resigned. Some longtime residents believe the fever’s worse this time.  Board member Leslie McRoberts says online social media is part of the problem.

“It’s the Facebook groups,” McRoberts says, and quotes UK Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman: “Facebook groups have become the new lynch mobs.”

Members of the two factions are nice enough to each other in public, but offer a feast of accusations on Facebook and its neighborhood lookalike, Nextdoor.

Corruption, kickbacks, thievery, ignorance, incompetence, discrimination, immorality, self-dealing—all have become terms of the internet discourse day to day.
There were growing calls for moderation in the past few days, from SV citizens outside the two factions and appalled at the tone of the online debate.  

KC Sulkin is the jazz impresario and Sudden Valley resident who helped raise thousands of dollars for a Sudden Valley branch library though a series of benefit concerts. He says the revitalization question needs to go to binding arbitration, as a labor dispute might.

“There is one group of ‘haves’ who want to treat it as though this were still a resort. And the ‘have-nots’ who can’t afford downtown Bellingham prices and don’t want to chip in for something that will serve the boat owners and golfers.

“Rather than one side getting everything in a big package, let both sides agree on getting a little of what they want.”

Attorney Roy Martin, a specialist in dispute mediation, had proposed a series of Sudden Valley community meetings with a professional mediator (not himself).  The factions might find a usable compromise, he said, if they could see the value of the opposing viewpoints. The most immediate response to the mediation idea was a personal attack on Martin via Nextdoor, in language no self-respecting newspaper would print.

The big loan seems to have made more visible a growing division between longtimers and younger residents attracted to the Valley by affordable prices and little else. (The Zillow index shows a median home price in Sudden Valley of $291,000. It’s $359,000 in Bellingham.) Some don’t want to help pay for amenities they don’t use and make online calls for refusing to pay the dues they agreed to when they bought in Sudden Valley. 

There are proposals to sell off the recreational amenities, including the golf course and marina. Even to dissolve the SVCA altogether, and reorganize as a road maintenance association.

Secessionist talk has been heard for years, Board President Larry Brown says, but restrictive covenants in the SVCA charter make it next to impossible. The community’s structured in some 38 residential divisions, which appear to have little purpose except to make it difficult to dissolve the corporation. Lawyers who’ve looked at the possibilities say any such move would require a 60 percent majority in each of the divisions. 

If the big loan fails to win approval, what comes next? Supporters of a “no” say a smaller revitalization proposal could go on next fall’s ballot.

The future of Sudden Valley without changes in the dues structure, its roads, buildings and recreational amenities continuing to age? Says board member Leslie McRoberts, a leading supporter of the loan proposal, “I choose not even to think about it.”

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