A Win for the Birds
Wednesday, July 24, 2019
We won our legal challenge, but there is more work to do.
The City of Bellingham has committed to protecting the Great Blue Heron colony at Post Point adjacent to the sewage treatment plant in Fairhaven for at least three reasons:
City Council ruled that it was in the public interest to do so, the colony is designated a critical area that must be restored and protected under the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance, and to be in compliance with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recommendations for managing colonies of great blue herons, a priority species.
To this end, COB established a 197-foot buffer around the colony which is the minimum stipulated by Fish and Wildlife, and in 2003 contracted a wildlife biologist and great blue heron expert to monitor the birds annually and create a colony management plan for the city. Over the next decade, the size of the colony waxed and waned, but it has since become firmly established with 41 active nests counted last year. The birds rely on their existing, known ecosystem, which includes deciduous nesting trees, large conifers for roosting and blocking the wind, room to grow to the east and west of the core area, and healthy foraging areas for food. It is a true miracle that Post Point offers this cramped but intact ecosystem despite the presence of established homes next door on Shorewood Drive, noisy trains and a nearby off-leash dog park. The colony is a precious natural jewel right within our growing city, and worthy of legal, permanent protection—which it now lacks.
When the city required a new clarifier for the sewage treatment plant in 2012, construction encroached upon the designated buffer. We all held our breath hoping the herons wouldn’t abandon their nesting site. They did not, in part because construction activity occurred when the herons were not sitting on nests but also because activity was below tree level where they could keep an eye on it; for herons, the real threats come from above (think bald eagles and drones) or any human disturbance at eye-level to their nests that disrupts their courtship and breeding activities and may provoke colony abandonment.
To mitigate the necessary encroachment upon the colony, and in recognition of the unique value the herons bring to our city, the Public Works Department invested upwards of $450,000 to relocate a public trail farther away from the nesting trees, planted native species to make up for lost foraging area, installed educational signage about the great blue herons, and completely restored the Post Point lagoon. This colony is the only one in Bellingham and the birds congregate to nest, but disperse afterward to be seen all over the city where there are little wetlands, shoreline or your treasured koi pond.
A few months ago, COB’s Department of Planning and Community Development awarded a Critical Areas Permit to a developer to build two homes on Shorewood Drive within, and adjacent to, the established buffer around the heron colony. In essence, two city departments were working at cross-purposes: Public Works taking action to protect the great blue herons and the Planning Department issuing a permit to build two homes right next to the colony, threatening its survival. And if ever there was a case when our city’s Critical Areas Ordinance should have been strictly enforced to protect an environmentally sensitive critical area, in this case an avian Priority Species—before it becomes threatened or endangered—this was it. The permit was issued with variances to the Critical Areas Ordinance, several of which are in direct contradiction to it. A detailed mitigation plan to try and counteract the threats to the colony posed by the development and required for the Critical Areas Permit application, failed on several levels, most egregiously on its misuse of science with regard to tinkering with the required buffer around the colony.
Together with the North Cascades Audubon Society and with help from the local chapter of the Sierra Club, I filed an appeal of the Critical Areas Permit. We set up a GoFundMe campaign to hire a lawyer for the herons, local attorney Philip Buri. Almost 200 people donated to the herons’ legal fund, including a nine-year-old schoolgirl and a 94-year-old retiree. Our legal argument was that COB erred in awarding the Critical Areas Permit by violating its own Critical Areas Ordinance, failing to consult with the wildlife biologist on contract with the city, and ignoring Fish & Wildlife’s strong language about not adding new human disturbance to an urban great blue heron colony already under enormous pressure from human activity. Building a home within the buffer most certainly threatens the colony, but so does building a home on a steep slope just outside the buffer but eye-level with the nests, as per the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the city’s own heron expert. Furthermore, the colony is growing so we do not know the location of the 197-foot buffer this year. The wildlife biologist for the city is currently completing her 2019 monitoring report that will include a count and map of active nests and their successful young, as well as an updated Heron Colony Management Plan.
The appeal was scheduled for July 29 before the Hearing Examiner, but the opposing parties (COB, the developer and the landowner) declined to defend their Critical Areas Permit by failing to file pre-hearing briefs thus “sacrificing” the permit, a temporary win for the herons. But the herons are still in harm’s way because homes could still be built on Shorewood Drive adjacent to, and eye-level with, the colony. That is, unless we, as the City of Bellingham, decide to finish the job of protecting our Priority Species and create the Post Point Great Blue Heron Reserve. No half measures will do. The reserve must be made up of the current colony and its intact ecosystem, plus the entire undeveloped plat adjacent to the colony on Shorewood Drive. Even one additional home built on Shorewood Drive threatens the survival of the whole colony.
This quote from attorney Philip Buri’s pre-hearing brief expresses well our current situation with the Post Point herons:
“We did not destroy the environment overnight. Instead, steady development over 150 years has led to collapsing salmon runs, endangered species, and the lack of wildlife habitat. To end the damage, we must stop the incremental compromises that favor development over protecting critical areas.”
We have funds for acquiring essential wildlife habitat through our Greenways levies and the Greenways Advisory Committee signaled its willingness to purchase this same plat three years ago.
Let’s do it now.
Maybe Public Works would chip in to help purchase the westernmost part of the plat to increase the buffer between the treatment plant and the steep slope up to the Shorewood neighborhood, returning to the herons buffer that was removed for plant expansion. If necessary, private funds could be raised to seal the deal to create the Post Point Great Blue Heron Reserve. After all, the owner is willing to sell, we have officially acknowledged the value of the birds to our city, we’ll install a wildlife cam so children all over Bellingham can watch all the bustling heron activity online, and the timing is perfect to finish the job started in 2003 when the city committed to protecting the only great blue heron colony in town.
Jamie K. Donaldson is a member of the North Cascades Audubon Society and serves as president of the board of the directors of the Bellingham Food Bank. Photo by Linda Wright Photography.