When Bellingham lost one of its most venerable commercial institutions the other day, it gained the possibility of adding a new park and at the same settling a dispute that has divided the city for ten years or so.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation closed the 88- year old Horizon Bank Jan. 8, and turned it over to Washington Federal Savings, Inc. Among Horizon's $1.3 billion in assets, Washington Federal found itself the new owner of a wild 83-acre hillside, studded with mature Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar, pocked with wetlands and unstable soil — and the center of civic controversy.
Horizon Bank had proposed to convert the land into 538 apartments and condominium units and 181 single-family homes, in a development known as Fairhaven Highlands. Despite FDIC directives last March to steer clear of multi-family housing development, Horizon continued to push for city approval of the project. But the new owner, Washington Federal seems to want no part of it. Senior Vice President Cathy Cooper told the Bellingham Herald on Jan. 10 that "We are not real estate developers and we really don't want to be involved in a highly controversial project if we can avoid it."
Mayor Dan Pike this week offered, on behalf of the city, to buy Fairhaven Highlands, also known to hiking and bird watching Bellinghamsters as Chuckanut Ridge and Hundred Acre Wood.
The mayor's office and Bellingham Parks Department had not disclosed the amount of the city's offer as of Jan. 12. However, Bellingham's voter-approved Greenways fund contains some $8 million reserved for park purchases. (The Fairhaven Highlands land was once valued by its owners at more than $20 million, when it appeared development permits would travel with it.) The package being negotiated also includes 60 acres on Lookout Mountain, above Lake Whatcom, the source of Bellingham's drinking water and the subject of directives from the state Department of Ecology that would require a rollback of watershed development.
With 70,000 people, 3,000 acres of parks and 60 miles of trails, Bellingham already ranks among the leafiest cities in the Puget Sound region. Whatcom County maintains another 50 miles of trails near the city, and proposes to take over from the Washington Department of Natural Resources an additional 8,400 acres of incipient parkland, in the Lake Whatcom watershed.
Such a wealth of natural areas has stirred criticism from conservative political factions within the city and county, who argue that each added acre of added public land commits future taxpayers to the costs of operating and maintaining the parks. But so far, voters have generally supported pro-parks candidates and voted to tax themselves to continue buying land when it's available for what looks like a bargain price.