Bellingham’s mayor and City Council gathered at Boundary Bay Brewery on Monday night to raise a glass in honor of what they had just done. They made Chuckanut Ridge into a city park.
It took more than 20 years of work and more than $8 million dollars in public greenway funds, but the iconic hills, trees, and wetlands that form the backdrop of Bellingham’s south side are at last to become public property. By a 7-0 vote earlier Monday, the council members agreed to pay Washington Federal Savings bank $8.23 million for the 82-acre property that its former owner, Horizon Bank, once valued at more than $20 million.
Horizon and a developer-partner, Greenbriar Associates, planned to shave the top off two hills and build 739 homes, predominantly apartments and condominiums, on the city’s southern ridge line. The project was bankrolled with loans from Horizon to the partnership. The loans, as federal regulators soon discerned, were floated on property appraisals that assumed prompt city approval of development permits.
Angry and remarkably well organized opponents, led by a citizens’ group known as Responsible Development, fired up a highly visible campaign targeting Horizon Bank. Horizon’s customers very publicly cancelled millions in deposits and borrowings. The bank invested ever more heavily in multi-family housing development in the face of a collapsing market. After a year of warnings and “cease and desist” orders, bank regulators brought the hammer down.
In January of 2010, the 88-year-old pillar of Bellingham business became the first bank to be closed by the Federal Deposition Insurance Corporation in what turned out to be a bad year for banks. Regulators assigned the assets, including the Chuckanut Ridge property, to its successor bank, Washington Federal. Officers of that bank quickly told Bellingham that they wanted no part of a community dispute, and wished to negotiate a sale to the city.
Mayor Dan Pike “called Washington Federal the night that Horizon went under,” he told Crosscut Monday night. “I made them an offer on behalf of the city. It wasn’t the offer that we finally settled on, but I wanted to make sure some other buyer didn’t slip in there ahead of us.”
Pike emphasized that none of the $8.23 million purchase price comes from the city’s general fund. Most of it is from a Greenways fund, which the city maintains through levies approved by Bellingham taxpayers.