FERNDALE - Whatcom County and the city of Ferndale have written letters to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs opposing Lummi Nation's move to get trust land designation for an 80-acre site south of Slater Road and west of Interstate 5.
The land had been mentioned as a possible site for both a new county jail and a new Costco store before the tribe acquired it from Ralph Black and family for a reported $5.4 million in late 2011. Ten of the 80 acres are inside the Ferndale city limits, while the remainder is within Bellingham's legally designated urban growth area. That means it is earmarked for eventual Bellingham annexation.
Tribal trust designation would move the parcel out of city, county and state jurisdiction and take it off property tax rolls.
In his letter to BIA Northwest Regional Director Stanley Speaks in Portland, Ore., Ferndale City Administrator Greg Young notes that in 2006 Ferndale supported Lummi Nation's earlier move of 3.78 acres into trust status for construction of the tribe's Gateway Center. The city threw its support behind the tribe's plans after working out a deal to compensate the city for loss of tax revenue, making an annual payment to the city that is meant to be roughly equivalent to the taxes that would otherwise have been collected without the trust land designation.
Young's letter says recent negotiations with Lummi over the 80-acre parcel have not borne fruit, and he expresses concern that more transfers of land into trust status could follow.
"While we supported this prior trust conversion and appreciated the Lummis' desire to have direct freeway exposure, we are now extremely concerned over what may become a pattern of slow but continuous removal of essential land from Ferndale - as you may be aware, not only have the Lummis purchased this 80-acre site, they hold purchase options on additional property in this area. Apparently they have adopted a strategy of land purchase, trust conversion, and development in this area - leading to direct and unavoidable harm to the city of Ferndale."
Young's letter also suggests that Lummi Nation may be hoping to imitate the Tulalip Tribes' big commercial development along Interstate 5 in Marysville.
"It is understandable that the leaders of the Lummi Nation want to mimic the development success of the Tulalip Tribes to the south, but this should not be accomplished and coupled with perpetual harm to the city of Ferndale," Young wrote.
The Whatcom County Council approved a letter of opposition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs after discussing the matter in a closed session on Tuesday, Jan. 29.
"There is no information regarding the proposed use or development," says the letter, signed by County Executive Jack Louws and County Council chairwoman Kathy Kershner. "Nor has the Nation consulted with Whatcom County or entered into any agreements regarding the use of the land with any of the three impacted jurisdictions."
In her own letter to Speaks at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville does not flatly oppose tribal trust land status.
"The City of Bellingham values its relationship with the Lummi Nation and is confident that, if given an opportunity, the concerns can be addressed through a government-to-government agreement that respects the self-determination of the Lummi Nation," the letter says. "However, we believe these issues need to be addressed prior to a determination on the (trust) application."
Linville's letter states that the impact on the city goes far beyond the 70-acre section of Lummi Nation property that is inside the city's urban growth area: Another 445 acres in the growth area would be cut off from the city if the 71-acre section is converted to trust status and cannot be annexed by the city.
Those 445 acres are industrially zoned.
"Bellingham has a shortage of industrial-zoned parcels that are sufficient in size and unencumbered by wetlands," Linville's letter says. "Conversion of the subject property to trust status would significantly erode Bellingham's future industrial land base."
In a later interview, Ferndale's Young said as he understands it, the Bureau of Indian Affairs' regional director has the discretion to approve trust status to the Lummi land, with or without the approval of local governments. But the local governments could appeal that approval, if it comes, to the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.
In his talks with Lummi officials, Young said he got the impression that the tribe may not yet have definite plans for the property.
Linville said she got the same impression during a Thursday, Jan. 31, phone conversation with Lummi chairman Tim Ballew.
"He restated that the tribe didn't have any plans," Linville said. "There were no details to give me."
Linville also agreed that the city and other local governments have a right to comment, but the BIA can give the property trust status despite local objections.
Linville said she told Ballew she would like to work with the tribe to find a mutually beneficial approach to development of the tribe's property.
Lummi Nation and the BIA did not respond to requests for comment.