FERNDALE - In a move that has potential implications for the future growth of both Bellingham and Ferndale, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has approved trust land status for 80 acres of property at Slater Road and Interstate 5 that is owned by Lummi Nation.
In the past, the site has been widely viewed as a likely location for retail development. But in a Tuesday, Oct. 29, interview, Lummi Indian Business Council Chairman Tim Ballew said the tribe has no immediate plans for it.
"For the foreseeable time being it's going to remain in agricultural use," Ballew said, adding that the tribe has leased it to a local farmer. "There's no development plans that we're ready to pursue."
The approval of trust land status puts the land into tribal jurisdiction for most purposes, removing state and local land use controls and taking it off property tax rolls. Ballew said the tribe sought trust land status for the parcel as part of the tribe's effort to recover traditional lands lost in the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855.
"The significance is the restoration of the treaty-ceded portion of our nation," Ballew said. "It's a statement of restoring ceded territory, territory that was ceded at the time of the treaty signing."
The 10-acre northern portion of the site is within the city limits of Ferndale and had been zoned "regional retail" by the city.
Even though the land has trust status, the city of Ferndale still would be able to collect its usual share of any sales taxes collected there if development occurred. Ferndale officials have been willing to negotiate a share of eventual revenue with the tribe, in exchange for the tribe's assistance in jump-starting development there, but city and tribe officials have been unable to agree on how big that share should be.
In May 2013, the Ferndale City Council and Lummi Indian Business Council were unable to reach agreement on a sales-tax sharing deal. The Ferndale council agreed to a 25 percent Lummi share of sales tax on a nearby 25-acre parcel south of Slater and west of Rural Avenue. But the tribal council also wanted Ferndale to commit to a 50-percent share of sales tax revenue on a portion of tribal land to the east of Rural next to the Slater-I-5 interchange. A portion of that site is within the newly created 80 acres of trust land.
Although tribal officials have never spelled out any development plans for the 80 acres, Ferndale officials have said they believe the tribe intends to build a commercial development along Interstate 5. In the past, city officials have touted the tribe's ability to get street improvement grants as an inducement to retailers considering opening Ferndale stores.
Both Ballew and Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen say they are willing to take up the thorny issue of revenue-sharing again.
Before the BIA granted Lummi Nation's trust land application, Ferndale and Whatcom County sent letters to the BIA opposing that application. Deputy Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Gibson said there is a 30-day deadline to contest the BIA's decision with an appeals board in the Department of the Interior, and it will be up to the Whatcom County Council to decide whether to do that.
While the city of Bellingham did not oppose the trust land application, Mayor Kelli Linville did send the BIA a letter raising city concerns about the impact of shifting 70 acres of Bellingham's urban growth area into tribal control.
Linville said she was disappointed that neither the BIA nor Lummi Nation responded to the city's concerns before the trust land application was approved.
In his letter approving the application, BIA Northwest Regional Director Stanley Speaks said the concerns of local governments were overblown, based on speculation about eventual retail development. In the absence of specific development plans, Speaks said impacts will be minor because the tribe intends to use the property for agriculture.
"I would be surprised if that were the ultimate use of that property," Linville said. "I like agriculture so I'm OK with that too."