Riot near WWU, grocery changes among top stories in Whatcom County in 2013

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 29, 2013 

For the first time in years, the recession and the weather did not dominate Whatcom County headlines.

Not a single storm system even made a list of staff nominations of top stories of 2013.

And while the economic recovery is still far from complete, the ramifications weren't the focus of local events.

Instead, 2013 was a year when long-simmering issues finally moved forward: the jail, the Bellingham waterfront, the transfer of state forest land.

A more recent issue - the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point - made this list, as did the unexpected rapid changes in the local grocery industry.

Here are the top 10 local news stories of 2013, as chosen by Bellingham Herald staff, in no particular order.

BELLINGHAM POLICE BREAK UP RIOT NEAR WWU

BELLINGHAM - A riot broke out near Western Washington University's north campus in October.

About 400 college-aged partiers took to the streets late Oct. 12 after police broke up a block party on Jersey Street. Near Laurel Park, they blocked the street, threw bottles and cinder blocks at cars, and taunted law enforcement. After enduring flying glass for about two hours, police broke up the ruckus with flash grenades and beanbag rounds.

Videos of the clash briefly made national news.

Since then more than a dozen suspected instigators have been identified and arrested by police. Several were charged with felonies, for the property damage.

Mayor Kelli Linville and WWU President Bruce Shepard denounced the riot as "entirely contrary to the city's and the university's values."

- Caleb Hutton

MAJOR GROCERY STORES CHANGES IN BELLINGHAM

Bellingham residents needed a scorecard to keep track of all the changes that took place in the grocery industry in 2013.

First, the closures: The Meridian and Sunset Cost Cutter stores were closed, in the fall, while The Market at Lakeway store in the Lakeway shopping center began a liquidation sale in December.

The opening: WinCo opened its 90,000-square-foot store at East Bellis Fair Parkway in August.

The remodels: Fred Meyer did a major remodel of its Lakeway store and began a remodel at its Bakerview store.

The plans: Costco continued to move forward with plans to build a bigger store near Interstate 5 on West Bakerview Road, while Safeway submitted a design review application to remodel the former Sunset Cost Cutter space.

- Dave Gallagher

BELLINGHAM WATEFRONT PLAN FINALLY APPROVED

In 2013, after more than 10 years of public discussion and controversy, city and Port of Bellingham officials approved plans and regulations to guide eventual redevelopment of 237 waterfront acres.

The affected area includes the port-owned site where Georgia-Pacific Corp. operated a pulp and tissue mill for many years.

The approved zoning and development regulations got poor reviews from some environmentalists and labor leaders. Environmentalists wanted stricter protection of habitat and more land set aside for parks. Labor leaders had argued that port and Bellingham officials should mandate high wages for businesses on the waterfront.

But in the end, the City Council voted 6-1 to approve the plans, with Jack Weiss dissenting. Port commissioners gave unanimous approval.

In 2014, the port is expected to choose a master developer who will take on the first phase of actual redevelopment work, targeting about 11 acres of land in and around the Granary Building.

- John Stark

COAL TERMINAL PROPOSAL STIRS DEBATE, IMPACTS ELECTION

The Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export pier was in the news for much of the year. Early in 2013, regulatory agencies announced that they had received an unprecedented 120,000 comments as citizens weighed in on what environmental and economic issues needed study as the permit process for the project moves ahead.

Later in the year, the Washington Department of Ecology announced that it would require a wide range of issues to be studied. That was a significant victory for project opponents worried about climate change and potential traffic jams at railroad crossings far from the Cherry Point terminal site.

In November, the nationwide concern about Gateway Pacific attracted a flood of political contributions from outside interests hoping to influence the outcome of the Whatcom County Council election, since final permits for any major development would have to be approved by that council. Coal and business interests spent considerable sums that indirectly bolstered the campaigns of candidates believed to be more likely to approve the terminal, but they more than matched by Washington Conservation Voters.

The candidates backed by Washington Conservation Voters - Barry Buchanan, Rud Browne, Carl Weimer and Ken Mann -won comfortable victories and are a majority of the council.

All four victors said they would give Gateway Pacific a fair review.

- John Stark

BELLINGHAM BANS PERSONAL FIREWORKS

In June 2013, the Bellingham City Council voted 4-3 to approve a ban on personal fireworks use inside the city limits, effective in time for 4th of July 2014.

A fireworks ban had been brought forward several times in previous years by city residents who objected to the noisy nights on and around both Independence Day and New Year's Day. Fireworks opponents said the noise panicked their pets, kept them up nights and stressed some combat veterans.

Fireworks supporters said the noise was all-American Independence Day fun. They got support from churches and other charitable groups who operated fireworks stands as fund-raisers. Others, such as council member Terry Bornemann, questioned how a ban could be enforced in the face of wide-open fireworks sales on Indian reservations.

In the year ahead, city residents will find out if citizen respect for law coupled with vigorous law enforcement makes Independence Day any quieter.

- John Stark

BELLINGHAM SCHOOLS TO CLOSE LARRABEE ELEMENTARY

Larrabee Elementary School will shut its doors in June 2014, after the Bellingham School Board voted in May to close the 93-year-old school.

The board voted 4-1, with Scott Stockburger against, to follow the recommendations of the district's facilities planning task force.

Parents at the southside school and community members came out vocally against the closure, citing the school's small size and family feel as strengths that shouldn't be lost. For the district, though, the school's age, condition and size were too limiting. In fall 2014, Larrabee students will be split between Happy Valley and Lowell elementary schools, all of which are within a mile of each other.

Happy Valley will be rebuilt as part of a $160 million bond approved by district voters, and Lowell will get an elevator and a new gym and cafeteria.

- Zoe Fraley

WHATCOM COUNCIL APPROVES FOREST LAND TRANSFER FOR PARK

In what was championed as a major benefit to Whatcom recreation, if not necessarily clean water, the County Council in March voted for the "reconveyance," a transfer of 8,844 acres of forest land around Lake Whatcom from the state to the county, for use as a park.

While some claims about improving the lake's water quality were overstated - timber harvesting on those lands was tightly regulated to prevent runoff - the decision was welcomed by mountain bikers and people who want a place close to Bellingham where they can hike.

The reconveyance rankled some in the forestry industry because the land had been set aside for timber harvesting. Foresters said any loss of timber jobs was not acceptable. Of the acreage converted to park land, less than half was suitable for timber harvesting, County Council member Pete Kremen said.

Public planning for the new park is expected to begin in spring 2014.

- Ralph Schwartz

NEW COUNTY JAIL SITE CHOSEN IN FERNDALE

Whatcom County made significant progress toward building a new jail in November, when the council approved spending $6.1 million to purchase a vacant 39-acre property in Ferndale where the jail will be built.

The new jail, expected to have 521 inmate beds, won't open for several more years. Ferndale and county officials must figure out how to handle the increased demand on the city's sewer treatment plant.

Siting the jail wasn't without controversy. Ferndale residents spoke against the anticipated change to the neighborhood's character. The area around the jail property at LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue is a mix of industrial and residential properties. Jail critics questioned the need for a bigger jail, saying officials weren't doing enough to divert nonviolent inmates into alternative programs, including substance-abuse and mental-health treatment.

- Ralph Schwartz

SKAGIT BRIDGE COLLAPSE CUTS OFF I-5 SOUTH OF COUNTY

After an Interstate 5 bridge collapsed 25 miles south of Bellingham, Whatcom County and Canada residents headed for Mount Vernon and points further south had to contend with delays as freeway traffic was crammed onto secondary city streets. One study showed that the number of Canadian shoppers headed south of the fallen Skagit River Bridge dropped by up to 80 percent in the weeks after the May 23 collapse.

Drivers didn't need to tolerate the detour for long. A temporary span was in place by June 19, and the permanent replacement was open on Sept. 15. The work was done for less than the $15.6 million emergency federal grant.

One car and one pickup truck with a travel trailer fell into the Skagit River with the 160-foot section of bridge. No one was seriously hurt. The bridge failed after a truck with an oversized load struck a girder.

- Ralph Schwartz

2 ARRESTED AFTER GAS STATION ROBBERY, SHOOTOUT

BELLINGHAM - Armed robbery suspects opened fire on Bellingham police this summer during a dramatic car chase and shootout on Mount Baker Highway.

Security footage from a Shell gas station, 4240 Meridian St., showed two men - later identified as Pastor Lopez-Franco, 20, and Rafael Martinez-Garcia, 26, residents of Eastern Washington - sticking the barrel of a pump shotgun in the face of the store owner at 4:50 p.m. Aug. 8.

The robbers fled in a purplish Honda. Police caught up with them near city limits. Authorities allege the driver, Lopez-Franco, leaned out the window to fire at the pursuing squad cars, while Martinez-Garcia grabbed the wheel. Martinez-Garcia stuck his hands in the air and surrendered when the car crashed in a roundabout. Lopez-Franco crouched behind the car and fired off two more rounds, police said.

No officers were hurt. Lopez-Franco, however, spent a month at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with gunshot wounds.

Both men are awaiting trial on six felony charges each. Their next court hearing is Feb. 26, 2014.

- Caleb Hutton

MOST POPULAR ONLINE

These Bellingham Herald stories generated the most traffic on our website in 2013:

1. Sheriff: Man shoots arrow wrapped with marijuana at Whatcom County Jail

2. Bicyclist shoves 70-year-old man into road in Bellingham

3. Body found in ditch near Sehome Haggen parking lot

4. Bellingham burglar armed with semen-filled squirt gun gets 18 months

5. Two injured in high-speed chase, gun battle northeast of Bellingham

6. Woman dies after being hit by stray bullet near Ferndale; two men arrested

7. Two die in head-on collision near Birch Bay

8. More arrests possible after riot on Indian Street in Bellingham

9. Co-owner of Bellingham bar dies after kitchen accident

10. Owner of Bellingham repair shop accused of trading cocaine for iPods

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