After decades of saying no, the city has agreed to supply water for new homes on Governors Point in exchange for a trail and nature reserve, which will be open to the public, on much of the undeveloped peninsula.
On Monday, the City Council voted unanimously to supply water to 16 homes on the 125-acre property, which is outside city limits and Bellingham's Urban Growth Area. It is located off Chuckanut Drive south of Bellingham.
In doing so, the council agreed that the proposal was in the city's best interest, one of the most important criteria the request for water had to meet.
"The public good on this outweighs a lot of the other obstacles," City Council member Terry Bornemann said. "When we've looked at it in the past, we didn't get this kind of benefit for the public. This is outside the city, but it will be used by city residents."
Mayor Kelli Linville also supported the city providing water in exchange for conservation and public access to Governors Point.
Randy Bishop, a Canadian business owner who bought Governors Point in February for $5.7 million, agreed to donate 80-plus acres to the Whatcom Land Trust and, for the first time, provide public access via the reserve and a non-motorized trail.
The agreement is contingent on the city providing water and Whatcom County government giving the OK for development.
Whatcom Land Trust has been looking for conservation options on that peninsula for 30 years.
"Last night, the City Council cleared a major hurdle to make the nature reserve a reality," said Rand Jack, a Whatcom Land Trust board member. "Through the generosity and foresight of Randy Bishop, our community will now be able to enjoy a saltwater shoreline nature reserve protecting at least 80 acres of mature coastal forest and creating a 2-plus-mile public loop trail accessing the two primary beaches and northern tip of the peninsula. The two beaches can also be accessed by kayaks and canoes."
If all goes well, it could be two or three years before the trail is built and the reserve is open to the public, Jack added.
"The council saw that this nature reserve is going to be there for many generations to experience. It's not a short, fleeting public benefit. It's a generational public benefit," said Bishop, who resides in White Rock, British Columbia, but had previously lived in the Chuckanut area for five years, where he fell in love with its trails and coastline.
Roger Sahlin and his family, who had owned Governors Point since the 1960s, sold it to Bishop as part of bankruptcy proceedings that went back to May 2015.
Opposition to the number of homes proposed for the peninsula, as well as access to enough drinkable water, have thwarted development proposals, which date back to the 1970s. Prior to Bishop's acquisition, the most recent proposal occurred last year for a development called The Pointe at Governors Point on 35 acres.
That plan called for selling seven waterfront lots, ranging from $1.2 million to nearly $3 million.
Before that, Sahlin’s Governors Point Development Co. had unsuccessfully sued the City of Bellingham in 2009 over its refusal to provide water for a proposed 141-home gated community on the peninsula.
Sahlin had tried to convince judges that Bellingham needed to make good on a 40-year-old promise to provide city water. Changes intended to prevent urban sprawl caught up with that vision for Governors Point.
Although Bellingham had agreed to provide a water line to Governors Point in 1972, the city shortly afterward changed its rules to limit water going outside the city limits.
The case went to the state Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court, both of which sided with the city.
Sahlin then tried to sell Governors Point for an undisclosed price in 2014. It didn’t sell.
That was followed by an attempted auction in 2015, then Bishop acquired the property through his Governors Point Land LP.
"There's been a long history of request for water service at this property," Bellingham Public Works Director Ted Carlson said to the City Council on Monday. "What's important for the council to consider today is the differences between that request (to supply water for 141 houses) and the request that is before the council now."
In addition to the reserve and the trail, plans for the property — with its stunning beachfront, coastal woodland and water views that include Chuckanut, Samish and Pleasant Bays — are to build 16 homes over many years and only on the Samish Bay side of Governors Point. That would make them invisible from Chuckanut Drive.
The “architecturally rich” homes, which will be limited in size, will be constructed of natural materials and be nestled into the landscape to “limit visual interruption of the peninsula’s natural beauty,” Bishop has said.
He told the City Council on Monday that the homes would be smaller than 2,900 square feet and the owners would be barred from installing large lawns.
Current zoning allows for one house on every five acres, or 25 total houses for the peninsula, which is standard for rural areas.
The city already provides water to Governors Point, specifically to the lone house that was built there in 1962.
Bishop will pay to have the water extended to the 16 houses, as well as two non-residential connections that include a dock and what's referred to as an artistic parcel that could one day be the site of a public sculpture.
The city approved a wholesale water service, so Bishop also will have to form a water association.