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City will provide water to Governors Point in exchange for publicly accessible nature reserve

 The proposed nature reserve will feature over two miles of loop trail and beach access. // Infographic courtesy of Wayne Schwandt

By Ellis Thomson
Governors Point, a heavily forested peninsula located just south of the city, has a clear-cut path toward developing 80 acres of its territory into a publicly accessible nature reserve. The development is all but certain after the City Council voted on June 4 to provide water for the property. The nature reserve will be donated to the Whatcom Land Trust, an environmental conservation group that has been working on Governors Point for 30 years. It will contain more than two miles of non-motorized loop trail that will grant the public access to the beach on the farthest tip of the point as well as two other beaches: one on the west side along Chuckanut Bay and another on the east facing Samish Bay, according to a letter submitted by the Whatcom Land Trust to the city. “We have been interested in trying to do significant conservation of Governors Point for decades,” Rand Jack, a founding member of the Whatcom Land Trust, said. “It’s a real special piece of property. The only real serious saltwater access left in Whatcom County for the public.” Accessing water was the largest roadblock preventing point owner Randy Bishop from moving forward with his plans to develop the 126-acre property, Governors Point project manager Wayne Schwandt said.
These plans include the 80-acre public nature reserve as well as 16 residential and two non-residential home sites. Bishop will build these sites one by one on the east side of the property toward Samish Bay, according to the letter submitted by the Whatcom Land Trust. “The biggest reason we provided water this time was the fact that the county will receive 80 acres of land that will never be built on,” Bellingham City Council member Gene Knutson said. Knutson participated in the unanimous vote granting the property city water. Former Governors Point owner Roger Sahlin purchased it in the 1960s with the goal of building residential housing, but his developments never demonstrated a significant benefit to the public. “Cities can provide water and utilities outside of its urban growth area if they find a significant public benefit in doing such,” Schwandt said. An urban growth area encourages housing and other residential developments that are designed to contain urban sprawl, according to Knutson. Schwandt has worked on Governors Point since he was hired by Sahlin in 1995. “Sahlin had a much more conventional approach to the development of the property,” Schwandt said. “His idea ran up against changes in state law, with the Growth Management Act.” One of the proposals Sahlin submitted to the City Council included developing the point to contain 126 homes. “We really don’t do that,” Knutson said. “There wasn’t going to be any public amenities.” Sahlin sued the city in 2009 after this proposal was rejected. The case went to the Washington Court of Appeals and the Washington Supreme Court, both of which sided with the city. Sahlin put Governors Point up for sale in 2014 for an undisclosed price. When it didn’t sell, he filed for bankruptcy in 2015. Then last February, Bishop purchased the property for $5.7 million. Governors Point is located in Whatcom County, and it will have the final say on whether or not the property is developed, Jack said. “The other contingency is that the county grants the land use permits that are necessary for the proposed development,” Jack said. “But that’s more of a routine administrative decision.” Schwandt is in charge of obtaining these permits, but before he can, he must receive approval from the county to divide Governors Point into the proposed nature reserve and housing units. “The next step is to ensure that everyone with a vested interest in the land is informed and approves of its proposed subdivision,” Schwandt said. “I have an interest in it,” Schwandt said. “But the only other group that might have an interest are the owners of an existing residence in the middle of the property.” While most of Governors Point remains pristine and undeveloped, there is a sole residence buried within the peninsula. Jon Voorhees, spokesperson for the residence, said he is optimistic about the plans to redevelop what has been his family's home since the 1960s. “Bishop’s plan is the most reasonable development we’ve seen out of previous plans,” Voorhees said. “We really like the environmental approach he is taking to the design, as well as giving back a large portion of the land to make it open to the community. We have always felt that was important.”
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