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Moratorium extended to protect Lake Whatcom’s water quality

City Council balances housing and environmental needs in Silver Beach neighborhood

A photo by Vanessa Story titled “Primeval Lake Whatcom” featuring birds landing on Lake Whatcom located in Bellingham, Wash., on Nov. 1, 2019. Houses line the watershed along the lake. // Photo courtesy of Blake Lyon

The Bellingham City Council extended the moratorium limiting development in the Silver Beach neighborhood by six months to protect the water quality of Lake Whatcom.

The moratorium allows city officials to amend zoning criteria and create stormwater regulations. The original 12-month moratorium, initiated on July 11, 2022, now ends on July 10, 2024.

“The only opportunity that the city has to apply updated regulation is to new developments that were to come to the city,” said Blake Lyon, Bellingham’s director of planning and community development.

The Planning Commission and City Council will hold public hearings to discuss needed updates to municipal codes.

One focus is updating the multi-family home criteria to include stormwater regulations. Currently, regulations only apply to single-family homes.  

Updated regulations would limit unfiltered runoff that goes into the lake. This includes the addition of sunken ground that catches and filters water called swales.

Bellingham is under a Phase II permit, which requires the city government to manage stormwater runoff to mitigate pollution.

“Every time we issue our permit and our stormwater manuals, those codes get better, they get more protective, they're more informed, they better address the problem,” said Leah Shamlian, the Washington State Department of Ecology's permit planner for Whatcom County.

Lake Whatcom provides drinking water for over 100,000 Whatcom County residents. The lake was placed on Washington state’s list of polluted water bodies in 1998. 

Pollutants enter the lake through stormwater runoff on impervious surfaces such as roads and sidewalks.  

“There's a lot of different pollutants that can cause a lot of different problems in the waterway,” said Colleen Griffith, Washington State Department of Ecology’s municipal stormwater permit planner. “That's why our codes are meant to try to prevent pollutants from getting into the water in the first place.”

Pollutants include chemicals and nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen, that lead to decreased water quality and increased algal blooms that harm lake ecosystems.

Updated stormwater regulations will ensure new developments meet current industry standards for protecting the lake.

“We have certain requirements that allow you to collect that stormwater and go through the filtration process before discharging into the lake,” Lyon said. “The goal is to take out some of the harmful materials like phosphorus."

Development post-moratorium depends on density level needs determined by the Planning Commission and City Council.

Some developers opposed the moratorium. MF Capital asked the City Council to allow medium-density development if it meets phosphorus reduction requirements in a Nov. 20 meeting.

It’s an opportunity for the city to work with the development community to bring new infrastructure to the area, said Jon Sitkin, MF Capital’s lawyer. 

“The moratorium has the unintended consequence of only delaying that opportunity,” Sitkin said.

MF Capital remains committed. However, interest may decrease with longer delays, Sitkin added.

“Interest rates have gone up since we started this process, the economy has become more unsettled, so there's more uncertainty,” Sitkin said.

Development opportunities must wait six months before proceeding, although another extension to the moratorium is not anticipated, Lyon said.

The City Council aims to bridge the need for additional housing and protection of water quality in Lake Whatcom during the moratorium.

“We are in a housing crisis where we need to support the Bellingham city needs, but to balance those needs with the environmental stewardship needs," Lyon said. “The moratorium was giving the city the opportunity to identify that.”

Jenna Millikan

Jenna Millikan (she/her) is a city news reporter for The Front this quarter. She is a third-year student majoring in journalism with a minor in political science. When not reporting, she enjoys cheesy movies, reading and drinking too much coffee. 

You can reach her 

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