Governors Point: Finding Harmony on the Chuckanut Coast

The history of outdoor recreation and preservation in America has always run parallel with the politics of land use. On one hand you have the visceral joys of experiencing soul-enriching activities such as hiking, camping, paddling, etc. On the other you have the eternal quest to monetize the land via development, resource extraction and the like. Yet these two vastly different human endeavors are forever entwined.

In the last two centuries, America gradually came to understand the value of preserving land both for environmental reasons and to ensure opportunities for people to step outside the “developed” landscapes and to experience that stirring deep inside, that ineffable joy that wells up when we behold natural splendor.

Sun-dappled forest at Governors Point. Photo by John D’Onofrio

But not everyone agreed with preservationist ideals. As the population grew, residential development created pressures on the land. Developers sought to convert “raw” land to housing tracts, often at the expense of the ecosystems that support our environment.

Soon after the cultural awakening of the 1960s, corporations formed alliances to counter the environmentalist message. Known today as “greenwashing”, merchant groups and lobbying organizations often used deceptive advertising to persuade the public that their operations were somehow environmentally friendly. Environmental organizations then countered the greenwashing. The tug of war to win public trust continues to this day.

These national policy battles that threaten our open spaces are re-enacted on a much smaller scale all over America, every day, in every state and town. Bellingham, Washington is no stranger to this struggle. As a member of the Bellingham Greenways Committee for six years, I have seen the conflicting interests quarrel and compromise. Since finishing my tenure with Greenways, I’ve kept an ear to the ground for land use here in the Fourth Corner. We’re a fast-growing region with an ever-shrinking stable of potential recreational lands, so I have a hard time ignoring the implications of every zoning decision and green space surrender.

Governors Point western shoreline. Photo by John D’Onofrio

 

Thus, it was with surprise (and surprise is putting it mildly) that I learned that the new owner of the spectacular Governors Point property on the Chuckanut coast had voluntarily decided to restrict build-out on this coastal property and donate the vast majority of this rare beauty to the Whatcom Land Trust for preservation and public recreation.

Governors Point is a magnificent peninsula that juts out into Bellingham Bay, just northwest of Larrabee State Park. It’s considered the last great undeveloped ocean-side real estate north of Olympia. Its shoreline is steep and craggy, carved by the ever-breaking surf into dramatic sandstone sculptures of smooth clay and jagged veins. As you head inland, you rise quickly into a silent and serene second-growth forest, left largely untouched since the 1950s. While it has one residence and some gravel roads, it remains untrammeled by visitors, a quiet and wild outlier just two miles from busy Bellingham’s southern border.

Forest floor. Photo by John D’Onofrio

In the middle of the peninsula, sandstone cliffs rise vertically 270 feet above sea level, with small trees, bushes, and ferns holding on for dear life. The thick woods and deer trails continue to the top, a perfect spot for a future overlook. Leafy trails lead down to the sea. To the east, an intimate cove provides grand views of Pleasant Bay, Chuckanut Island, and the coastal homes along Chuckanut Drive. To the west, where the new homes will be sited, are gorgeous views of Eliza Island and the looming backbone of Lummi Island. This is a place of picture-perfect sunsets and vigorous weekend walks in the trees. Living in the Pacific Northwest does not get any better than this. It’s a residential developer’s dream come true.

In 1973, Governors Point land owner Carl Sahlin dreamed that dream. He submitted an application to build 310 houses on the property, but he needed access to Bellingham’s municipal water supply. The city’s Water Board tentatively offered this access only if Sahlin met certain conditions—conditions that were not met.

Sandstone ‘tafoni’ at the end of the Point. Photo by John D’Onofrio

 

In 1992, Carl’s son Roger Sahlin filed an application to build 141 luxury homes on the property. Roger also expected the city to provide water. He cited the Water Board’s 1973 decision as proof that the city had already approved the provisioning of municipal water for the development, despite it being so far outside the city limits. The city balked. The 1973 conditions had never been met and thus no agreement was ever concluded.

Many years later, in 2009, Roger Sahlin and his Governors Point Development Company again submitted an application to get a city water contract for 141 potential luxury homes on the property. It was denied. Sahlin appealed and his appeal was denied. The city had strict new rules about providing water outside the city limits and the Urban Growth Area (UGA). They would not budge.

Not content with this result, the Governors Point Development Company sued the city in 2010, but the lawsuit failed. Sahlin appealed the decision to the state appellate court, and lost there as well. The dream was now over, and in 2015 the Governors Point property went up for sale.

And this is where things get strange and wonderful.

Fog-shrouded forest. Photo by John D’Onofrio

 

A Canadian business owner named Randy Bishop had lived for a time in the Bellingham area and had fallen in love with Governors Point. Like everyone else, he was struck by the natural beauty of the place and split his time between the Vancouver area and Bellingham. When he heard that the property was for sale he was excited. In 2018, he bought it for $5,700,000.

Now, every property developer will tell you they have a vision. They will tell you that they plan to build something that harmonizes with the environment and benefits the community and makes sound financial sense. But Randy Bishop—who had never been a land developer—had a different vision.

He’s an artist and an aesthete. When he looked at Governors Point, he didn’t see 141 luxury homes. He saw an opportunity to create something rare and splendid: a place worth preserving.

Forest detail. Photo by John D’Onofrio

His plan: to build just 16 residential homes on the west edge of the property and donate the rest of the land to the public. He approached the city and the Whatcom Land Trust with his ideas. He wanted to build sixteen homes, not to exceed 2900 square feet each, all built on small lots with tight strictures on outbuildings and clearing. He partnered with Omer Arbel (a globally-respected architect, known for his aesthetically beautiful designs that incorporate state-of-the-art eco-friendly features) to ensure that each house is built with exacting standards and sited along the western coast on cliff-side plots that are unseen from Chuckanut Drive. Using natural materials, green roofs, and careful site planning, he wants the houses to literally blend into the landscape.

The rest of Governors Point—98 acres or about 78% of the land—will be given to the Whatcom Land Trust and opened to the public as a common green space. Nearly five miles of public trails will wend their way along the water, up the cliffs, and back down to the mainland.

Sculpted shoreline. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Rand Jack, a founding board member of the Whatcom Land Trust, confided that in 40 years he has never met a developer with such a public-spirited approach to limited development and more willing to donate so much property for recreation and preservation. “We have heard proclamations from other developers, but Randy Bishop has proven true to his word and beyond what we ever expected.”

As an example, Jack relates this story: “Randy Bishop and I were standing at the northern tip of Governors Point where building lot number one was destined to be, perhaps the finest undeveloped residential lot on the Pacific coast.  While looking out at the scattered islands and sparkling waters of the Salish Sea, I said to him, ‘you know Randy, the public should really have access to this magnificent marine view.’  Without batting an eye, Randy replied, ’you’re right,’ and proceeded to move lot number one off the point and down the coast a bit.”

Day’s end at Governors Point. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Bishop was originally granted rights to build 25 houses, but when he surveyed the area, he decided 16 was a better number. Fewer houses would better fit into the natural landscape. This is as good an indicator as any that Bishop is genuinely interested in doing right by the community—and the land. I have seen quite a few bold plans and fancy-looking charrettes in my day, and in nearly every case the developer maximizes the number of builds by starting out with an outrageous plan then “paring back” later to a slightly-less-outrageous plan in order to seem responsive to the public. Never have I seen a developer voluntarily reduce their build-out without pressure simply because it was the right thing to do.

Finally, there was the question of water. The city had made its feelings known for many years: no municipal water for private development outside the city’s UGA. This would severely impact Bishop’s plans. Digging wells would not be a viable option. He needed the city water.

The Sentinel. Photo by John D’Onofrio

Impressed by Bishop’s straightforward handling of the project, the Whatcom Land Trust went to bat for him. They argued before the City Council that under a city ordinance, the City Council has the authority to supply city water outside the UGA if it was determined to be in the best interests of the people of Bellingham to do so. The Public Works Department readily acknowledged that the public access nature reserve was a substantial public benefit—providing water to sixteen modest homes in exchange for nearly a hundred acres of prime recreational forest land and blissful saltwater coves is certainly in the interest of the people of Bellingham.

“The concern was setting a precedent for providing city water outside the UGA,” Jack explains. “We argued that anyone willing to donate a large, exquisite saltwater shoreline property for a public access nature reserve should come under the exception to the general policy—a precedent that should be followed.”

In 2018, the City Council voted unanimously to support the exception and granted Bishop access to the city water supply.

The Governors Point project will create sixteen striking yet modest homes in a spectacular setting and open up the bulk of the forest and beguiling beaches to the rest of us. One day a year, the sixteen homes will be made available for public tours. In addition to the hiking trails and lovely beach coves, the reserve will offer landing areas for human-powered watercraft and a modest public parking space on Pleasant Bay Road. Bishop also plans to oversee the design of other public amenities like handrails and signage with his own artistic flair, providing a unique and cohesive experience for visitors.

Great Blue Heron. Photo by John D’Onofrio

 

It isn’t often that a residential development excites the Whatcom Land Trust and other preservationists, but the new Governors Point project appears to be a winner for everyone. This will be the next gem in Bellingham’s impressive crown. In a few short years you’ll be able to experience it for yourself.

Ted Rosen was a longtime member and chairperson of the Greenways Advisory Committee. As an advocate for protecting open spaces and building green connectors, he spends much of his free time walking local trails while complaining about public policy and litterbugs. He enjoys black coffee, ancient history, and a nice glass of Vernaccia di San Gimignano.  

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