Saving the Samish Crest - Salish Current
August 11, 2023
Saving the Samish Crest
Stevan Harrell

A development of “unique luxury homes” is proposed for atop Bellingham’s Samish Hill — on a site with a view and recreational potential some say should be preserved for public use. (Dina Dickerson photo)

August 11, 2023
Saving the Samish Crest
Stevan Harrell

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

If you’ve never hiked the Samish Crest in central Bellingham, you should. 

A bit higher and a bit larger than the better-known Sehome Hill Arboretum, Samish Hill extends from Whatcom Creek in the north to Lake Padden in the south. Padden, Lincoln and Cemetery creeks all have their headwaters here. The flanks of the hill are covered with housing; on top are urban forests. 

Douglas firs, cedars, hemlocks and magnificent bigleaf maples tower over an understory of vine maple, salmonberry, thimbleberry, red huckleberry, creeping blackberry, Indian plum, ocean spray and other iconic Pacific Northwest native shrubs. On the ground, in the spring, are carpets of bleeding heart, vanilla leaf, Oregon grape and trillium. Alert walkers can hear the croak of ravens along with the trills of Pacific wrens, and sometimes the jackhammering of the pileated woodpecker. A wide, graveled, city-maintained trail runs from Racine Street in the north to Palmer Road off of Yew Street Road, and side trails provide entrances to the roadless area from several directions. 

Parts of the Samish Crest are protected, city-maintained green spaces. Other parts are privately owned and subject to development, but not the type of relatively dense, affordable housing development that Bellingham and Whatcom County need. 

The area in lighter, yellower green has been clear-cut. (Stevan Harrell image)

Canadian-headquartered developer RJ Enterprises, working through Bellingham-based subsidiary Samish Heights, Inc., clear-cut about 140 acres on the western slope of the hill in late 2017. They built Phase I, consisting of 20 new homes around Whitewater and Wildwood Drives at the western edge of their property, just off 40th Street. Their plans for Phase II are grander:  they built a network of gravel roads and, according to their website, they were planning “unique luxury homes” on 90 to 100 lots, with construction starting in 2027.  

The upside to Samish Heights’ clear-cutting is opening views to the west: Lummi Island, the San Juans, the Canadian Gulf Islands and, on a clear day, the mountains on Vancouver Island. To the north, beyond vistas of downtown Bellingham and Squalicum Harbor, are Golden Ears and myriad Canadian mountains. Sun-loving shrubs including red currant, blackcap raspberry and creeping snowberry are abundant in the clear-cut area, but unfortunately so are tough invasive plants such as English holly and Scotch broom. 

Other parts of the hill are also privately owned, but remain in forest, crossed by numerous informal trails. Their owners currently show no signs of wanting to develop, but until these lands are protected, there is a chance that these forests will also fall to the developers’ saws. 

Fortunately, there are opportunities to save this local natural gem. The Samish Neighborhood Association Greenways committee and other neighbors have worked with the City’s Greenways Advisory Committee to compile maps of proposed trails for preservation. These proposals have been incorporated into a draft update to the City’s Parks, Recreation, and Open Space Plan that will be presented to the city council at a public hearing on Aug. 17. If the plan is approved, developers who build in the area will be required to construct and maintain these trails.

The City’s Greenways Fund, up for renewal in the November election as the Greenways V Levy, can provide funds to build and maintain any trails that are part of the approved plan. Passage of this levy, along with approval of the trails plan, would go a long way toward making sure the public has access to the natural wonders of the Samish Crest. 

Beyond this, however, there are other opportunities. One completely forested 20-acre parcel on the southeast part of the hill is listed for sale at $1.5 million, a price that is within the abilities of the city, perhaps in partnership with the Whatcom Land Trust or other private funds. 

Another opportunity lies in the 111 acres of the clear-cut area planned for development that extends from the hilltop to the western slope, which is now on the market for $31 million. Part of the area that contains the headwaters of Padden Creek will be protected as a wetland, but could the city or a private benefactor purchase a few choice spots at the top of the hill and improve the trail system to enhance public access to those spectacular island and mountain views? If the west slope is developed, can the city ensure that there is attractive walking access to hilltop green spaces or pocket parks? 

Twenty years ago, it might have been possible to preserve the entire Samish Crest as public open space. That opportunity has passed, but others have opened up. The dedication of neighbors who love this place, along with cooperation from the city and local nonprofits, can still ensure that the beauty of nature will be preserved now and for future generations. 

— Contributed by Stevan Harrell

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.

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