July 26, 2008

Developers Pursue Smaller Balfour Village Project

By Jared Paben, The Bellingham Herald, Wash.

Jul. 26--KENDALL -- A controversial project to build 770 homes and a commercial center in the Columbia Valley has been reduced by developers to 289 homes without any shopping.

But that's only temporary, they said. They still hope to build what's essentially a full-service community targeted at working- and middle-class residents on 270 acres west of Kendall Road.

Developers of Balfour Village have withdrawn three applications that would have required land-use rules changes, and they have submitted what they consider a modification to the fourth application.

They did that because it became clear Whatcom County would require what they feared would be a drawn-out environmental review. For financial reasons, developers want to get land ready for housing, said Blair Murray, a partner at thinkwell development.

"It's a financial consideration," he said. "We want to get something in the ground. We want to get this project started." There's still a market for new housing in the foothills area, he said.

Thinkwell in February assumed the management role from Aiki Homes, which stepped into an investor role. Thinkwell is negotiating to become a partner with landowners Marble Falls LLC, he said.

It became clear Whatcom County planners would have required a full study of Balfour Village's potential environmental impacts, a long process, Murray said. So he opted to reduce the project's size in the hopes the county, relying on studies landowners already submitted, won't require a full environmental impact statement.

County planners haven't made that determination yet. In fact, they're trying to decide whether to consider the change a new application or a modification, Planning Director David Stalheim said. While the change is major, downsizing might be considered a revision, as opposed to increasing the size, he said.

Meanwhile, Whatcom County has created a new plan for the entire foothills area, and is conducting a full environmental review. It's still subject to change and County Council approval, but the Foothills Subarea Plan currently supports the developers' vision for a major residential-commercial project, Murray said. He was also afraid the County Council would have rejected the three now-withdrawn permits while the plan is outstanding.

"When the subarea plan review is complete, depending on how that goes, we hope to come back in with a new application that brings back good planning," said Rob Staveland, president of Aiki Homes. The 289-home plan foregoes construction of 35 lots, leaving untouched 7.63 acres for future commercial development. Previous plans called for 40,000 square feet of grocery space and 50,000 square feet each for retail and office space.

"A lot of the support we had from the community was around services," Murray said.

Not everybody supports the project. Residents who formed Foothills Friends to fight the project fear it would damage the environment and harm a quiet, rural recreation area. The full project would increase the number of homes in the Columbia Valley/Kendall area by roughly half.

"We continue to have concerns about impact to the environment," said group board member Amy Mower, who hadn't seen the new application yet. "I would need to see paperwork to see if that changes at all."



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