by Michael Feerer
Protecting urban trees and forests to enhance our climate resiliency —- how can that be compatible with new development, such as much-needed infill housing? Learn how one relatively new local nonprofit — Whatcom Million Trees Project — is trying to thread that needle. Although this article focuses on Bellingham, many of its ideas also apply to Whatcom County’s smaller cities, such as Ferndale, Lynden, Blaine, and Birch Bay.
Largely because of Bellingham’s many majestic trees, forests, and trails — all nearby — I moved here 33 years ago. Such a wonderful setting to raise a child and to enjoy a nature-centered lifestyle! And quite the contrast to dry, arid San Diego where I grew up.
While leading Whatcom Million Trees Project the past two-plus years, I’ve heard from other residents that nearby nature also was a key reason why they reside here. Although the awesome Cascades and San Juans are in easy reach, the nature we can experience everyday counts most for many of us.
Hamster Wheel of Housing
Over the past 33 years, Bellingham has nearly doubled in population (from 52,179 to 95,960 people). And, the strong demand to move into our community continues almost independently of economic conditions. After the pandemic pause, builders and developers are rushing to make up for lost time. Housing permits, for example, have accelerated. Urban “infill” sites are being filled in — which the city rightly encourages to reduce sprawl.
Yet, we still lack enough housing to meet the demand — particularly affordable multifamily housing. It can feel a bit like a hamster (a Bellinghamster?) on a wheel, running faster and faster, but never getting anywhere.
When a developer can choose squeezing in more housing units (thus more profit) or preserving significant trees on a site, the big trees are consistently losing — even as we face the perils of a rapidly changing climate.
Must this path continue, or is there a better way to provide multifamily development and respond to our climate?
Large Urban Trees Are Allies
First, it’s good to understand why large, mature urban trees are one of our best allies to increase our community’s climate resiliency and health. There are multiple reasons.
Urban trees reduce flooding —- and thus stormwater costs — by buffering heavy rain flows. Research shows that summer heat-related deaths and hospitalizations decrease by up to 30 percent in neighborhoods with abundant tree cover. They cool us by up to 10 degrees in extreme heat and cool adjacent buildings too, reducing energy costs.
That’s not all. Besides providing oxygen, urban trees reduce stress and depression, lower blood pressure, and can cut the overall risk of chronic disease by half.
They provide habitat for wildlife and biodiversity all the way down to a microscopic level. And, of course, urban trees beautify our city and give us natural areas to explore and enjoy.
In short, trees, particularly big trees, help people and all other life in so many ways. That’s why abundant mature tree canopy is an essential element of our community’s quality of life — especially in our new climate era.
We don’t have abundant tree canopy in all Bellingham neighborhoods. Alderwood, Birchwood, Meridian, Columbia, Lettered Streets and a few other neighborhoods rate a relatively low “Tree Equity” score compared to the rest of Bellingham (see map on facing page). The ratings by the national nonprofit American Forests account for not only tree canopy levels but also socio-economic factors, health indices, and urban heat disparities.
Urban Tree Protection
Whatcom Million Trees Project focuses on local urban tree issues probably more than any other nonprofit. It’s part of the “protect” portion of our three-part mission.
• Plant the right native tree seedlings in the right places — especially in public-purposed lands that other entities do not restore.
• Protect mature trees in urban neighborhoods and key watersheds via policy improvements, development advocacy, increased awareness, and the removal of tree-killing invasives.
• Connect people together in hands-on positive action outdoors and at special events that highlight the multifaceted value of trees and forests.
Our vision is to spur positive action for trees and forests that will enhance our community’s health, livability, equity, and resilience in our era of rapid climate change and biodiversity loss.
In just a little over two years as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, we have grown quickly and have been warmly embraced by the community. We believe that’s not only due to our success in reaching out and engaging others, but also because of how our mission resonates with so many people who love and enjoy our trees and forests.
Stream Meridian Project
We’re very selective about which development projects we target for advocacy. We check, for example, whether the proposed plan unnecessarily removes many mature native trees and has significant other nature-related drawbacks.
The 68-unit infill housing development proposed by Stream Real Estate Development of Seattle more than meets our advocacy criteria. It would be built in a densely forested area along Meridian Street at the southeast corner of Bellingham Golf & Country Club (BGCC), kitty-corner from Cornwall Park.
The project, as currently designed, would remove 327 large native trees (actually many more we believe, after examining the plans closely). Most are 70- 100-year-old majestic conifers similar to those in Cornwall Park. Among them are some of the tallest trees in northern Bellingham.
You might assume WMTP is full of tree-huggers who are fervently against any tree removal anywhere. Sure, that may appeal emotionally to some of us, but it’s rarely realistic or practical for our growing community. Therefore, as a nonprofit, we consciously try to balance multiple needs when we advocate for a position.
WMTP Supports Infill Housing
We recognize Bellingham needs more housing, especially affordable, smaller footprint infill housing. But this should not compromise the livability of our city nor skimp on key infill criteria or climate resiliency goals. That means doing everything we can to preserve significant trees wherever possible, especially on a densely forested site.
Two major problems of the proposed Meridian project as currently designed are highlighted below. Other issues exist, too. If you’re interested in all the nitty-gritty details, see https://whatcommilliontrees.org/pubs/WMTP-Comments-Meridian-Dev.pdf. That’s our eight-page public comment letter that we submitted to the City of Bellingham’s Planning and Community Development Department about this project.
1. Eight of the 68 units do not meet the spirit or intent of COB’s Infill Toolkit ordinance.
The City of Bellingham’s Infill Toolkit guides such projects. It states that urban infill should feature “more efficient use of the remaining developable land, protection of environmentally sensitive areas, creating opportunities for more affordable housing and increasing housing choice and diversity.” (BMC 20.28.010) [italics mine]
Eight proposed units are 2,215 square-foot, 3-bedroom, two-story “patio” townhomes arranged along the golf course. They take up twice the site area per unit compared to each of the more compact and vertical 60 quadplex homes. As a result, the eight larger townhomes (hardly the intent of “infill” based on the city’s own definition quoted above) squeeze the entire site so tightly that most large conifers must be removed — an unfortunate and unnecessary tradeoff of a “maxed out” site plan.
2. The developer’s proposed planting of small tree seedlings is not an effective replacement for the major conifer loss.
Stream proposes to mitigate the removed trees by planting three small replacement tree seedlings for every tree removed that’s greater than 30-inches diameter at chest height. Plus, one seedling per thinner tree removed. The developer’s application trumpets this will result in 474 new trees planted.
WMTP plants tree seedlings too, so we know it well. Here’s the seedling reality: Tiny two-year-old trees will not begin to offer positive climate, biodiversity, and health benefits for 15-20 years.
Even many years thereafter, 474 seedlings compared to 327 large conifers? Not even close in matching benefits. Planting three tree seedlings will not provide equivalent carbon capture, for example, of one retained 100-year conifer for more than 50 years. (More or less, parity is reached when the mass of the three young trees finally matches the older tree’s still-growing singular mass.)
We have an urgent climate crisis, folks. We cannot afford to wait 50 or more years to take positive action in our community with one of our best climate resiliency tools —- trees.
By the way, Stream also proposes to plant most of the new tree seedlings around the Bellingham Golf & Country Club. That’s a red-flag to us because BGCC land is not perpetually protected and is zoned for multifamily housing. As the climate continues to evolve, the economic viability of sustaining a golf course will be increasingly challenging. The land may have to be eventually converted to other uses, potentially jeopardizing those young trees.
Last but not least, young tree seedlings must be monitored and cared for over several years to thrive. This is even more true under the new climate stresses that seedlings now face, such as long, extra-hot summers. Successful aftercare does not always happen, to put it mildly, in replacement tree efforts completed by hired landscapers for developers.
All-in-all, the long-term future of Stream’s 474 proposed new tree seedlings will be very uncertain.
For the above reasons and many more, we are asking the Hearing Examiner to require modifications to this development application.
Fewer units is one option — such as removing the eight larger townhomes from the site plan that carry double the footprint. Another design option is to go back to the drawing board to explore a vertical re-design (i.e. mid-rise tower or two) that could conceivably accommodate more infill units. And certainly, Stream’s team could discover other options that meet similar goals.
Note that none of these options will protect every tree on the site. Only abandoning the entire project would accomplish that, but then needed infill housing would eventually have to be built elsewhere. (Perhaps on a different peripheral area of the immense BGCC site?) It’s a tough dilemma for any growing city.
Your Turn to Weigh In
Want to weigh in about the Stream Meridian project to help the Hearing Examiner best decide its fate? There are two ways you can quickly and easily do this:
First, sign our online petition today at https://whatcommilliontrees.org/petitions-to-save-trees/ to urge a revised Meridian site plan that saves many more large conifers while providing at least 60 units of affordable infill multifamily housing for our community.
Note that our online petition has a comment field, giving you an opportunity to share your feelings and concerns to the city about the proposed project. Please do!
Second, after you sign the petition, share the link with your friends. To date, more than 1,250 people have signed — way more than we anticipated! This has occurred mostly by online sharing and word-of-mouth. Unlike a voter petition, signers do not need to be over 18, a registered voter, or even live within Bellingham.
When we send the petition signature data to the city for their review, your name and email will be partially obscured to protect your privacy. We won’t send you any junk email and we won’t share your contact info with any other entity.
If you prefer to submit a longer comment to the city, we encourage you to email Ryan Nelson, the COB Planner who is processing this development application — at email@example.com. He’ll accept comments up to 5 p.m. of the Hearing Examiner session date.
(Editor’s note: As of our publication date, the session is tentatively scheduled for October 11, 2023, at 6:00 p.m. in the City Council Chambers of Bellingham City Hall.)
The Bigger Meaning for Bellingham
Even if the petition and various public comments submitted about the Stream project fail to persuade the Hearing Examiner to require changes, we believe it collectively indicates how strongly Bellinghamsters feel about infill development versus mature urban tree preservation.
A nerve has been touched. People want balance with these issues. They don’t want the livability of our city to slip away in the name of developer profits. Residents are concerned about climate and the increased need for resiliency that mature trees will provide. And, the residents of adjacent neighborhoods (Birchwood, Meridian, etc.), which already lack tree canopy compared to other Bellingham neighborhoods, don’t want to slip even further down the canopy scale.
Let this strong community response serve notice to the city that, when its Urban Forestry Management Plan report recommendations arrive early next year (more about that below), strong protections should be recommended and approved for significant urban trees, both in public lands and in private parcels.
Hopefully, Bellingham will then finally catch up to the enhanced urban tree protection ordinances that many other Washington coastal cities have benefitted from for years (see list in above sidebar). The devil will be in the details, of course, and that’s where WMTP will be looking closely.
It’s often difficult for our community to be informed about new developments since notification requirements are limited to mailing the nearest landowners and posting a few small signs that few people read. (We strongly think notifications for major projects should be broadened and more easily discovered.) If a proposed project manages to eventually hit the press or otherwise become more known, sometimes it’s too late to meaningfully alter its design path.
Besides improved project notification efforts, we believe there’s a better way to go about this: encouraging a nature-integrated planning and design process from the start.
Nature-integrated design embeds nature sustainably throughout a project, not just as window dressing. It’s sometimes also referred to as “green architecture” or “biophilic design.” Several cities around the world have fine examples, such as Paris and Singapore, to name a few. Some architects now even specialize in this kind of design approach.
Nature-integrated design is created by holding several intentions during a project’s design process, such as …
• Prioritize the living. Assess the biological, ecological — and now climate! — value inherent in a site so smart choices can be made about what to preserve and enhance. If necessary, move development to a different site rather than razing superb natural assets.
• Be smart with footprints. Put nature’s beauty and legacy at the heart of the design by carefully locating — and shaping — building footprints to preserve major natural assets, such as significant trees. Keep buildings outside of the “drip line” so trees can thrive long term. If needed, dial down a higher-density footprint to avoid a squeezed, “maxed-out” site plan.
• Build habitat value. Provide nature corridors to adjacent ecologically sensitive areas, when present. On-site, establish multi-level native landscapes that provide ecological/habitat value rather than the usual monoculture ground cover punctuated by a few ornamental trees and bushes. (Bleh!)
• Think user-based design. People are part of nature, too. Integrate landscape into the architecture (i.e. on rooftops, terraces, balconies) if possible. Orient built spaces away from traffic, noise or other chaos to create a more peaceful environment to live or work in.
Will it cost more to build such projects? Often, yes. But, as we begin to accumulate fine examples locally of such an approach, developers may see that nature-integrated design adds desirability, livability, and value to a project, thereby compensating for at least some of any “lost” profits.
Build a Better Foundation, Too
In our view, it’s high time for the City of Bellingham to encourage a nature-integrated planning and design approach from the get-go, rather than community advocacy having to later try to push to make it happen on a project-by-project basis. Two big ways to accomplish that are via two upcoming “foundational” COB planning documents:
1. Comprehensive Plan. The plan should reflect nature-integrated planning values in neighborhood goals, zoning, and other guiding elements. This plan will be updated over the next two years, with plenty of opportunities for community input and review. Notably, it will be the first update since climate change impacts (heat domes, flooding, etc.) have become much more evident locally.
2. Urban Forestry Management Plan. The city’s upcoming Urban Forestry Management Plan (UFMP) will hopefully address and recommend a wide range of needed improvements, including better tree retention requirements for private developments. We hope it also suggests credits or other positive motivations to protect tree canopy, such as flexibility in other requirements, for developers who create tree-positive designs. The UFMP will release its final recommendations early next year. We especially look forward to its completion and adoption, since much significant tree loss has occurred over the three-plus years allocated to develop the consultant’s report.
For both of the above planning documents, WMTP will closely review drafts and actively offer detailed input and feedback as part of the community engagement process. We strongly encourage every local resident (that means you!) to get involved, too. Use the City’s Engage webpage at https://engagebellingham.org/council-public-comment to stay tuned to each of the above! You also can contact WMTP anytime via our website to learn more and/or to join our team in its review effort.
By using these community planning processes to revise and improve local ordinances, the City of Bellingham will build a better foundation for climate-wise development planning.
Using one proposed infill housing as an example, I’ve highlighted how a nature-integrated planning and design approach can bring significant benefits while protecting as many ultra-valuable large urban trees as possible that are crucially needed in our new climate era.
Under the pressure of pervasive growth, we must all work together in every way possible to improve the climate resiliency, equity, livability and health of our community.
WMTP is working hard for local trees and forests in many other ways, too. You may have read in the media about our lake watershed tree protection efforts, for example. We also have an innovative and successful effort underway to remove invasive English ivy that threatens thousands of trees throughout Whatcom County with premature death. With help from dozens of enthusiastic volunteers, we’ve already saved more than 1,000 trees locally in this way.
WMTP’s English Ivy Removal to Save Even More Trees
Find out more about this innovative effort to save thousands of local trees by visiting https://whatcommilliontrees.org/tree-projects/tree-protection/english-ivy/.
We hope policymakers will realize we should not diminish our significant urban trees and forests in the name of rapid growth. We can do better than having just protected parks, Greenways and lakes as “refuges” within an otherwise hardscape-dominant city. Nature should be threaded everywhere, including in higher-density developments. To fail in this only diminishes our community.
Although what we accomplish might seem like a “drop in the bucket” in the global picture, it’s much more meaningful when considered with a local lens.
That’s why, to me, it’s not only how many trees we plant and protect that counts. What happens inside of our hundreds of volunteers, partners, and participants — spiritually and emotionally — also builds climate resiliency. How? Engagement and hope from positive action can counter distressing news, helping us to better respond to any crisis or cause. It’s what I affectionately call The Ripple Effect. To me, that’s a super-cool byproduct of our work.
Thanks for reading. To see the full range of Whatcom Million Trees Project efforts and initiatives, and the many ways you can help or become involved, please visit our website at https://whatcommilliontrees.org.
Whatcom Million Trees Project Executive Director Michael Feerer has a long history of creating innovative ventures for social good — first in architecture/urban planning and later in other realms. After exploring wildernesses worldwide for more than a decade, he returned to Bellingham three years ago determined to do something about climate change, As a result, he founded and leads Million Trees Project. A voracious reader, granddad, and avid hiker, he’s walked the equivalent of 1.5 times around Earth.