Thursday, February 3, 2011

Park Store - Sometimes Zoning Does Not Matter

Abandoned store at Park Road and Blue Canyon Road, Whatcom County

Last week I returned from the Samish River Valley to Bellingham via Park Road, around the south end of Lake Whatcom to Bellingham. The old Park store is located at the far southeast end of the lake at the junction of Blue Canyon Road and Park Road. It is a very quiet area with a few rural homes along the Park Road to the east, a few small lot houses tucked up along Blue Canyon Road which dead ends about one mile to the north and a few get away homes along the lake some distance to the west. Otherwise the area is commercial forest land. Whatcom County does not allow homes on land zoned commercial forestry. A rather exceptional land use policy compared to other Washington counties as it  preserves forest resources for timber. 

The store is all that is left from a period 100 years ago when a great many more people lived in the area. No all places in Washington State have seen population growth and this is one area where there has been significant population decline. The decline in population was driven by outside economics and geology. But the population boom before the decline was also driven by outside economics and geology.
Over 120 years ago on the mountain slope above this area a seam of high quality coal was discovered at the base of the Chuckanut Formation. Coal had already been mined from seams adjacent to Bellingham Bay, but the Sehome mine under what is now part of downtown Bellingham had been closed in the 1870s. The Blue Canyon Mine had the advantage of being located on a steep slope above the lake. Coal could be sent down the slope to coal bunkers by the water, loaded on barges and towed to the north end of the lake and then transported to Bellingham Bay by a rail line from the north end of the lake. The Blue Canyon Mine began operations in 1890. Even though the coal was very high quality, the mine proved to be very unsafe with numerous explosions including a blast that killed 21 miners: D. Y. JONES, JAMES KIRBY, ANDREW ANDERSON, JAMES McANDREW, MIKE ZEILISKI, LUCAS LATKE, E. P. CHASE, THOMAS CONLIN, GEORGE ROBERTS, BEN MORGAN, JOHN WILLIAMS, AL HENDERSON, WILLIAM EVANS, ISAAC JOHNSON, WILLIAM LYSTER, CHARLES RAMBERG, SAMUEL OLSEN, J. A. MORGAN, TOM VALENTINE, J.O. ANDERSON, and MARTIN BLUM (Seattle PI, 1895).

Coal loading facility at Blue Canyon, Lake Whatcom

Later a rail line was extended down the east side of Lake Whatcom to the mine and onto the South Fork Nooksack Valley/Samish River Valley via Anderson Creek Valley. All of these valleys including the valley in which Lake Whatcom is located are deep low glacial valleys in the Northwest Cascades. 

Initially the coal was used for ship fuel. In 1907 Seattle Lighting Company bought the mine and the village and shipped the coal to Seattle to make coal gas for lighting. Mines require workers and shippers and hence a community grew at Blue Canyon. In addition to the mine, logging began around the mountain slopes of the area. At that time that meant a lot of loggers. It was a labor intensive industry. At least 5 logging camps were established in the area. Besides the logging and mining, a trip by boat down the lake was an appealing get away adventure from Bellingham so there was some tourism. The valley to the west provided good farm land for raising beef and the valley connects with the much broader and alluvial rich farm land in the Samish and South Fork Nooksack Valley. Blue Canyon at the south end of the lake was well situated along the transportation route through the Northwest Cascade range. Blue Canyon grew into a town with a school, post office, hotels, a boarding house and homes.

Sketch of Blue Canyon by Eva Siemons 

The town of Blue Canyon's decline began in 1920. In about 1920 a new very extensive coal seam located in northwest Bellingham was opened. The combination of a major coal mine adjacent to the bay, electrification in Seattle and elsewhere eliminating the need for coal gas for lighting, and the dangers of this particular mine, the Blue Canyon Mine was closed.

The late 1800s and early 1900s was not known for particularly sustainable logging practices. Once the timber was removed from the area, the logging interests moved on. Farming likewise diminished as areas better suited and better connected via rail were able to out compete the small valley and mechanization meant less people could do the farming. Tourists found other places to travel to as more roads and rail lines opened up the area for travel. 

Blue Canyon faded away, buildings burned down were salvaged for lumber and simply rotted away or were grown over by the forest and brush. The rail line that served the area briefly was abandoned. Even the steep mountain slopes played a role with debris flows and steady slow earth movements within the weak phyllite. A debris flow in 1983 removed at least one house.

The Park store building survived as a way stop and convenience stop for the few area residents or passer bys. But it too was abandoned for a long time. In the late 1990s it was purchased and reopened. The site had been zoned as a rural neighborhood commercial zone matching the structure and past use of the site. However, this zoning would not allow a viable business in this out of the way location. The owners began selling other items and operating a motor cycle parts and repair shop in addition to the convenience groceries for area residences. This likely would have gone unnoticed except that the location became a rally center for weekend and summer motor cycle tours. The distinctive sounds of Harleys echoed down the lonely valleys. 

Neighbors complained that the store was in violation of the county zoning code and county planners ordered the store to cease selling motor cycle parts and other gear and items excluded by the neighborhood zoning code. The shop owners appealed this order to the County Hearing Examiner. The County Hearing Examiner rule in favor of the store essentially saying that the code would not allow this business but there was no way a store could be viable at this site unless they were allowed to sell other items. The planning department appealed this decision to the County Council.

At that time I was on the County Council. As soon as the appeal was filed motorcycle groups began showing up at county council meetings pleading the stores case. I will say this - they were one of the best organized group of activists I saw on my eight years on the Council. The Council chamber was packed the night the Council had to vote. One council member dressed up as a motorcycle rider (he has a motorcycle). Being a complete policy wonk, I voted to overturn the Hearing Examiner as did three other Council members. As one council member that remembers the scene of enraged Harley riders, I would have been dead if looks could kill. But despite the drama and understandable upset motorcycle riders, no violence took place. I should note that one of the neighbors, a very elderly woman and the only one with the guts to complain about the shop, was not known for holding back her verbal wrath either, and she came to nearly every council meeting and often came to the council office - so in this case there was no escaping angry people no matter how you voted.

Of course that was not the end of the issue. The shop owners had a choice of appealing to Superior Court, giving up, breaking the zoning law or applying for a zoning change. They choose to apply for the zoning change and ultimately it was granted and the old Park store was zoned tourist commercial allowing a much broader opportunity for business. One condition was added that due to the store being in the Lake Whatcom watershed, the drinking water source for Bellingham, no motor repair work was allowed. That condition was later applied to all properties in the watershed. 

This latest chapter all took place in 2002 and 2003. Three years later one of the store owners died. I do know there are a lot of other issues with the property and clearly the building is in poor condition. It appears that the last vestiges of Blue Canyon are fading away.   


Sam Crawford said...

Dan... GREAT post!

Don't you think there could be some sort of use for the building? It was (is?) very cool on the inside. Amazing how dilapidated the exterior has become in just a few years.

Maybe Margolis could open Everybody's second branch!

Dan McShane said...

I figured you would like it Sam. I have never specifically investigated the site itself, but I suspect there are issues. That said, I bet the beams are amazing wood and maybe the right person could fix it up. But it really is hard to picture a business making it there. Maybe an art studio live work space.

Sam Crawford said...

Yup, would be a great gallery / coffee shop for someone to operate, if it would work financially to have minimal weekday traffic. How about a small but regional geology / natural-history museum? You buy it, and I'll help you run it!

Craig said...

I'd come have coffee if you two were running the shop.

Dan McShane said...

Our first customer!