Lummi Island land trust starts building 1st home

Jack Kintner, The Bellingham Herald


LUMMI ISLAND, WA- When Don VanValkenburgh came to Lummi Island 22 years ago, finding a home was not an expensive proposition.

"You could always make money reef netting, and find a place to live, sometimes for as little as $65 a month," he said.

VanValkenburgh, 64, is one of a growing number of the island's year-round residents who are in danger of being forced off the island by higher housing costs. But thanks to the 5-year-old Lummi Island Community Land Trust, VanValkenburgh instead is about to start work building his own house in a new development of affordable houses called the Cedrus Cooperative.

Being able to buy his own house on a modest income has validated his earlier career choices, said VanValkenburgh, who learned to live simply while attending high school at a Franciscan monastery. He worked in banking for a while, but left that for a career in prison counseling before moving here, to what he calls "a good place for kids," when his son, Bren, was born.

"I was raised for the priesthood," said the jovial Ohio native, "but even though I chose not to follow that, the Friars gave me a strong sense of the value of community and of choosing quality of life over possessions."

Sticking with that has become difficult, he said, as the island housing costs have risen. "I could buy into the system more," he concluded, "but how can you buy into a system that doesn't reward your work? How can it be wrong to choose community and family companionship over simply making money?"

Polly and Carl Hanson moved to Lummi Island in 1971 after living through Mercer Island's rapid development.

"It's usually about water," said Polly Hanson. "Once Seattle city water became available on Mercer Island, we saw it go through a turnover in residents. It was no longer diverse and complete, a place where people live, work and play. And now we're beginning to see this here."

The land trust

Samya Clumpner, then a 23-year-old Fairhaven College senior in need of an internship project, already had been living on Lummi Island for four years when she talked to Hanson and others who were concerned about the island community losing its diversity as housing costs rose. Someone suggested a community land trust such as those in the San Juan Islands, but that would need someone willing to dedicate time and effort.

Clumpner said she "offered to do the work if these people would act as my board." She secured development grants and the land trust was chartered in 1998, with Clumpner as its first executive director, "although I didn't get paid until 2000," she said with a grin.

After some occasionally frustrating years of planning and preparation, the land trust broke ground Saturday on the Cedrus Cooperative, a complex of nine houses on a 5-acre tract the trust purchased on South Nugent Road.

The nine households, including three young families, one couple and five single people, were selected from applicants that had both good credit and an income of 80 percent or less of the median income of Whatcom County. The land trust retains ownership of the land and will lease it to the residents, who are called leaseholders. The houses will range in size from 900 to 1,500 square feet.

"It's a co-op in that all nine households qualify for one mortgage and administer their shared facilities together," said the land trust's outreach coordinator, Michele Morrissey. Part of the initial investment, Morrissey added, is in the "sweat equity" new owners put in by working 800 hours during 11 months to build their houses, under the direction of a general contractor.

Living simply

Clumpner was born in Lebanon to teachers at the American University in Beirut.

"Samya is Arabic," she said. "It means one who forgives." She resigned as the land trust's executive director in May to return to school this fall at the University of British Columbia, where she will pursue a master's degree in community and regional planning.

Saturday's groundbreaking event also was a chance for the 85-member land trust to thank Clumpner for her years of work on their behalf. She was given a birdbath made of concrete and driftwood that two board members promptly filled with water after its unveiling.

"Water almost stopped us," said Hanson, "because of the county's standard formulas for water usage per house. They said we needed a second well, but we said we'd be frugal and could make it with one, and asked for a variance."

Colleen Berg, who worked with Clumpner for a few weeks before taking over as executive director, explained that the variance was granted based on conservation measures that the new community will practice. "State law says only six houses are allowed on a well without going through the lengthy process of obtaining water rights. We'll have nine, but each house will be metered and the cooperative itself will monitor water use."

The whole concept is about living simply, Berg said.

"Besides water conservation, the houses have small footprints, cars are parked on the edge of the space rather than driving through it, and the wetlands around the edges are preserved with trails rather than plowing them under for a lawn," she said.

Saturday's event closed as people gathered in a circle around an area marked off with tape where the first house will be built. The board members stood poised with shovels as prospective resident Giving Rains asked that people hold hands. She prayed in the silence that followed, in part saying, "We have been gifted with this piece of land and now become its stewards. May we be ever sensitive to each other's needs."

Jack Kintner is a free-lance writer. For questions or story ideas, contact Jim Donaldson, Hometown editor, at or call 715-2288.


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