Burlington frets about its soul

BURLINGTON, Skagit County — The locals have a word for big-city folks who wind up in old downtown Burlington:


They have a point. It's safe to say the vast majority of Seattle-area shoppers making the annual postholiday pilgrimage to Burlington's outlet mall and other big-box retailers don't even know the place has an old downtown.

But it's there, just a couple of blocks north of the traffic-clogged shopping whirlpool of auto dealerships, Cascade Mall, Costco, Prime Outlets, Fred Meyer, Target and an ocean of strip malls.

Look hard enough, and you'll see that the old heart of the "Hub City" — named for its key location on railroad signs — is still pumping away along Fairhaven Avenue, which has old-time cafes, a City Hall, an old Carnegie Library Building, a Hispanic grocery, and an auto-parts store that still installs windshield wipers.

All of this seems a world, rather than several blocks, away from the town's sprawling retail development along Interstate 5 — a commercial façade that, some residents fear, not only has hijacked the town's identity but threatens to consume nearby farmlands in one of the region's last undeveloped agricultural valleys.

The real downtown Burlington, the one few visiting Seattleites ever see, is all the things you'd expect in an old farming, railroad and timber town in an idyllic place between the Skagit River Valley and the snow-capped North Cascades. Its main street is fitting for a region where people can be outnumbered in winter by trumpeter swans and snow geese.

By contrast, Burlington's bursting I-5 retail core jars the eye. The outlet mall often has no outlet at all these days, so clogged is the traffic along Burlington Boulevard. Sit in it long enough, and it's tempting to write this formerly quaint farm town off as yet another soulless sea of retail and strip malls.

This is the risk Burlington took in allowing 3.7 million square feet of commercial and industrial buildings to spring up here — some on commercially zoned farmland inside city limits — since 1989.

That growth — so far, almost all clustered in a strip along either side of I-5 — is wholly out of whack with Burlington the town but completely befitting Burlington the one-stop shopping center.

The town, often mistaken for a northern extension of Mount Vernon, just across the Skagit River, is home to about 7,300 people. But it has enough retail to satisfy a quarter of a million North Sound bargain seekers, from Friday Harbor to Newhalem, Stanwood to Blaine. It's still the Hub City, but now for shopping, not railroads.

Outwardly, Burlington seems to revel in this growth. Some small towns organize to fight big-box retail. Here, streets are named in homage: Costco Drive, Cascade Mall Drive, Haggen Drive.

The benefits to residents are obvious: All those credit cards being swiped through machines in the malls bring more than $5 million a year in sales tax to the city's coffers, allowing the once-struggling burg to upgrade its streets, utilities and other amenities. The cash boost also keeps the town's property taxes among the lowest in the region.

But the city's love affair with blacktop and cinder blocks might be ending. The downsides are being felt by more and more Burlingtonians — even those in City Hall who allowed the growth in the first place. Traffic is a constant complaint, especially in the summer, with heavy Highway 20 tourist volumes added to the mix.

Residents increasingly fret that Burlington's boom, left unchecked, could turn into a bust for local farmlands, which provide the very cow-town feel that attracted many to the area — or has kept natives here — in the first place.

Nobody complained too much when existing agriculture lands inside the city limits were consumed by developers attracted to Burlington's rare lure: I-5 freeway offramps leading to relatively cheap, available land in a growing region at the crossroads of two major highways.

But similar lands on the edge of the city now are being eyed for development, notes Bob Rose, executive director of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland.

"What's done is done," he says. "The question is, where does it go from here?"

The answers could affect the entire region. The town is ringed to the west and north by Skagit and Samish Valley farmland. Many of the farmland owners have, in the past year, come to the city, asking to have their property annexed into Burlington's urban-growth boundary. That would allow the land to be rezoned for commercial or residential development, substantially increasing its market value.

So far, they've been held at bay. But nobody expects that pressure to decrease.

Farmland advocates are wary of the developmental domino effect that occurred decades earlier in similar agricultural areas farther south, such as the Kent Valley. Nobody made a sweeping decision to develop farmland there, either; it happened drip by drip, with individual "exceptions" to landowners, Rose notes.

Activists now see Burlington as a flash point in what they fear could be an eventual string of pavement straddling I-5 all the way from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C.

One of the parcels being proposed for development is doubly troubling to preservationists: It's a triangle of land on the north side of town, bordering both I-5 and Chuckanut Drive, the Burlington-to-Bellingham scenic highway that has managed to stay mostly free of motels, restaurants and gas stations.

"If Burlington grows farther in this direction," Rose says, pointing to the area on a map, "there's no logical stopping point."

The line in the mudflats thus is being drawn. And even Burlington's mayor, Gus Tjeerdsma, and planning director, Margaret Fleek, have agreed to lend a hand to the stick.

Both were on hand for much of Burlington's growth spurt, which began with the opening of Cascade Mall in 1989. They don't apologize for putting the city on firm financial footing. And neither is out to squelch commercial growth.

But they want to refocus it toward the city core.

"There's no justification for adding to the urban-growth area of Burlington," Fleek says. But, she adds: "Obviously, the farmers are feeling pinched. We know we need to take an innovative approach."

City residents feel the same pressures.

"We're working hard to maintain the character of this valley," says Paul Rosasco, a local chiropractor. "It's a delicate balance."

Rosasco has a stake in the Skagit Valley from top to bottom: He runs a vineyard and winery in the upper valley near Concrete, his practice is in Burlington, and his home sits near the saltwater shores of Samish Island.

"On the outside, Burlington has changed a lot," Rosasco acknowledges. "But it's still a nice community. People know people here. We'd like to keep it that way."

The best way to do that, say Fleek and Tjeerdsma, is to provide a long-term vision for the city that saves its farming heritage without bankrupting surrounding farmers.

To help create it, the city recently hooked up with the University of Washington's Department of Landscape Architecture, whose students envisioned a set of creative futures for Burlington. The plans include a sprawling greenbelt, made up of farmland, Gages Slough and other Skagit River wetlands and dike areas, completely surrounding the city. That would preclude most annexations, pushing new growth toward ample commercial land still available in the city center.

A key focus is a redesigned old downtown, encouraging niche businesses along Fairhaven Avenue, perhaps with apartment or condominium space upstairs. This could also serve as a potential piece of the economic puzzle to save farmland.

The hope is that redirecting the tide of growth from the borders to the center of town might prompt struggling farmers to strike a deal: In exchange for keeping their land green, they could be granted development rights elsewhere, preferably in the city center.

That concept has been successful with farm- and timberland-preservation efforts in other places, including King County. But it's rarely been attempted in a rural community such as Burlington, says Rose, who previously worked on land-exchange deals in the Mountains-to-Sound Greenway.

In the past, farmland advocates viewed Burlington as "the bad kid on the block," Rose says.

But with the recent annexation requests, city officials came to the conservation group seeking a common solution and broader plan, he says.

That's encouraging, he says, as is the response of ordinary Burlingtonians: Dozens of them have pitched in, attending workshops and using sugar-cube and Popsicle-stick models to demonstrate their own vision for their town's future.

The UW study gives the City Council a baseline to forge its own long-range plan, says Fleek, who adds that financial studies on the feasibility of the farmland-exchange proposal will be launched soon.

Meanwhile, the city already is doing little things to make sure outsiders know it's not just a row of freeway big boxes: Directional signs to Burlington's downtown — the real downtown — are on the drawing boards.

"There was a community here long before the mall showed up," Mayor Tjeerdsma, who has lived his entire life in a house five blocks from city hall, notes with a wink.

Once those signs go up, even a hopelessly confused Seattleite should be able to find it.

Ron C. Judd: 206-464-8280, or rjudd@seattletimes.com