City and Port Ready To Act on Waterfront Plan

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The Bellingham City Council and the Port Commission will be taking action on the Waterfront District Sub Area Plan and related documents, amending the 2013 Shoreline Master Program to allow greater density and development at the waterfront, and finally, transferring public tidelands and rights of way to the port. The City Council meets on Monday at 7 p.m. and the Port Commission meets on Tuesday at 3 p.m. ReSources is attempting to rally the public to speak at open session. A large public turnout has been known to change the outcome of a “done deal.”

A prominent waterfront issue that has never been resolved involves waterfront habitat. A couple of years ago, the waterfront was the site of the largest breeding colony of Caspian terns on the western coast of North America. Scientists came to study the birds, and birders traveled to view the birds. This was short-lived because the port dissuaded the terns from returning to breed through a continuing series of harassing actions intended to avoid the restrictions on development that arise after an egg is laid.

This story is relevant because it shows that high value habitat has already been lost as a result of waterfront development plans. Yet the Waterfront District Sub Area Plan fails to provide mitigation to compensate for loss of tern breeding habitat. It fails to provide mitigation for any other waterfront species. In fact, no waterfront funding has been allocated to habitat protection.

The city and port are attempting to hide behind the ridiculous myth that the waterfront, an industrialized brownfield site, has no habitat value, and therefore, any waterfront development is a net gain in ecological function. This ignores the current presence of wildlife, such as otters, seals, seabirds and shorebirds, and the well established impacts of increased intensity of use. Wildlife will be driven away by the increase in marine traffic, tall buildings, busy roads, and the presence of people and pets.

This will be aided by the lack of functional habitat buffers and increased fragmentation of connectivity corridors. While restoration projects are referenced in the waterfront plan, they are the result of other projects that focus on nearshore salmon, forage fish, and eelgrass, to the exclusion of other waterfront species.

The problem can be traced back to the city and port's failure to include plant and animal impacts in its EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) review. We need a supplemental EIS to remedy this defect. Instead, the city is promising to piece together a habitat assessment from a hodge-podge of prior state studies, none of which addressed the impacts from proposed waterfront development, or appropriate mitigation.

Additionally, even after these studies are compiled, there will be important data gaps that must be closed. We have good information regarding nearshore fish species, but lack information regarding terrestrial species, marine mammals and birds. Without this information, the city and port are unable to establish a baseline standard to measure and monitor changes in ecological function and ensure no net loss.

Nor have other studies addressed the crucial issue of habitat connectivity, with the exception of the COB habitat assessment work done by Ann Eissinger in 1995 and 2003. Ms. Eissinger identified information gaps that require field investigation. A review and update of Ms. Eissinger's work would be a great starting point for a meaningful, comprehensive habitat assessment, but the city staff lacks expertise in field biology and wildlife management.

And of course, for the habitat assessment to have any meaning, it must be completed and reviewed before the waterfront plans are finalized. Instead, the city proposes to do this after first enacting waterfront plans that reflect important planning decisions pertaining to zoning, density, infrastructure sites, and design standards.

There is still work to be done on the waterfront plan. A habitat assessment is just one of the remaining problems. ReSources has provided talking points for the public at Show up on Monday and Tuesday and help convince the city and port that the waterfront plan is not ready to be enacted.

About Wendy Harris

Citizen Journalist • Member since Mar 31, 2008

Comments by Readers

Tip Johnson

Nov 30, 2013

This is without a doubt the biggest, most blatant public rip-off I have ever witnessed.  This Port boondoggle is now threatening to exceed three billion dollars.

Given the Karlberg revelations about the Port’s lying and deception at the core of these vacations - and the essence of this plan - I am surprised anyone would approve anything without revisiting the facts.  The only fact apparently left is that they are determined to rob this bank, and fast!

The public loses much and gains nothing. Downtown is being sacrificed to enrich the Port. Already empty stores on Cornwall will be joined by much the rest of the Central Business District. Their rationale is to put waterfront land back on the tax roles, but more than six Bellis Fair’s worth of upscale, waterfront development will destroy much of our existing tax base.

Guaranteed public access and project leverage is to be thrown away? What kind of policy is that?  Half the documents online in advance of the proceedings are illegible or unintelligible.  What a scam. 

There is a growing need for a forensic financial investigation of the people making such bad policy decisions.  If there is no public benefit, why would they approve it unless they have something to gain personally?

Anyway, why wouldn’t they wait until the council that will have to shepherd development of this plan for the next several years has been seated?  You really need to wonder why the enthusiastic rush to jam through such a crappy plan.

Could there be some retirement plans involved?


Wendy Harris

Nov 30, 2013

Tip, I agree this is a massive scam that does not benefit the public. The public is providing huge subsidies to developers (“incentives”) and will actually lose public ownership and control over the waterfront. All we get out of it is a crappy dioxin-contaminated park at one end, complete with roads and commercial and residential development. I can not for a minute understand what the mayor and council are thinking. 

The public is not fighting this because they do not know how bad it is. The city excels at misleading and inaccurate PR campaigns.. according to the city, this is a project that brings all great things and nothing negative. Hello to jobs, tourists, industrial and commercial and residential development, entertainment, trails and vistas, public shoreline access, and historic preservation, all of which apparently results in improved habitat and shoreline ecological function.  Because Bellingham is so special, it does not have to worry about the problems that exist in the rest of Puget Sound, where shoreline development is the primary cause of the ecological degradation, including loss of biodiversity, shoreline modification, erosion, invasive species, and toxins and chemicals entering marine waters through accidents, dumping and stormwater run-off.

The city staff has cleverly hidden behind the complexity, technical difficulty and voluminous details of the waterfront plans to obscure the facts. Who knows that we are giving up public tidelands?  The right to comment during a SEPA review?  The right to revise and update waterfront environmental standards in the future? Providing greater administrative discretion to the city staff? Or that the waterfront plan allows more development density and shoreline uses than permitted under shoreline regulations enacted at the beginning of the year?

The mayor and the council will leave behind a legacy of shame if this is actually built. I am not sure how long it will take, but we will eventually look back with horror at the stupidity of our actions, and by then, it will be too late.

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