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 http://www.re-sources.org/programs/baykeeper/waterfront. Show up on Monday and Tuesday and help convince the city and port that the waterfront plan is not ready to be enacted.