If Bellingham Public Schools (hereafter noted as BPS) goes forward with plans to renovate its bus barn and storage facility, it will automatically foreclose on any option this community might have had to significantly restore nearly 1,000 feet of Whatcom Creek’s ecologically critical riparian zone. (1)
If BPS commits to this scheme, it will also forbid any prospect of putting housing anywhere on this 3.8-acre site – a desire the York Neighborhood has harbored for nearly a decade. By investing a fresh $3.5 million into this already horrifically bad location BPS will automatically be perpetuating, for untold decades, the same environmental abuse that they have merrily engaged in for the past 63 years. (2)
The residents of Bellingham need to know about this. They need to understand that this expensive “Bus Barn” renovation will effectively slam the door on any opportunities for more thoughtful, long-term visions for this creekside property. We will get nothing. There is no room to do anything of any significance to protect this creek. No matter what flavor of slap-happy drivel they’ll try to sell us as feel-good placebos, ramming more pipes and filters and spiffy stormwater widgets into the ground is not the same—not the moral equivalent—of allowing us to finally replace this bus-blighted Hell-scape with a functioning and rich riparian ecosystem. (3) Trees and bushes and critters and shade must replace the wall of yellow-ish diesel and steel leviathans that we, through the numbing familiarity of time, have allowed to park directly atop our most cherished and central waterway.
BPS first began using this site to store their bus fleet way back in 1956. Today, having long-since purchased the entire acreage from adjacent owners, the facility now stores and repairs more than 70 diesel buses. The entire BPS fleet, and the maintenance barns for the fleet, and all the cars for the bus drivers and the maintenance employees—all of it—sits directly next to, almost on top of, Whatcom Creek. This site is bulging with vehicles now and they park on City of Bellingham-owned property both within the barbed wire fencing of the storage and maintenance facility and outside of it, on Meador Ave., where a sidewalk easement should be.(4)
Not only is this property already nostril-deep in diesel vehicles, it is also almost entirely within the boundaries of what the Critical Areas Ordinance defines as both the minimum and the maximum riparian buffers for Whatcom Creek. These buffers, at 100’ and 200’ respectively, mean that the daily operations of this bus facility is wildly out of compliance with Best Management Practices for protecting our environment. (5)
Just to be very screamingly clear about this: If Bob’s Bargain Buses tried to move to central Bellingham today, to store a fleetload of giant vehicles on this creek, there’d be zero prospect whatsoever the idiotic idea would fly; multiple State and Federal agencies, beyond whatever malleable glop our local “Shoreline Rules” might be, would swoop in and spank the snot bubbles out of such a daffy proposal in a hot minute. Nobody gets away with what BPS has been doing, not anymore. There’s good reason that our Governor, Jay Inslee, is trying to get $1.1 billion committed to stormwater pollution fixes as desperately needed assistance for salmon and orca recovery efforts here in Washington State (6): Creeks matter: Salmon matter: Orcas matter: This isn’t news to anybody. Even school children understand how stormwater runoff impacts creeks. Citizens around here care very deeply about these iconic elements of our local ecosystems. We inherently know, therefore, that how communities care for local waterways can say everything worth knowing about the community itself.
Leadership at BPS conveniently (and disingenuously) prefers to point at their equally egregious creekside neighbor, Diehl Ford, as if to note that complicity is somehow a virtue. It is not. Neither institution, if they arrived here after passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, would have a prayer of getting a permit today. The key difference here is that Diehl Ford isn’t soliciting bids for a major construction project next month and, of course, Diehl Ford isn’t funded—from the first penny to the last—by the benevolent and wholesome taxpayers of Bellingham, Washington.(7)
Nobody in a civilized nation does this to their salmon creeks anymore. And they definitely do not do this in the year 2019, not when we have orcas pushing their dead babies around, like disgustingly morbid beach balls, out in the Salish Sea. (8)
There was only one right answer. I called BPS back in August and asked them what it meant when their “Bus Barn committee” was exploring options for this embarrassing and disgusting goatshow they had inflicted upon Whatcom Creek.
They said they were going to rebuild, stay right where they are. I told them they needed to move. They laughed. That was eight months ago. (9)
Virtually every communication I’ve had with BPS since then, I now realize, has been a soft or hard variant of this same response.
It is time for them to move. Those buses must go, now. This is not acceptable, or funny, for either this community or for the health of Whatcom Creek. No matter how many times the School Board offers empty genuflections “to acknowledge that we are gathered here today on the ancestral homelands of indigenous people,” no matter how often they point at the placards declaring a cuddly-wuddly “Bellingham Promise,” these damn buses must go. (10) There is nothing else, no other answer, that can make this situation right unless we MOVE THESE BUSES, NOW.
That wasn’t the answer that Dr. Greg Baker, Superintendent of Bellingham Public Schools, finally offered us this week. As my next article will point out, this is hardly surprising coming from any employee of this School District – even one making $286,897 per school-year, who, we might have hoped, would have some modern vision and a modicum of ecological wokeness to offer us.(11)
It is just a fact that the entirety of BPS has flatly refused to even consider moving this bus barn – despite repeated efforts from this community – for well over a decade now. They’ll never move, never, unless we gouge and pry them out like they were a repulsive, giant, blood-engorged tic that has slowly gnawed into the life-giving aorta of Whatcom Creek, a waterway they do not own and that they cannot keep us from caring about.
The best scenario, in my view, is that this property get sold to the City of Bellingham (or condemned, as mayor Linville has suggested) so that housing and creek restoration options are put firmly, squarely, in the community’s control.
To contact the elected representatives of the Bellingham School Board:
1) Distances taken from tools via Google Earth: two measurements from the bridge on Meador Ave. to the Bridge on James St. at 970 feet and 924 feet. “ecologically critical riparian zone” – our Whatcom Creek Alliance sought out consultation with Bob Warinner, Assistant Regional Habitat Program Manager for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. We did so because, for some reason, it appears that it is going to be up to fumbling citizens to try to figure out what sort of cash bounty, through grants, we might be able to rustle up from the $90 million—$1.1 billion that the Governor and other leaders appears to be eager to dole out. Normally local governments do this, of course, but we have a mayor, City Council, and BPS that have yet to express the slightest interest in pursuing this inquiry, soooo …. I digress. Mr. Warinner, a stream restoration specialist who grew up here and used to fish in Whatcom Creek, noted that the South-facing banks of streams are preferred AND that being able to span the restoration effort between two distinct anchors – such as the bridges on this site – is an ideal scenario. He also shared a completely bottomless Web link that proves there is pretty much NO more important remediation target that can compete with the overall ecological benefits of restoring a riparian zone along a creek, any creek, that is damaged. Bottomless: https://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/01987/
2) 1801 James St., via Whatcom Auditor, is about 3.58 acres – I call the site 3.8 due to the lack of full ownership by BPS. It would be realistic to assume that a 100’ creek buffer would chop that in half, leaving about two acres for prospective housing and/or a mix of uses such as dense housing and a small neighborhood park or community garden. The funding for this fantasy notion seems readily available today, with City funds, but the salient point is the York Neighborhood Association did, in 2010, get unanimous City Council approval for their Neighborhood Plan which states: “The Whatcom Creek Greenway corridor should be connected along Whatcom Creek in Area 1. As ownership change, the possibility of the City Acquiring property for open space, trail, park, and riparian corridor purposes should be pursued.” Nobody, aside from BPS, obviously, disagreed. Nor did anyone disagree, then, when the YNA suggested the addition of “housing units be built along Meador Avenue, in front of a new Whatcom Creek park and trail system” in the same document.
3) I had a pretty intensive fixation with “stormwater issues” in and around Bellingham. I wrote several articles about the topics, went to seminars, read books, and eventually created a Web site devoted to green roofs around here (bellinghamgreenroofs.com) that is now woefully derelict. What I can observe is that this City, through the Bellingham Public Works Department, has an absolute fetish for jamming high-tech stormwater basins, filters, and new-fangled gizmos into the ground – if there is a million-dollar way to avoid planting a tree, we will find it here, by golly, and oftentimes be the first in the State to do so! I appreciate the technology and do not mean to belittle it; it is critical to deploy this arsenal of widgetry in impossible situations like the Lake Whatcom Watershed. But it is just wildly inappropriate for the Bus Barn mafia to be claiming, as they appear to be now, that stuffing a million bucks into the soil is what will benefit the ecology of this riparian zone. It will not. The creek needs real habitat—living stuff managed by God—and not more meddling from us.
4) The site is too full to do any restoration work, too full to add to the fleet, and too full for this to be a good, long-term use of taxpayer dollars for this dumb “renovation” – BPS will outgrow this site, or spill into the neighborhood, or otherwise be trapped spending a bunch of money in this weird rhomboid-shaped lot when they could just buy their fantasy property, as they SHOULD have planned for decades ago, somewhere far more appropriate. The City owns property allover this site as near as I can tell: An alley easement through the middle, a sizeable triangle at the Meador bridge, and whatever sidewalk easement BPS has usurped as external parking. It the City had any semblance of testicular or ovarian mass, they would evict these trespassers tomorrow and punish them for thwarting repeated requests – now more than a decade old—from the Greenways program, from Public Works and Natural Resources, and from the York Neighborhood to please, dammit, allow us to do something smarter on this creek.
5) The Critical Areas Ordinance sounds like a thing to be reckoned with, but it is an utterly worthless document enforcement-wise. A property, such as the Bus Barn or Diehl Ford, can gleefully park their vehicles fully within the mandated buffers forever, just so long as they can claim a “pre-existing use” – aka, they are “grandfathered in.” It is only when new construction is impending within the buffers, such as a new building or house or barn, that the CAO is triggered. Even then, because there is often property rights or old covenants sown into the property title, it is still possible to apply for a so-called “Conditional Use Permit” that may allow intrusion within the CAO. Nobody, to my knowledge, has yet seen the site plans for this bus barn. The architect is Zervas Group, a local firm with a fine pedigree for green building practices, but the ability for the public to see if this new construction is within the 100’ buffer has yet to emerge. All of which matters not in the slightest – the stupid damn diesel buses will STILL be burrowed deeply within the no-go zone. Forever. Warriner, from the WDFW, told us he put a tape on the site and sees the buses are only about 40’ from the waters’ edge right now. Which, for math majors, is not the same as 100’. (BPS pays a contractor to spray blackberries, through the creekside fencing, then puts up signs to tell its employees to stay away – more on that in future articles.) No spray buffers poster.
6) President Nixon, ironically, presided over passage of some of the most robust and enduring environmental legislation this nation has yet concocted, including the EPA. But, it should be noted, he only did so because creeks and rivers were literally bursting into flames in the 1970s. (It is fun to think that, today, even with Trump in office, what BPS wants to perpetuate here is actually still dumber than what either of these scumbag leaders could likely allow under existing law – 1956 was just such a long, long, time ago!) The Clean Water Act is a miasma of eye-melting acronyms; I would suggest, however that Non-Point Source (NPS) pollution – meaning it doesn’t come out of a single pipe, or single “source”—and perhaps Total Maximum Daily Load of acceptable pollutants (TMDL) are immediately applicable terms and concerns for stormwater pollution at this site, just as they are for the Lake Whatcom watershed. Here’s the thing: The whole site, all 3.8 acres of it, is gravel. Heavy buses have been mashing every drop of oil and brake fluid and diesel drizzle that has hit that ground, for six decades, and gooshing that snot into the ground. The “soil” is likely boiler-plate hard by now and effectively as impermeable (absorbent) as a State Highway. Only a person with a very, very, morally gelatinous mind could seriously claim that this site is not, in fact, a vector for nearly constant pollution into Whatcom Creek – it is an acres-wide sheet of generational toxic goobers, packed firm, that then gets 40 inches of rain falling on it annually. Gravity, and reality, takes care of the rest.
Specifically, the Governor’s $1.1 billion plan, as it relates to this bus barn, could provide, “Nearly $363 million in the capital budget for salmon recovery, culvert removal, water-quality and water-supply projects around the state.”
This is separate from the $90 million plan moving forward through the Washington State Department of Natural Resources which, also, notes there is a crisis and a duty for action. From attached link, emphasis added: “We haven’t had a baby orca survive in three years. Our salmon runs continue to decline. The struggle of many of Washington’s native species requires us to make immediate and ,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz. “This funding package will allow DNR to protect and restore salmon habitat and water quality, helping secure a future for our orcas, our salmon, and our way of life.”
There is a galactic assload of cash available to fix this bus barn site – pretty obviously, this would massively benefit whatever budget pinch BPS might whine about once we force them to move. There is, however, zero political will from our local elected officials to do anything whatsoever to reach out and take this opportunity to do so. This is astonishing to me.
7) Ron Cowan, executive director of Capital Projects and School Facilities, has proven uniquely intractable. His long history of fanatical defense of this bus barn far predates this article but, from seeing him perform in several public settings now, I can state emphatically that he is the core problem: This man doesn’t know, or care, at all about riparian habitats and has zero concern for this creek: His sole mission in this life and in this community is to ensure that the Bus Barn never moves. I can, and will, back that up with evidence in future articles.
8) It is possibly unknown to readers of this today, but a baby orca was born last month and two mature orcas are, right now, being monitored for starvation. All three will likely die. That there has not been daily coverage of this is, apparently, due to the government shutdown: NOAA tracking and drone surveillance of these whales effectively stopped when the shutdown started. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/i-am-worried-and-i-am-afraid-two-more-puget-sound-orcas-predicted-to-die-in-critically-endangered-population/
9) I first began pestering City Council about this Bus Barn goatshow in May, 2018. My first contact with BPS’s Ron Cowan was sometime in August.
Video of bus barn project—https://bellingham.wistia.com/medias/jdlnedxo65
– “As part of the bond approved by voters on November 5, 2013, the existing Transportation Garage will be renovated/replaced with a new facility.” … if ONLY “replaced” meant MOVED in this case! There is a link to review the total absence of environmental concerns that this committee appears to have had during the formation of considerations for this project. But the link is compromised or otherwise noted as “not secure” so I provide the root connection here: https://bellinghamschools.org/about/departments/capital-projects-school-facilities/
10) Having spoken three times now before the Bellingham School Board on this “bus barn problem” it seems obvious to me that their response, so far, has only been to cobble together some janky virtue-signaling reference to “tribes” and “sacred lands” that they mashed together and tried to read as preamble to the start of their January meeting. They’d never read this statement before, so, I’m guessing, it was entirely in my honor. In any event, the so-called “Bellingham Promise” is emblazoned on much of BPS’s literature and walls. They cannot live up to it, at all, if they go forward with the obdurate idiocy of insisting these buses stay in this inappropriate location. The psychological impacts – both to children and to this community – of being forced to see more generations of BPS’s disregard for the health of Whatcom Creek will put paid to whatever febrile pablum comes out of their mouths or their publications in regard to caring about the environment around here.
* haha! Just kidding! Any parent today is infused with massive anxiety, amidst daily reports that their child will inherit a broiling and dead planet, about the state of the world’s environment. But, miraculously, the Bellingham Public School system cannot even find a way to put a single sentence of that concern into their documents. Small surprise, then, that icky hippies like me have to do all the heavy lifting and fight like Hell to get this massive public agency to move their buses, provide walkable trail access, or install even a single goddamn solar panel on their multi-million dollar projects.
11) In mid-November I asked Dr. Baker, via e-mail, two questions regarding this Bus Barn project:
- 1) Who is in charge?
- 2) How will BPS let the community know it has abandoned this project, in this exquisitely bad location, and is hereafter totally committed to finding a better site for its bus fleet?
His response, in its entirety, follows:
Thanks for your questions Alex.
I am the Superintendent of the school district who along with our school board and our leadership team and staff lead our district.
We have not abandoned the project. We are certainly open to ideas and are inquiring with the city one last time.
This community has been involved in the location of all our facilities including our transportation facility, where it has served our community for over half a century.
For an update on what Dr. Baker’s position is today, and what my response has been, please see my NW Citizen article “This Mayor Hates Greenways” that provides this information. Please note that, while a dedicated member of the newly-formed Whatcom Creek Alliance, I in no way speak on their behalf – I’m on my own regarding my opinions about the idiocy of this Bus Barn and only hope, here and elsewhere, that other citizen advocates for housing and for the environment might join me in demanding better options for this BPS property.