If you have not read today's Gristle column by Tim Johnson regarding waterfront development plans, please do. http://www.cascadiaweekly.com/currents/opinion/catch_22_power_of_ten. Among the issues discussed are the huge public subsidy being provided to developers at public expense. Not only will the city be paying for the cleanup of contaminated waterfront land before it is sold to private owners, it is also obligated to pick up signficant infrastructure costs that are the normal responsibility of the developer. Public rights and interest in tidal lands are being permanently lost through transfer to the port in exchange for roads and there is little public understanding of this fact. And when Jack Weiss raised concerns about the public benefit of a $78 million dollar giveaway to developers, he was advised by the city attorneys that consideration of social impacts was precluded under SEPA because it had not been part of the EIS review.
The notion that the city is restricted in waterfront planning and review by the SEPA process is absurd on its face. And particularly so with regard to this waterfront planning process. SEPA is a tool that assesses the environmental impacts of development and analyzes mitigation options. That is it. It does not control or restrict the contents of a plan.
Council was not told that the waterfront plan could, and has been, amended after an EIS review, or that new impacts could be considered through a supplemental EIS. And the city already needs a supplemental EIS because it failed to review impacts to plants and animals, and this is necessary to meet regulatory standards for shorelines and critical areas. The real issue is that the city does not want to conduct a supplemental EIS because it causes delay, is an additional expense, and, most importantly, could interfere with the city's ability to sell public land to private owners and subsidize development costs.
And this position by the city adminstration is particularly hypocritical. The waterfront EIS consists of five different documents, reflecting EIS reviews from 2008 through 2012. http://www.portofbellingham.com/index.aspx?nid=421. Each EIS review addressed waterfront plan modifications of some sort. Why have the rules suddenly changed?
In fact, the last EIS, (which is the one being used by the city in its permit applications), is a Dec. 2012 EIS Addendum issued by the port that reflects the current version of the waterfront plan. This included sustantial changes, particularly with regard to density and zoning. The port exceeded the proper scope of the EIS Addendum process, intended only for minor changes and additional facts. However, by using the EIS Addendum process, the port avoided the obligation for public notice and input, and the need for a professional consultant. The public and the council had no opportunity to shape this process, and it is troubling to see the SEPA process being used inconsistently in order to undermine the council's authority.
These are rather technical points, and therefore, have not drawn attention, despite their importance. The city administration has been using the complexity of the planning process to its advantage, providing misleading or incorrect information and responses to the council to prevent changes to the waterfront plan. It is unclear to me the extent to which the city council continues to be fooled, and the extent to which this is a convenient cover for agreeing with the administration's proposal, given its strong public opposition.
Although the council has denied the public an opportunity for another public hearing, there is still time to speak out at the next few city council open sessions. The public should demand an updated, supplemental EIS to ensure that the public voice is heard, that wildlife and habitat issues are addressed, and that social justice issues can be reviewed. Please show up to the city council's next meeting on November 18, 2013 to voice your opinion.