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City Council Misled On Waterfront Planning

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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.

About Wendy Harris

Citizen Journalist • Member since Mar 31, 2008

Comments by Readers

Alex McLean

Nov 18, 2013

I had my usual lengthy and overly-gassy emission typed up ... but thought better of it. It was essentially a distillation of the noises in my head that keep looking over the static hiss of nonsense implied by the “Development Regulation” chapter of this agreement.

Far easier, and more relevant to your topic, to just say this:
Baltimore.

Baltimore has been nipple-deep in this sort of financing scheme for its waterfront redevelopment and, not surprisingly, everything that Councilmember Weiss warns against is playing out—the citizens there are deeply pissed off that they are subsidizing large corporate entities to develop on their waterfront, tax free, while those properties and businesses directly compete with theirs.

This scheme creates a queer upper-echelon of “citizen” and utterly reeks of unfairness to the rest of us who, not even privy to deciding who will or won’t win the building contracts, will be forced to pay for the parks and streets that directly benefit this special cabal of landlords.

I thought it was telling when Councilmember Lilliquist asked if this special tax-free zoning for the waterfront had a “sunset clause”—will it ever end? The answer was no. Never. How about we end it in 30 years. No. Well .... dammit, how about 50 years—by then the lure will be well played out, there will be no need for “incentive” to build on this largest tract of developeable waterfront on the West Coast, there will be no need, likewise, to entice developers to build their projects here, in Bellingham, where we consistently rank on “10 Ten” lists for liveability and overall wonderfulness ... NO, said the rest of council, NO IT MUST REMAIN IN PERPETUITY.

That is so absurd.

The three contenders for Baltimore mayor are running on tickets supporting voiding the absurdity kickback.

We’d do well to avoid it, first, or plan for the same debacle here. (Cue up the “Ballad of Chuckanut Ridge” and start sharpening your ballots, or pitchforks, because this is a done, done, done deal—we are going to forcibly bankrupt this city for the benefit of waterfront developers. And we are going to do it FOREVER.)

Incidentally, the estimated $30 million in Park fees (taxes) that will be needed to develop those waterfront parks is more than the entire acquisition fund, roughly $26 million, that is predicted to come from the Greenways III levy. We’ll pay for those parks, but the people building down there won’t.

This is made exquisitely absurd when factoring in the City’s insistence on cramming 300,000 square feet of “mixed use” development onto some amorphous, completely undefined hunk of the future Cornwall Beach Park.

For reference, the current CostCo is roughly 133,000 square feet.

Greenways is already under assault and becoming a slush fund for all manner of half-related park-like endeavors. The poor dumb city is broke and it sees a lump of cash sitting there, waiting to get plundered. It makes perfect sense, therefore, to not assess any park taxes to the largest development project in Bellingham’s history.

Oh, and then there is the business of the Environmental Impact Statement ... the clean-up, restoration, habitat and all of that.

It is “really complex” and, surely, we citizens are not grown up enough to understand it. But, nonetheless, rest assured that it is yet another thing that we little people will end up paying for, and not the developers.

 

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