COB Staff Manipulates Waterfront Planning for Controversial Overwater Walkway

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The City of Bellingham administrative staff continues to manipulate the waterfront planning process to its own advantage. Waterfront planning must be reflected in the waterfront district subarea plan, approved and enacted by the council, and clearly, this should include the overwater walkway that will connect Boulevard Park to the Cornwall Landfill. Instead, staff has advised city council that this project is a done deal.

If the overwater walkway is not part of the waterfront planning process, why is it continually discussed and included in the waterfront discussion? Why is waterfront funding being used to pay for this project? Why was $4 million in Greenway Levy funds, identified by voters to create waterfront district trails, allocated to the OWW? Why has the OWW been identified, along with the Cornwall Park, as a priority waterfront project? Why is the city holding a public meeting for the Cornwall Park master plan which includes the overwater walkway? These are the real questions that govern the matter of whether the OWW is an independent, predetermined project, or whether it is part of the current and on-going waterfront planning process.

At the same time, staff attempts to hide behind legal fiction and technicalities to avoid accountability. It asserts that the OWW is part of the South Neighborhood District, and therefore, not subject to waterfront district planning review. Staff should not be allowed to pick and choose when it will treat the OWW as a waterfront district project, and when it will not.

The city is attempting to piecemeal its obligations in a manner that is contrary to SEPA provisions. The reality is that the OWW impacts Bellingham Bay, the same marine resource that will be impacted by all other waterfront development. Marine resources can not be divided by artificial neighborhood boundaries. All waterfront projects, where ever located, are ecologically connected and must be treated as such. This is particularly true when they are drawing upon the same funding sources and staff resources for implementation, and are moving forward concurrently.

Please consider these other factors as well:

  • There has been substantial public objection and controversy over this project by the environmental community, the Lummis and local residents, which the city has ignored. Please review the public comment tracker (76 pages) and the SEPA Comment Response Matrix (36 pages) found on the linked project website. The City is falsely stating there is overwhelming support for this project.
  • There has been no NEPA review, or at least a public determination by the WSDOT that it will not be conducting a NEPA review. Public controversy is an important concern in making a NEPA classification. Neither the state nor the city will advise me of when and where the information regarding the NEPA process will be published.
  • The city requires WSDOT approval for the OWW, and my last information is that the city permit is still on hold. The city is proceeding with OWW development without the final approval required by the state.
  • The city and the Lummi have not publicly announced a resolution to the conflict over OWW impacts to treaty rights and until this is settled, the OWW can not move forward.
  • Because the OWW impacts the same marine resource as waterfront redevelopment, it should be included in the EIS analysis for Bellingham Bay, particularly with regard to cumulative impacts. It was not.
  • Overwater walkways are highly discouraged by DOE because they are very damaging to the marine environment. The city is planning no mitigation other than a required eelgrass project, and has it has filed a marine mammal take permit due to impacts on harbor seal habitat.
  • The city has run into continued problems with its eelgrass mitigation project required by WDFW for the OWW, refusing to make adjustments in analysis and planning necessary for proper mitigation. It failed to consider the impacts of the OWW landing at the Cornwall Landfill, and WDFW put this project on hold pending permit approval by WSDOT.
  • We have recently learned that the city does not plan to review habitat connectivity as part of waterfront planning, and that it has allocated zero waterfront funding to shoreline restoration projects. Habitat connectivity is particularly important for an overwater structure that is a half mile long, and is connected to existing overwater structures because this amplifies the harmful ecological impacts.

Is anyone going to hold the city administrative responsible for its manipulation of the planning process? If the OWW is a done deal, it is not entitled to consideration as part of the waterfront planning process, and it is certainly not entitled to any portion of waterfront funding that becomes available. Instead of providing a meaningful response to public concerns, the staff summarily dismisses the credibility of those raising objections, and unfortunately, the city council appears to be accepting of this.

Please hold the staff accountable for the contradictory position it has taken on the OWW. Requesting waterfront handouts while proclaiming project autonomy is unjustifiable and not in the public's best interest. Attend the city public meeting on the Cornwall Park Master Plan on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013 from 7-8:30 PM in the City Council Chambers, and tell the city staff what you think. Please consider sending a letter to the City Council and to Mayor Linville as well. Finally, when the federal government is functioning, consider a phone call to Senator Patty Murray's office, since she provided the earmarked funding for the OWW project.

About Wendy Harris

Citizen Journalist • Member since Mar 31, 2008

Comments by Readers

Alex McLean

Oct 16, 2013

In opposing this project you are claiming that 96 concrete and steel pilings supporting a 14 foot-wide path will severely impact the bay. There will be shaded parts of the muddy sea-floor, as noted by the bathymetric surveys, and there will be portions of the walkway—at either of its landfalls—where it goes over eelgrass beds. These portions will have a grated deck, of course, to allow sunlight to get through. You like to cite studies revealing the holocaust of degradation that overwater structures inflict, but fail to mention those studies are based on overwater roads, freeways, bigger stuff in different locations and, whatever the circumstance, not very relevant to our silt-filled bay.

You never mention that 25 creosote-soaked pilings—including some scattered out in the bay from unknown sources—will be removed. Most of these pilings support the rotting dock, a known shade structure impeding eelgrass establishment, which ‘Hamsters have stared at for decades as part of their Boulevard Park sojourns. This dock, as part of the construction of the overwater walkway, will also be removed.

You mention shoreline impacts.

Does 37 billion tons of imported stone, used as rip-rap to buttress 1,000 trains every year, really amount to a “shore?” It is a BNSF rail line, not a shoreline, and I’m willing to hazard that a few hundred square feet of pilings rammed in the mud, hundreds of feet away, will not impede its imminent listing as a National Geographic Heritage Site.

In the 600 pages of design review, posted on the COB Web-site, did you ever notice how this walkway seems to bow outward, toward the bay? The reason it does so, apparently, is specifically so it will have less impact on the environment—a costly consideration and one that, obviously, does not improve the City’s rapport with the Lummi as this project effects their ability to fish on the landward side of the walkway.

There is, of course, some benefit to having a slightly larger marine sanctuary established on our bay. I don’t know that the Lummi ever set nets in that area anyway, but, well, they wouldn’t have the chance to and, ipso facto, whatever habitat or critter is lurking in that mud would, automatically, be better protected.

Nobody really cares that much about whether this project is, or isn’t, part of the Waterfront District. It comes from a place that certifiably is not, over there at Boulevard Park, and then stops at a place that certifiably is. Let’s compromise and say that roughly 205 feet of the walkway, a section of your choosing, can be part of the Waterfront District.

What really isn’t controversial, in my mind anyway, is how critical this walkway will be to providing access to the new Cornwall Beach Park. Since Cornwall Park, also, connects to Cornwall Beach Park, I propose that we include all of the Sunnyland neighborhood as part of the Waterfront District. We can add Canada later.

Once you kill this proposal, and ensure that the Lummi are deprived of a massive bargaining chip to leverage clean-up in other locations of our heavily-developed bay, what proposal do you have for getting pedestrians and bicyclists from the South Bay Trail? Wharf Street is charming, surely, with its narrow two lanes, zero-reveal curb-cuts, and steep grade leading to a railroad crossing. People will love the opportunity to thrill themselves, carrying their undies into work on a stick, after surviving their non-motorized commute into the bustling offices of our future waterfront.

Oh, wait, I forgot that this stupid walkway is just a redundant replication of the South Bay Trail ... Or it is until we pay for sidewalks and bike lanes to be magically inserted there on Wharf Street—then until the railroad forces the City to either close or elevate that whole road, which, incidentally, they have already said they will if we want them to move their stupid tracks. That will be cheap. And convenient. Commuters and park-goers alike will rejoice in having to go all the way downtown, over Cornwall where it crosses the tracks, in order to get to the Waterfront District and its new parks.

Let’s throw away the design, all of the impact studies, and the hundreds of hours of meetings and human energy that have gone into this project. They were all done so that we could, honestly and specifically, talk with the Lummi about the proposal. The cost, so far, has been about $500,000 to create this platform for negotiation. Clearly we should have given them a blank sheet of paper to stare at instead since, according to you, this ruse of pandering to process, offering voluminous details about potential impacts, only leads to controversy and manipulation.

Surely it is odd that extending a trail into the Waterfront District, a trail which sees 350,000 users per-year, should get support from council. Odder still that a proposal which first surfaced officially in 2002, as part of the Parks, Recreation and Open Space Plan, should have some historical momentum which is divorced from the lumbering quagmire of waterfront planning. I smell conspiracy! EVERYWHERE! 

Nobody has ever debated that the Lummi have the final say in this proposal. That is your phantasmal fever-dream, yours alone, and you are welcome to nurture it.

Now that we have gotten to this step, and especially since we have juicy grants leveraging our local Greenways dollars to help us build this thing, I see this as a great time to kill it. True, those millions of dollars could be spent on something else, perhaps even shoreline improvements like we are currently doing at Boulevard Park. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to see what the Lummi want, and what the City can offer, by way of mitigation projects? Wouldn’t it be cool, even “fun for me!”, to build a trail on stilts, over water, used by millions while, simultaneously, providing the only safe and viable Northbound connection to the largest and newest Waterfront District park and, simultaneously, enhancing non-motorized commuting options while, subsequently, having a City of Bellingham pact with the Lummi Nation ensuring that some habitat, somewhere, will get cleaned up and restored to make up for the losses we inflict upon their treaty rights? Wouldn’t that be cooler, as a project to virulently oppose, than something less important like coal trains or slaughterhouses or dipshit development projects posing as dormitories? Better yet, we should yank all this money and support the purchase of another couple acres of “sacred” land in Edgemoore, threatened by a herd of endangered Porches and Mercedes, so that we can really get the most bang and public benefit from our Greenway Lev—er, I meant our Municipal Parks District—bucks.

Few wonder why people like you move to Bellingham. It’s really pretty here.

Even less people wonder why people from Bellingham—where nothing cool can get done without a goddamn full-scale war—pack it in and move to Portland.


Doug Karlberg

Oct 16, 2013

By the time I got done reading Mr. McLean’s comments I was sweaty, out of breath, and I needed a smoke.

Damn, that was good.