Steal this Waterfront: Costs without Benefit

Wherein the direct, indirect, hidden and lost opportunity costs make this a waterfront boondoggle of billions

Wherein the direct, indirect, hidden and lost opportunity costs make this a waterfront boondoggle of billions

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Bellingham and Whatcom County just got taken for possibly the biggest ride since European settlers bamboozled native residents and took the place over.  We are living with a gang of master thieves and have just been royally fleeced.  Someone will benefit.  It's just not clear who or how.  What is certain is that it will not likely benefit taxpaying citizens.

According to the Military Highway Water Supply Corporation, extended aeration wastewater treatment plants they built in 2000 cost a bit over $2 million for a capacity of 510,000 gallons per day. By extension, the 50 million gallon per day facility G-P left behind would be worth about $2 billion. Wrecking it for a marina leaves the local sewer rate base holding the bag for far higher future replacement costs.  None of this has ever been publicly examined.  Requests have been repeatedly refused or ignored.  The review was intentionally rigged to avoid this issue from the beginning.  It is theft, pure and simple.  Pretending it doesn't exist, the port turns it into a stream of moorage revenues, with the public paying for both the marina and future treatment capacity.

There is no special public cost to using the ASB for water treatment. It is already approved for that.  It has an approved perforated mid-bay outfall and a permitted mixing zone.  This is golden.  Industry dreams of this and spends millions to get it.  G-P got it.  We now have it.  It's literally irreplaceable.  The plan review doesn't even acknowledge it exists.  DIscussing uses other than a marina has been systematically prevented.  Hence, the ramifications have not been examined.  An inter-local public process has somehow sentenced the municipal rate base to higher future replacement costs for their next 50 million gallons per day of treatment needs - something we already own.  Guess who will also pay the bill for mucking out the lagoon and disposing of it's toxic sediments?

Then there's the yet unmentioned cost of building an unneeded marina for yachts no one in Bellingham owns. That's many, many millions more.

Perhaps the biggest hidden cost is breaking the industrial water supply/treatment system our so-called environmental review was designed to ignore. The plan fails to look at the potential of the lagoon as a sediment repository or for industrial, storm and sanitary water treatment.  This system includes a 48" stainless steel industrial water supply to the site - worth ten or more million current dollars.  Once the port-owned lagoon is wrecked, the city-owned water supply becomes worthless, and not just because the city will never again receive water rate revenues from that public asset - more costs the study never accounted.

Breaking this supply/treatment system will severely and possibly irreparably foreclose our ability to host living wage jobs. Even good, clean industry needs water and treatment capacity. When the treatment is gone, the water is useless.  That could cost many more billions in lost opportunities. For instance, Whatcom County agriculture took a big hit when Bellingham upgraded their wastewater treatment plant and could no longer handle the rich carbohydrates from vegetable processing. G-P's lagoon could help restore vegetable production in Whatcom County.  That's jobs and food security.  There could be light manufacturing opportunities that would like to dovetail with the university, our marine services, or our various design labs, building electric cars or solar panels.  No one will ever know.  None of this was reviewed.

We are blessed with surplus water supply and treatment capacity left behind by G-P.   Any other community would flaunt it to recruit good jobs. Most would want to preserve the water right.  The port, ostensibly charged with promoting economic development, has refused to try.  Recruiting jobs was never considered.  The port is set on a yacht basin.  They pretend the system doesn't exist because they will rely on revenues from moorage and selling off our waterfront land.  That is what benefits their jobs at the port, not farmers growing peas.

Further, when the facility is no longer available for treating stormwater, the public will spend yet more on expensive end-of-pipe stormwater treatment options that have proven to not work as well as expected, to frequently fail during peak events and to discharge stored toxins in sudden surges directly into the nearshore habitat. We will get to pay much, much more for inferior water quality and habitat results.  Even though federal and state mandates to treat stormwater are known to be coming soon, studying whether the lagoon could serve this need was intentionally avoided.  Urban runoff has been identified as the single largest threat to the future health of the Salish Sea.

The very reason the lagoon exists at all is because an oceanographic study of Bellingham Bay in the 1960s discovered a "concentrating current" in the "inner harbor" area near the mill site which traps pollution, preventing it from mixing with tidal waters.  Consequently, G-P built their lagoon with an outfall far from shore, beyond the effect of the inner harbor gyre.  Urban runoff entering the bay in this area will remain and concentrate - just as mill pollution did - and forever increasingly inhibit the rehabilitation of the nearshore habitat upon which the entire ecosystem depends.  What's the cost of that?

The costs keep coming.  Because of shortcomings in our sanitary system, peak storm events overburden sewers, creating Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs).  These are discharged into the mouth of Whatcom Creek, immediately adjacent to the treatment lagoon.  The CSOs are violations of our discharge permit and are happening with increased frequency.  The city gets fines and has an obligation to mitigate.  CSOs could be transferred directly to the lagoon, where they could be treated and discharged far from shore.  Instead, the city plans to spend many more millions building concrete boxes to capture and hold excess flows until they can be metered back into the pipe to the Post Point treatment plant.  These facilities, with complicated pumps and valves, must be entered, cleared of debris and maintained after every use.  Higher M&O budgets have not been mentioned. 

These are just a few of the ramifications of the newly adopted plan, but wait, there's more.

The existing tax base downtown took a sharp decades-long downturn after less than one million square feet of retail space was opened at Bellis Fair. This new plan expects that six times as much development can be interposed between downtown and the waterfront without any ill effect. The port's policy is to put this property back on the tax rolls as soon as possible.  This guarantees only sales and lease revenues for the port, not a boost to the city or all citizens. If the project harms downtown, we could see decades of blight, squalor and increased crime. Damage to the existing tax base was never considered in the review and could easily offset any on-site gains.  How soon we forget.

Port boosters claim heavy development of the G-P site will benefit the public.  But even slight damage to downtown valuations will so quickly offset any benefit from the port's waterfront development that the hundreds of millions in agreed city investments will soon seem absurd.  Meanwhile, the financial obligations will hamstring any meaningful city response for years to come, further benefitting the port's waterfront competition. 

As we unwittingly consign the Central Business District to second tier strip clubs, tat shops, and card rooms, we might also anticipate the port delivering their coup de grâce in the form of a tribal accord for a waterfront casino that strips even card room potential from downtown, oops, now soon to be "uptown."  This deal may already exist.  It wouldn't be the port's first secret accord with a tribe.  That's just the way they roll.  The city has already approved a plan that would allow this (preliminarily, with the final approval scheduled for December 9).

What a waste.  We currently have, for the first time in any of our lives, a consolidated public waterfront. This could be an enormous benefit to Bellingham, as Stanley Park is to Vancouver. However, the port intends to sell it back into the private sector for development that will benefit only the port. They are literally stealing the benefit of a public waterfront from citizens without so much as a debate.  These costs are less tangible, but extensive and enormous.

The benefits that a broad, open public waterfront might confer upon the existing tax base downtown, and for the county as a whole, were never considered.  Imagine a place for visitors to arrive in buses from casinos, or in their campers and RVs, where Lyndenites can show their midwestern visitors the Salish Sea and San Juan archipelago, where folks can walk their dogs or play volleyball, or watch harbor seals hauled out on log floats or otters scrambling through rip rap. For minimal capital expense, and without heaping undisclosed fiscal indignities upon an unsuspecting public, we could have made this a beautiful place to benefit all the county for generations to come.  How much will losing that cost us?

Instead, the plan benefits only the port, which has done such a miserable job of serving public needs that most citizens do not even understand they exist.  Cloaked in this confusion, the upshot of the port's policy framework has been to shift all costs to the public while sparing polluters and creating unprecedented entitlements for developers.

Then there are the guesstimated costs of remediation, maybe $100+ million just for G-P - more than twice the original estimate, and perhaps still severely underestimated.  There are costs of city-supplied infrastructure, maybe $200 million or more.  There are further costs to capping the waterway, mucking out the lagoon, addressing discovery of pollution more extensive  than expected.  Recent revelations that the port tampered with public records to lower ASB marina costs by about 40% should give cause to suspect that public costs may end up much higher.

According to a presentation previously posted on the Sediment Management Working Group's website, actual project costs for contaminated sediment removal range between $220 and $1,670 per cubic yard. G-P's consultants and the multi-agency "consensus based" Bay Action Group detailed options ranging between 160,000 and 1,900,000 cubic yards of sediment removal. At the low end of this comparative actual project cost scale, really cleaning up all the contaminated sediments would cost $418,000,000. The high-end, at $1670/cubic yard, would cost over $1.5 billion. Even though the port unilaterally adopted a remedial alternative that will clean up the least possible contaminated goo, their proposal doesn't necessarily add up. Will we drastically skimp on actual clean-up, or end up holding a very big bag for costs much larger than are being represented by the port? Can we trust their numbers?

Even with proof that the port fudged numbers, city decision makers have accepted all without question.  They have capitulated to the port on every aspect of every element of the plan. They have obligingly committed citizens to covering all these unknown costs.  They have abandoned once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and allowed the port to reap all benefits.  They argue that the land sitting idle benefits no one.  But who does it harm?  We have already seen that development as proposed could be far more expensive and harmful than advertised.

Several Growth Management Hearings Board cases I recently reviewed impose a very high SEPA standard on non-project GMA actions like this.  They repeatedly reason that reviews must adequately inform policy makers of the potential impacts of their decisions before subsequent project permitting creates ballooning impacts that adversely affect other capital facilities or service area planning.  Bottom line?  Plan comprehensively.  Don't piecemeal, and be consistent.  Both the port and city have been extremely consistent, but with a remarkably contrary willingness to obfuscate, deceive and conceal rather than comply with these simple principles.

It is worthy of note that public fatigue and participatory drop-off seemed highly engineered in the final phase of this issue.  After a decade of public process, a new plan was conceived.  This last year of the new plan included supplemental environmental reviews without public input, vast project re-scoping without inviting public comment, documents unavailable for review or too illegible to read.  It has defined a new low in participatory democracy, and perhaps a new high in institutional collusion.

The review for this plan refused to evaluate many billions in potential costs to the public.  It refused to compare the relative benefits of many other viable options. The port knew what they wanted and stuck doggedly to it, chipping away inexorably, wearing out first the public and finally the stalwart protectors we elect to guide our fair city.  The port's practice of using fraudulent numbers should have clouded the validity of the plan when finally discovered, but officials are either complicit, apathetic or so worn out they can't be bothered to ask questions.

Long before acquiring the property, when the port first invoked eminent domain to seize the lagoon for the public purpose of a marina, G-P arrived at the hearing to advise the port that touting a public purpose for condemnation included a duty to demonstrate it was the "highest and best" public purpose.  G-P suggested it would be difficult to show that a marina was a higher and better use than water treatment.  Of course, G-P was right, so the port completely avoided any such comparison by assuring, structurally, that the review would never even consider it.  That's fraud.

This plan now reflects few of the goals and objectives outlined over years of robust public participation.  It mostly reflects the new "Framework and Assumptions" most lately adopted and relentlessly pounded through for approval with little public involvement.  The impending final approval is worth challenging.  It will be far more difficult to amend the plan after this Monday's final vote. Citizens should let their council members know.  Ask them why they would do this to constituents who trusted their judgement.  Ask them who is really calling the shots.

Perhaps Bellingham can generate social movement sufficient to correct this corrupt misdirection of our waterfront resources and avoid being saddled with the incalculable costs of this boondoggle of billions.  Only time will tell, and there is precious little left.


Write your Reps jointly -

Or severally -,,,,,,

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About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Comments by Readers

Alex McLean

Dec 08, 2013

This vote will be the most important vote of any of these City Council-member’s careers. Perhaps they are retiring after a long and productive spasm of local civil service—Stan Snapp and Seth Fleetwood come to mind—or perhaps they are relative newbies, such as Lilliquist and Lehman, who have all the potential, charisma, and brains to become major political players in our County and beyond. Whatever the individual case, this vote will certifiably be the one that has the most impact, the most lasting and potentially damaging legacy, for the City of Bellingham and its constituents who these councilmembers represent.

It is a shame that only councilmember Jack Weiss has proven that he has payed attention to what is at stake in this freakish shell-game of manipulation and terrorist negotiations that have been inflicted by the Port. And it is depressing that the authority of our “strong mayor” charter can muscle over the good intentions of a seven-member council as they dutifully try to meet Mayor Linville’s arbitrary deadline and fast-tracked public process.

What we got, as a result, is a plan significantly more impoverished in public benefit, significantly more expensive to taxpayers, and distinctly worse in every category than the baselines which our former mayor fought to preserve.

Councilmembers fluttered and grieved over how sad and stupid their votes were last week, as seen through this bleak video documentary, , but I fail to see any gun pressed into the flesh of their skulls which make this result as inevitable as they imply. We have more time. We deserve far better. Nothing needs to be carved in stone—as this plan ensures it will be—by voting for an undesirable outcome.

What is virtually certain is that the citizens of this town will not condone being heavily taxed to benefit development that we don’t like, didn’t ask for, and can’t afford. If we have no local representation willing to defend us from this hijacking, we’ll go over their heads to the legislators and litigators who will be jiggling the permits and purse-strings attached to literally hundreds of millions of dollars in State and Federal grants. If our letters and comments are ignored here, we will have to send them where they matter. People right now might be distracted by the holidays, by ill-timed Seahawks games, and by seemingly larger threats represented by coal trains or slaughterhouses. I am convinced, however, that a graph describing what has been bargained away by this administration, thrown into the dumpster simply to fill the gluttonous coffers of the Port of Bellingham and its inflexible demands for zero restrictions on developers, will inspire more than enough outraged citizens to create a ominously powerful coalition. We will drive this deviant plan back to the negotiating table and make it quiver like a skewered worm.

The current plan is way too horrible for this city. And there is way too much at stake to assume that an intransigent and power-maddened Port of Bellingham would ever, ever, concede to altering it’s juicy concessions and kickbacks at some future date.

If our City Council won’t do anything to defend us, and if we know—as we certainly do—that our Port cares nothing about us, then we will have to prepare for the worst and begin sharpening our bayonettes and ballots. If this council thinks this deal is an outright shame, a gut-wrenching sacrifice of all our achievable and good goals for the Waterfront District, then perhaps it is their duty to ponder what that says about them and about the impacts of their up-coming “third-and-final vote.” Punting on a vote of this magnitude seems a disastrous way to either end, or begin, a political career.



Dec 09, 2013

For my part, I just want to thank Mayor Linville for finessing the public process and pushing her friends’ agenda to a quick conclusion.

The last thing we need is a public process!  What do they know? Just shut up and thank your lucky stars you got this mayor elected.


Tip Johnson

Dec 11, 2013

And here are the comments I submitted before final approval, not that it made any difference, but it is worth recording the issues they refuse to address for posterity.  It is worth summarizing that they approved exactly what the Port Commission concluded long before they acquired the property and a public process was entertained.  I guess that’s just prophetic on the part of the Port.  Or maybe the whole deal was a sham?:

Dear Council members,

I am long on record having constructively noticed the City about defects in this project’s review.  No attempt has been made to correct them, to wit: 

1) The review was designed and managed to prevent any discussion of alternative uses of the ASB lagoon.  As a result, very many costs (presumed to be understood by the respective administrations) have been intentionally concealed.  I recently outlined some of these at: (hereby including the entire article by reference).  The public has not seen an honest, rational summary of this project’s costs, much less the benefits.

2) The lack of any competent metric for the No Action Alternative means no cost/benefit comparison has or can be made between the Preferred and No Action Alternatives - even before acknowledging costs have been concealed. The program of concealment exacerbates this defect.

These defects undermine the basic premises of rational municipal planning.  Their existence appears intentional, systematic and irrational.

The ASB marina is a key, core element of the plan.  It was originally included in the No Action Alternative so scoping comments about other uses could be (and were) refused. Then, with the adoption of new “Framework and Assumptions”, it was moved to the Preferred Alternative for Final Review. This framework vastly expanded the project scope.  No opportunity for additional scoping comments was ever afforded the public.  The ASB marina has thus been systematically shielded from comparison with alternatives.

Major decisions appear predetermined, consistent with the Port’s early condemnation of the ASB lagoon and their Scheme of Harbor Improvements, interlocal agreements and the like.  Supporting these decisions has required falsifying records and concealing the true costs of many related issues.  This has deprived citizens of their rights to an open public process.

Even evidence of the Port’s manipulation of key public records did not prevent the City from rushing ahead to approve this plan.  No attempt was made to inquire or investigate.  Proceeding without concern in the face of clear evidence of wrongdoing could implicate the City and City Council members as accessories after the fact.  Please be advised that falsification of public records can be punishable with penalties and substantial prison terms.

The Department of Ecology in scoping comments wrote:

“…we conclude that the “total proposal” needs to include the activities that are proposed under the ‘No Action” alternative, including…the proposed marina and related improvements.

“The inclusion of these elements in the “No Action” alternative is inappropriate in our view.  It deprives the public and other interested parties of the opportunity to have meaningful input to the complete planning and development process.”

Shielding the marina in the No-Action Alternative, then moving it to the Preferred Alternative for final review and adopting new “Framework and Assumptions” without adequate scoping or involvement all demonstrates a pattern of control and constraint consistent with falsifying records and concealing costs.  This cannot be ignored. 

You need to understand that I and others feel we have been systematically deprived of our rights to “meaningful input to the complete planning and development process” under the law.  We do not believe we have enjoyed a fair, honest, informed review of the public costs and benefits this plan implies.  This is especially true since the adoption of the new “Framework and Assumptions”.

Many would appreciate seeing a simple tabular summary of costs and benefits.  In theory, review should create a basis for comparing the relative benefits of various alternatives. In this, we have failed. We remain skeptical. 

I believe a forensic analysis would reveal a systematic program of control and concealment having guided this review to a single conclusion where open public process and accurate public records should have prevailed.  Please be advised that participating “under color of law” in approvals that systematically deprive citizens of rights could make you personally liable for damages.  If my assessment of this project is correct, the class of damaged citizens is large and the damages substantial.

I strongly advise the Council to delay final approval of the plan.  There is no urgent need to proceed.  What hurry is there with such immense remedial issues still pending? Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study work is still ongoing and development largely cannot proceed.

Don’t tarnish your careers or risk civil liabilities by condoning a process that has falsified facts and deprived citizens of their rights.  If you are tired of the problem, leave it for the new Council.  They will be the ones wrestling the problems this creates. 

If you think it is a great plan, then please tell us why.  We just don’t see it and you didn’t express it very well for the first and second reading.

You should protect yourselves and your constituents by calling for an investigation into what extent public records may have been altered, and a forensic analysis of relevant financial records.  The recurrent pattern of deceptive behavior and disproportionate ratio of public costs to benefits suggest someone has something to gain.  It would be good to know who.

It’s just not the public.

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