The proposed waterfront development standards provide developers with an option for an increased density bonus, known as the Floor Area Development Bonus, and on Monday afternoon, the Bellingham City Council Committee of the Whole will discuss the fee schedule proposed by staff (and that is a whole other issue). Under this provision, a waterfront developer who agrees to pay into the Lake Whatcom land acquisition program is entitled to increase the amount of waterfront development otherwise permitted.
Now, I am a big fan of the Lake Whatcom acquistion program. I think it is one of the best things the city does. However, the point of these types of transfer of development rights programs is to reduce growth in a sensitive area (or to purchase property to protect sensitive areas, as the case here), and to permit additional growth in a less sensitive area. And herein lies the problem… the Bellingham Bay shoreline is not a less sensitive area, and it is not an appropriate receiving site for increased development.
The waterfront is a Shoreline Of Statewide Significance (SSWS) under the Shoreline Management Act, entitled to the highest level of environmental protection. It is an area that contains endangered, threatened and vulnerable species and habitat under the Endangered Species Act and Washington state guidelines. It is home to protected fish, birds and marine mammals and to orca pods J,K and L. The bay is a site of increased biodiversity because it is fed by a number of freshwater streams, creating several estuarine areas. It is an important part of the Pacific Flyway, providing habitat to migrating shorebirds. It is likely that Bellingham Bay will shortly be designated as protected habitat for rockfish under a NOAA proposal.
Therefore, it is concerning that city and port staff remain defiantly unconcerned with protection of habitat critical areas and SSWS. It is simply not appropriate to attempt to fix Lake Whatcom at the expense of Bellingham Bay. As an alternative, I suggest the city remove all of its proposed waterfront subsidies to private developers, including infrastructure development, and use that money on the Lake Whatcom acquisition program. Developers will continue to build where they see profit, with or without the use of publicly funded incentives.
This proposal underscores several important points about the waterfront plan generally. First, a sensitive shoreline is not an appropriate location for an urban village, and building along the shoreline is contrary to state recommendations for restoring Puget Sound. Washington state's Aquatic Habitat Guidelines recommend protecting sensitive marine shorelines and estuarine areas by avoiding any development at these locations. Overwater marine structures are established by science to be among the most harmful forms of development for the aquatic ecosystem. While the waterfront development is not outright prohibited, it is certainly contrary to the goals of the SMP and CAO. And if development is going to be sited along the shoreline, then it is crucial to have a valid comprehensive conservation strategy to protect biodiversity and habitat. Instead, the city has failed to include plant and animal impacts in its EIS review, and offers a makeshift staff assessment after the waterfront plan is enacted, when it holds limited value.
So if you plan to address the City Council or the port commission, add the Floor Area Development Bonus proposal to your talking points. If the council and the commission insist on enacting the waterfront plan this week, they should remove this TDR provision so the ecological harm caused by waterfront development is minimized. Although the bonus density is small, it is the cumulative impact of the totality of such bonuses that, over time, result in the greatest ecological damage.