Waterfront “Planned Action Ordinance” Limits Restoration and Public Input

The City Planning Department has included a technical document in the waterfront proposal without disclosing important impacts.

The City Planning Department has included a technical document in the waterfront proposal without disclosing important impacts.

I oppose the proposed Planned Action Ordinance (PAO) for the waterfront.  The public is being asked to cede oversight and control over waterfront development projects. The PAO will eliminate public rights under SEPA and will restrict environmental regulation of the waterfront.  This is contrary to what the public has been promised.  Belllingham's administration appears to be relying upon the public's failure to understand the consequences of this technical legal document.  The Planning Commission should recommend against entering into a PAO.

The Waterfront District Sub-Area Plan proposes development in phases, with the specific type and amount of development left undetermined.  It will be composed of an unknown mix of residential, commercial, industrial, recreational and institutional uses up to an established maximum density. We are told that flexibility is needed for the uncertainties of the future because waterfront development will occur over several decades.   Yet, at the same time, the city asserts that mitigation standards for this unknown future growth are clear and should be frozen in time based on current standards.  There is an inherent contradiction in these two positions.

The POA refers to this as “predefined mitigation”, but it is actually a restriction on environmental standards that may be imposed on waterfront developers. Environmental standards change over time.  Each update is more restrictive and more expensive for developers because of increased environmental degradation.The public needs to retain the right to amend and revise development standards as necessary. This is being traded for vesting provisions that make development less expensive and less time consuming. This is not in the interest of the public or of workers who seek fair wage jobs and a clean environment.  Rather, it promotes business interests. 

Under the PAO, the environmental standards applicable today are based on the Waterfront EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) Preferred Alternative.  Few people are aware that the Port quietly, without public notice or input, revised the EIS Preferred Alternative in December, 2012.  Moreover, EIS reviews are time sensitive and become outdated.  Here an EIS would be applicable to development 40 or 50 years from now, without any requirement for a Supplemental EIS.  Clearly, a  Planned Action Ordinance is not an appropriate document for development planned for future decades.   At a minimum, requirements for a Supplement EIS are required.

Instead, the PAO provides that if future development proposals alter assumptions and analysis in the Preferred Alternative, further environmental review MAY be required.  It will be entirely within the port or city’s discretion, without requirement for public input.  The example provided in the PAO would allow development before infrastructure requirements are in place. (Note: this could subject the port and city to a GMA compliance challenge.) (See PAO, pages 5-6, Phased Development Thresholds.) 

While there are review criteria to determine if development projects are covered under the PAO, this determination is within the discretion of the City Planning Director.  Moreover, if the Director determines that a development proposal qualifies, he/she issues a “Determination of Consistency”, after which the “project shall proceed in accordance with the applicable permit review procedure, except that no SEPA threshold determination, EIS or additional SEPA review shall be required.”  Simply put, the public’s rights under SEPA are eliminated. (See PAO, page 8, Planned Action Permit Process.)  The only appeal is before the city Hearings Examiner, a matter for which the city charges approximately $1200.

Please tell the city that you do not support the PAO.  The public's rights under SEPA and its ability to enact updated environmental standards should be protected. 

Update:  Thanks, Marian Beddill, for pointing out that I was incorrectly referring to the Planned Action Ordinance as a "PAC" , instead of a "PAO."  Typos corrected.

About Wendy Harris

Citizen Journalist • Member since Mar 31, 2008

Wendy was well-known for her civic participation in both Bellingham and Whatcom County. She was a dedicated environmentalist, a friend to all animals, a fearless writer, and an outspoken critic [...]

Comments by Readers

Marian Beddill

Mar 29, 2013

Just want the facts right, that’s all.

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