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About Tip Johnson

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 on the Bellingham City Council and has worked on many community boards and committees. He travelled with the Federal Transit Administration and Department of Commerce on mass transit trade missions in SE Asia and Africa before settling down to focus on keeping public interests at the fore of local government and the course of growth and development.

By Tip Johnson

Of Broken Roads and Re-invented Wheels

I recently ran into Harry Skinner, long-time architect of some local reknown, now an octogenarian. His decades of design and planning experience have left him hard pressed to feel the joy he imagines he should from plans for our central waterfront. In fact, Harry has started a new citizen’s committee whose goal is to plumb the public’s opinions and hopefully re-inform what he considers to be the grave mistake of over-development on the waterfront. Harry wants to re-invent the Port’s development wheel before the waterfront becomes a tragic print of its sorry tread.

I like folks bold enough to re-invent wheels. I was also recently moved by images of broken roads from Alaska’s recent earthquake, so I’m taking the opportunity here to underscore some issues while introducing Mr. Skinner’s brave vision.

The “Committee for Effective Citizen Participation in Government” is not one of your tech-savvy startups. In fact, I had to go out of my way to get a hard copy of their manifesto and scan it for publication here. They don’t have a fancy website. There is a mailing address, a phone number and an email address. Committee members are spreading their message the old-school way, in face-to-face meetings in such places as lunch at the Senior Center.

The Committee’s Waterfront Character Redevelopment Survey asks some basic questions about the waterfront and the Port, underscoring the committee’s concerns over whether citizens understand what the Port is doing and how it serves the public. You can read them yourself. They believe a better public process is needed and cite United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s “Standards of Public Participation - recommendations for Good Practice.”

Their message certainly resonates with the feelings of many diehard citizen participants who eventually gave up trying to keep track of the direction our waterfront was taking, especially when the principal developer turned out to be a foreign company with a checkered reputation and questionable funding. Besides over-development, there is continued concern regarding…

- More cover-up than clean-up
There has been some actual removal, but on a much smaller scale than most alternatives originally outlined by the Bay Action Plan in the first Draft Supplemental Feasibility Study for the Whatcom Waterway. Capping toxins - literally covering them up - is the preferred method. The Department of Ecology has managed their website to make finding anything as frustrating as possible, but you can start here if you’ve the patience for it . Otherwise there is a summary of the original alternatives in an archived Friends of Whatcom County article here. Despite ten years of even more agencies laboring on tax dollars to define these alternatives, the Port unilaterally imposed their own less aggressive standard within a month of acquiring the property.

- Specific significant health issues
At least 500 tons of mercury used by Georgia-Pacific to produce chlorine for bleaching paper remain unaccounted for. Mercury is a powerful neuro-toxin that persists and accumulates in the environment. This concern extends from the site to many unregulated dump sites throughout the area. Remarkably, a theory of “Natural Recovery” concocted by G-P’s Environmental Manager became a guiding principle for the sudden reversal in clean up alternatives that the Port imposed after taking control of the property. The environment does not ‘recover’ from mercury poisoning. No agency or official involved in this design has ever asked Georgia-Pacific about the whereabouts of all their missing mercury. It doesn’t ‘go away.’ Some of the issues are summarized here.

- Public space and amenities
Another guiding principle for the Port has been to get the property “back on the tax rolls.” Most waterfront communities take advantage of rehabilitating deteriorated waterfronts by acquiring more waterfront and improving public access. The Port of Bellingham intends to sell most of this site for private development that benefits mostly the Port. More than six million square feet of mixed-use commercial/residential development is planned. How Bellingham will absorb this development is unclear. One million square feet at Bellis Fair threw downtown into a tailspin for decades. Will ‘upscale’ waterfront development with unmetered parking suck the life out of downtown again? Any such adverse impacts will easily offset any tax roll benefits from development. In any case, feelings are widespread that public space and amenities should have been the first, not last, priorities. Accepted principles of successful waterfront redevelopment agree with the people, not the Port.

- Squandering irreplaceable public resources
This is the Port’s ironically named “Clean Ocean Marina” proposal. Ignoring the future value of water treatment, the Port promotes converting Georgia-Pacific’s immense water treatment facility into a yacht basin. Port staff doctored a consultants review of potential alternative sites to the tune of over $21m to justify their case. They also ignored sites that might have used special state provisions for Contained Aquatic Disposal adopted specifically for this purpose. It is a billion dollar boondoggle. It’s not just about the cost of remediating the lagoon, or the cost of replacing the treatment capacity. It’s also about jobs. Whatcom County used to be a big vegetable producer. When growers learned what the City of Bellingham would charge for treating vegetable wash water, the Jolly Green Giant and other growers simply pulled out. Agricultural production plummeted and hasn’t recovered. The G-P lagoon could be used without further permitting to treat agricultural process water to revive an entire industry and hundreds of jobs.

- Geo-hazards and public infrastructure
The Port’s plan completely ignores known geo-hazards intrinsic to the site. Rising sea levels will obviously affect the site. Estimates of this impact continue to increase, especially with observations that ice shields in Antartica and Greenland are melting more quickly than expected. Recent tsunami projections put the site at at an especially critical location for up to three meter waves that could occur in “big one” earthquake scenarios. The entire site is old school fill, including garbage, rubble and silt. Liquefaction dramatically threatens both private and public investments. The wisdom of this risky approach was never competently compared to a less intensive development scenario. Even though environmental studies require a no—action alternative for comparative review, no competent assessment of the value of an open public waterfront was ever contemplated. Some wonder if doing less might do a lot more, especially with the risk to investment so high. Current modeling predicts “…tsunami waves will reach (Bellingham) about 1.5 hours after the Cascadia earthquake, with inundation depths as high as 18 feet and current velocities in excess of 20 knots. Tsunami inundation is expected to continue for more than 8 hours”.

- Government spending
According to the Interlocal Agreement the City has spent about $20m prior to signing for planning, cleanups, acquisitions and improvements, and will spend another $25m to meet its obligations in the Agreement through 2037. Sales tax directed from a special district will contribute another $25m, and the City will further rely on additional state and federal grants to help offset costs incurred by the City under the Agreement. Meanwhile, the Port, prior to signing, had spent over $32m including $23m for Environmental Insurance through AIG (of TARP bailout fame). The insurance is supposed to pay half of the required cleanup costs while the other half is expected to be funded through the State’s MTCA program for environmental cleanups. AIG is ranked the third worst (least likely to pay a claim) insurance company in the country by the American Association for Justice. Over the years many others have discussed nuances of these and other related issues. You might expect to plow a bit but can get started here.

And then there is Harry’s plan, but first…

See also: Broken roads.

See also:
Liquefaction damage.

Now see (here or link below) what the Committee for Effective Citizen Participation in Government thinks and consider whether your waterfront deserves a new wheel.

Attached Files

About Tip Johnson

Writer • 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 [...]

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