The Gristle

Reign of error

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

REIGN OF ERROR: Focus shifted to Bellingham’s other waterfront last week, with the Bellingham Planning Commission at last taking up the complicated and multi-faceted plan for the city’s 237-acre central waterfront.

City planners and Port of Bellingham officials scoped the “master plan package” for planning commissioners last week, including a cursory view of its many moving parts. Additional meetings this month will go into more granular detail about the commission’s role in reviewing goals, policies and actions, including the design standards and planning agreements that will govern the multi-million dollar redevelopment. The public’s role in that discussion is much promised, but—alas—little provided for in a schedule that allows for but three minutes of individual verbal comment for a master planning process spanning many hundreds of pages, some dating back a decade. Indeed, even the commissioners themselves appeared bludgeoned mute by the scale and complexity of the whirlwind presentation.

Port of Bellingham Executive Director Rob Fix sketched the broad goals of waterfront redvelopment in his opening remarks to the planning commission.

“It’s a phased plan that envisions a steady rate of development over several decades with a gradual public investment,” Fix explained. “It’s a long anticipated moment in our planning for a new Bellingham waterfront. The port and the city both knew that successful redevelopment would take time, cooperation, clarity and investment. The plan is both realistic and ambitious. It allows for a balance of uses between jobs, parks, housing and schools. The plan has a mix of shorelines. Some are soft and available for recreation. Others are harder, with large piers and conducive to jobs and trade.

“Our goals today are the same as when we signed our first interlocal agreement back in 2005,” Fix said. “Those goals are to rebuild our waterfront economy, to restore the health of our land and water, and improve public access to our waterfront.”

Arguably, those broad goals are indeed represented in the proposed master plan for the waterfront; but while the goals are unchanged in a decade, the landscape for big projects of this scale have certainly changed. Only obliquely referenced by staff but central in every site plan staff broadcast to the commission, a large luxury yacht marina was certainly the driving reason the port became involved in the project and it has shaped their every decision about the project.

Yet so much of the plan leads from this false premise, a large yacht marina most observers strongly sense may never be constructed.

Quickly tracing this epic history, the state Dept. of Ecology and Georgia-Pacific were on the verge of an agreement that would have used the mill’s ASB wastewater treatment lagoon as a receiving area for the kind of toxics cleanup that the agency would require of a private corporation preparing to pack up and leave town. More, the plan was envisioned as a pilot model for the kinds of harbor cleanups and restorations the agency envisioned around the state.

The Port of Bellingham knocked aside that agreement, foreclosing on the ASB through a condemnation action, convincing the state that the port could manage and monitor a reduced level of cleanup that would leave most of the toxics in place in the marine environ­ment. Freed of that requirement liberated the ASB for conversion to a marina. The port similarly intends to hijack cleanup funds authorized through the state’s Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA), the state’s equivalent of the federal Superfund for environmental cleanup, to build their marina.

Concurrently, the port lobbied Congress to decommission Whatcom Waterway as a federally designated navigable channel. Their idea was to allow the channel to silt over with no further duty to clean it. Indeed, the bulk of the port’s plan for cleanup is to cover over lethal neuro­toxins with less lethal neurotoxins. Yet the loss of federal status also foreclosed on the possibility of receiving federal aid to dredge the channel and remove its toxics to a higher standard.

Of course, hijacking state MTCA cleanup funds for for-profit marina construction rather than environmental cleanup is an ethically dubious proposition, about on the level of gambling the family’s food stamps at the horse races. Ultimately, it’s a plan the state may quash, uneasy about setting a precedent for misuse of a money pot for habitat restoration that could be seized upon as a slush fund for economic development schemes in other harbors around the state.

Meanwhile, the keel has fallen off the economics of luxury yachts, with marinas around the state such as Bremerton and Everett yawning with excess capacity. Into this market, Port of Bellingham intends to add capacity.

Fermenting in a foul stew is the main ingredient that dictated a terrible cleanup, a marina that may never be constructed.

So why proceed with a terrible cleanup?

Mostly because the port, in its most execrable machination, included an ASB marina in every site plan, every plan includes as its centerpiece a marina most knowledgable people who look at those plans understand, with a wink and a nod, will never be built. City policy­makers, anxious to get along, have never challenged this and, to the contrary, have signed agreements that bind the city to folly and futility.

It is difficult to convey in words just how profoundly the (non)marina forecloses on cleanup, and how that in turn forecloses on interconnectivity, the siting of trails and parks (away from a compromised shoreline), public access, and the ultimate economic use and utility of the property.

Your average citizen, with no particular investment in the port’s double­think and with but three minutes to speak, can hardly grapple with this specific nonsense, let alone all the topsy-turvy Wonderland of assumptions about design and use that proceed from it.

Perhaps the planning commission may request at least one site plan for the waterfront without a planning disaster as its centerpiece. We can hope.

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