The Gristle

Torchlight Parade

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

TORCHLIGHT PARADE: A curious tone deafness has crept over the public process for the master planning phase for Bellingham’s Waterfront District. Citizens keep packing the hearings, and their comments cohere to common themes. They don’t care for the plan, they report, neither its minutiae nor its broader themes. They don’t care for the pace by which final binding agreements are being rammed through. Planning staff gaze blankly out over the multitudes and express dismay that so few people are involved in the the master planning; they then proceed to translate the grumbles and groans of public dis­satisfaction into evidence of cheering raves of broad public support for the plan.

Staff see a gathering of torches and pitchforks and announce it is a happy parade!

A capacity crowd met the Port of Bellingham Commission meeting last week, striking resonant themes also heard in recent Bellingham City Council work sessions on the master plan: Demands for a generous, more thorough environmental cleanup; more rigor in using the site to create quality employment and family-wage jobs; and a higher, better economic and social use for the site than a picket wall of high-rise condos securing a gated luxury yacht marina for out-of-town millionaires.

“The plan that we have in front of us now is one that has really been built through public comment,” Port Environmental Director Mike Stoner said. “It’s a plan,” he added without irony, “that really delivers on original objectives.” Can both be true? Stoner predicted the final plan would be approved by the end of the year.

The Blue Green Waterfront Coalition urged commissioners to take a different route, to take their time and plan for a better future. The coalition is a potent union of environmental and social justice forces that includes Futurewise Whatcom, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, and Bellingham Jobs with Justice. The coalition stressed the need for a working waterfront that provides economic opportunities and living-wage jobs for local residents; a plan that integrates surrounding neighborhoods and community objectives; and a healthy marine and intertidal area that supports wildlife, recreation and the economy with stringent cleanup standards.

“What troubles me,” Futurewise board member Wendy Harris summarized in comments to the commission, “is the real disconnect between the staff’s discussion of the plan and what the public is saying. You have the staff saying this is a plan that is almost ready to be finalized, this is a plan that is great for the environment; and you have the public coming forward and saying just the opposite.”

Setting a tone on behalf of the coalition, Kate Blystone, chapter director of Futurewise, urged commissioners take more time to listen to comments and to incorporate those comments into final plans. She urged the port to clean the site to a higher environmental standard than they are currently required to do, given proposals that would place residences on an industrial brownfield. She asked for the port and city to better define community benefits that would arrive through this development.

“We’d like you to consider alternative uses for the ASB besides a marina,” Blystone said, acknowledging the continued controversy on the use planned for the former Georgia-Pacific wastewater treatment lagoon. “We’re talking about a 20-year plan,” she said, “so think about a lot of alternatives for that space.”

Wendy Steffensen, lead scientist at RE Sources, advanced alternatives to the marina, noting the ASB is suited for a broad range of possibilities, from wastewater treatment to disposal of hazardous contaminants, even restoration of the natural shoreline. “If the best use of the ASB is as a marina, so be it,” Steffensen said, but she stressed best use must consider wildlife, workers and the community as a whole.

Bob Marshall, speaking on behalf of the local chapter of Jobs With Justice, stressed that agreements should favor developers who are willing to sign a “community benefits agreement” and provide assurances that new waterfront jobs will provide adequate wages and benefits.

“It is a poor use of public funds if we wind up with hundreds of minimum-wage jobs on the waterfront,” Marshall said, noting Bellingham is already well above the state average in poverty rates and housing costs.

Capping the comments, Matt Petryni, representing RE Sources, struck similar themes, asking port commissioners to do a better job of listening to public opinion on environmental cleanup, marina alternatives and job emphasis if they want broad support for the public investment the project will require. He called for a planning process that is transparent, inviting and open to all citizens, and highly responsive to those citizens.

“Quite simply, the project cannot succeed unless the public takes ownership of it,” Petryni warned. “We are concerned that the public process is seen by the commission as an obstacle to getting a pre-conceived plan done, rather than an opportunity to build public support and allies for a plan that will succeed.

“There have been lots of meetings and lots of comments,” he admitted, “but rarely are the documents reflective of that input. Thus, the public continues to ask for the same things, over and over again—things like alternatives to a marina, things like living-wage jobs.”

Petryni predicted that the amount of public investment required for the project requires the public to be in support of the project.

“The city and port will need allies in the community to fight for this project,” he predicted, “to secure funding where necessary, to secure relationships where necessary.”

Parade versus charade, both march on.

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