City approves $12.5 million park plan at Cornwall Beach

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Bellingham City Council this week approved the master plan for the city’s newest park on 17 acres along the northeastern shoreline of Bellingham Bay. As envisioned in this planning document, the park may be the single largest open-space component of the redevelopment strategy for Bellingham’s central waterfront and strongly tie into Boulevard Park and trail systems to the south. Consultants estimated the cost of the park, including upland improvements, at approximately $12.52 million. An additional $7 million is required for habitat restoration under the plan.

In August, Kelli Linville notified Lummi Nation that the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board had selected “Klipsun Beach” as the official name for the 14-acre park. More than 300 names had been suggested by the public.

“The word ‘klipsun’ is translated to mean ‘beautiful sunset,’” Linville said. “This name was selected as the preferred name for this new park because it is unique and descriptive of the beauty there.”

When complete, the park will become the city’s largest waterfront park, creating a shoreline with enhanced public access, recreation and marine habitat and connectivity. Design principles proposed by park planners and approved by council include playground and recreation facilities, including beach access and hand-carried boat launch facilities. A planned overwater walkway at the southern end of the site would provide a multi-use connection to Boulevard Park and South Bay Trail, a consultant’s report noted.

The preliminary price tag does not include the costs for environmental cleanup for the former Cornwall Avenue landfill and R.G. Haley sites, which will be funded separately. Where feasible, park development may occur in conjunction with planned cleanup strategies, council learned. Funding sources for park could include impact fees supplemented by levy or public bond, assisted by state and federal funding sources.

Established on two former landfills and municipal waste disposal sites at the foot of Cornwall Avenue, the site will be capped according to remedial actions approved by the state Dept. of Ecology under the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA). The Act provides local government access to state matching funds for environmental cleanups, including impaired harbors around Puget Sound. Ecology released an initial feasibility study on the proposed cleanup alternative in August 2013.

Opportunity for public comment ended in July, with a final plan from the agency anticipated by the end of this year. Site cleanup is expected to begin in 2015.

Council’s action completes a fairly robust process that included three public meetings and a tour of the site. The City’s Park Board met with City Council in June, 2014, to approve a preliminary plan in consultation with an appointed citizen steering committee. The Cornwall Park Master Plan steering committee included representatives from the South Hill and Sehome neighborhood associations, the Central Business District and similar stakeholders. These meetings occurred in parallel with the Dept. of Ecology’s public process as the agency scoped proposed remedial actions for the former industrial area.

The Cornwall Beach Park plan was strongly recommended as a high priority in the Bellingham Parks, Recreation, and Open Space plan (PRO Plan), which outlines general goals and objectives and specific recommendations, and it includes an implementation plan to expand and enhance Bellingham’s overall park and trail system. The PRO Plan identifies existing facilities and facility needs, as well as development standards and guidelines. Public access and amenities are similarly identified as key to the success of the waterfront district master plan approved by City Council last year.

The site has been identified for park uses in planning documents as early as the 2005 waterfront visioning process and was included in the framework plan adopted for the waterfront district in 2012. City staff believes that planning the park on parallel with cleanup strategies may yield economies of scale and cost savings.

The city owns the area between the BNSF rail line and the inner harbor line on the old Cornwall Avenue Landfill and R.G. Haley sites. Tidal lands are owned by the state of Washington and managed by the state Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR). The Port of Bellingham owns a small corner of the pocket beach at the north end of the park and master planning area.

“The city has primary responsibility for the R.G. Haley site and is working in conjunction with the Port of Bellingham, which is leading the Cornwall Avenue Landfill cleanup,” project consultants Anchor QEA noted in their report. The firm maintains an office in Bellingham. “While the two environmental cleanup actions are separate and distinct from the park, they will have a major impact on park development; therefore, they have required and will continue to require extensive coordination with the park planning process. The park will be constructed after the selected cleanup remedy for each site is completed,” consultants noted.

In 2011, the Port of Bellingham dumped approximately 47,000 cubic yards of dredged material from a channel clearing project at the mouth of Squalicum Harbor. This cleanup strategy, agreed to by Ecology, sought to reduce stormwater from leaching into the landfill waste and carrying contaminants into Bellingham Bay. The dredged material contained metals, PAHs, phthalates, dioxins/furans, and ammonia, and was layered over two landfills with similar contaminants in heavier concentrations. Park plans call for this cap to be covered with clean topsoil.

“An estimated 295,000 cubic yards of municipal waste and 94,000 cubic yards of wood waste are buried in the ground” at the Cornwall Landfill site, Ecology spokesperson Krista Kenner acknowledged in a press release in May. “Known groundwater and sediment contaminants include ammonia, manganese, phthalates, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), cPAHs (carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and metals.”

Early cleanup is perhaps the park’s most controversial aspect, as state and local governments pursue strategies that leave the bulk of wood waste and industrial contaminants in place. Lummi Nation, in particular, has strongly objected to the cleanup strategy proposed for Cornwall Beach, raising concerns echoed by citizens in their comments.

“This filling and destruction of habitat and fishing areas that our people rely on with the garbage of our neighbors is highly insulting,” tribal representatives wrote to Ecology in 2013. Arguing for restoration of tide flats that existed when Lummi Indians used the site for “commercial, ceremonial and subsistence harvest of salmon and shellfish and to provide habitat for the organisms relied on for this purpose,” the tribe notes “this traditional use and value of the site, which is protected by a Treaty with the United States, was curtailed without permission, compensation, mitigation or apology by first dumping wood waste on this important habitat and fishing area and then dumping the garbage of the citizens of Bellingham on lands that we rely to exercise our Schelangen (“way of life”).

Acknowledging challenges, Bellingham City Council members nevertheless found praise for the plan as offering a significant step in the restoration of public access to the waterfront.

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