The Gristle

Marina Lacuna

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

MARINA LACUNA: The proposed amendments to the Bellingham waterfront district sub-area plan are available at the city’s website, in preparation for a meeting of the Bellingham Planning Commission to consider these changes on Feb 21.

The comprehensive plan is an instructive document, and a good starting point to familiarize oneself with a planning process for the waterfront that dates back to the early 1990s. The sub-area plan itself is an update of the waterfront development master plan jointly adopted by the City and Port of Bellingham in 2013. But it glosses the history of waterfront planning prior to 2006, when the port hijacked the process on order to build a Clean Ocean Marina™.

That earlier history is detailed within a few obscure and yellowing documents produced by the state Department of Ecology—the 2000 Comprehensive Strategy for Bellingham Bay and the specific strategy for the cleanup of Whatcom Waterway and the site of the former Georgia-Pacific pulp mill—the so-called Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS).

Those documents lay out the work of the Bellingham Bay Pilot Team, a group of more than 14 state and federal agencies, local and tribal governments, and other stakeholders who detailed strategies to remediate Bellingham’s aging industrial waterfront as a model for other harbors around the state—ranging from no action to a comprehensive cleanup.

This stakeholder group had coalesced around a plan for an elevated cleanup that would employ the clay-lined and environmentally secure aerated stabilization basin (ASB), GP’s 30-acre wastewater treatment lagoon, as a receiving area for the cost-effective disposal of dredge spoils and other contaminants. Under that plan, toxic materials would be removed from the marine environment and capped in the ASB—with GP paying the lion’s share of those costs.

The Port of Bellingham had other schemes, and in 2006 preemptively condemned and seized the ASB for reuse as a Clean Ocean Marina™. Their action hastened the departure of Georgia-Pacific and shuttered the mill. Their action also foreclosed on the use of the ASB for environmental cleanup, locking in place a dismal, minimal coverup of toxins in the mill site brownfield and adjacent waterway.

The port aggressively invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultant reports and conceptual illustrations pf their plan. Every conceptual illustration of the remediated waterfront district showed the ASB converted to use as a luxury yacht marina—including, maddeningly, their so-called “no action” alternative. Every single one.

In the 2013 waterfront development master plan agreed to with the City of Bellingham (the most current plan), the port included more than a dozen illustrations of the sub-area. Every one of them includes an illustration of marina slips in the wastewater treatment lagoon.

The master development proposal by Harcourt Developments accepted by the port—the plan port staff praised—included a mind-boggling two marinas on either side of Whatcom Waterway!

Roll ahead to the proposed 2019 update of this plan, and among pages and pages of future implementation strategies, not a mention of this marina. Not a single one.

A capital facilities outlay of $27 million for a Clean Ocean Marina™ is stricken from the document. Of more than 20 illustrations of the overall waterfront district included in the plan, not one shows the ASB in use as a marina. Not one, where formerly every illustration showed the ASB tricked out as a marina. Yet, almost as if to illustrate how feckless this proposal is, every illustration of the ASB lagoon still shows one side open to the marine environment, the vestige of a now-absent plan to construct this marina.

Of the phantom marina the revised plan has this to say buried in a footnote on habitat restoration, “The Port of Bellingham is currently reevaluating the proposed future of the ASB lagoon and working with the Department of Ecology to determine the most appropriate cleanup.”

No one should mourn the loss of this elitist parking lot for luxury yachts, but the fact remains the community suffered a meager cleanup in aid of it, and land-use plans and assumptions of land valuations are still predicated on it.

Port commissioners earlier this month finally confronted staff and gave direction to work with Ecology to identify how a different clean up and eventual land-use solution could be achieved.

The picture is clear, and recent decisions by the elected Board of Commissioners confirm, that the port authority no longer plans a marina as a centerpiece of waterfront redevelopment. Yet every aspect of the waterfront redevelopment master plan is predicated on the leverage of a marina—from the dismal cleanup we suffered to the proposed sale of the property to a remote private developer who proposes high-end levels of dense development.

Our community has suffered much, surrendered much for an unwanted marina. Our cleanup was diminished in pursuit of it. And now we don’t even get the marina?

This is bad faith. This is an “agreement” mendacious and fraudulent in its every corner.

The master development plan needs to return to formula with its basic assumptions corrected and its metrics and financials reassessed. And some frank honesty to the public about future plans.

Plain truth is a wonderfully liberating thing, particularly for an agency that has misrepresented and held our public waterfront hostage for 20 years. Without that fundamental admission, the presence of an absence equals the absence of a presence on the waterfront—a master development plan with no master.

Relevant documents mentioned in this article may be found here.

Past Columns

March 25, 2020

Protecting the Vulnerable

March 18, 2020

An Evolving Crisis

March 18, 2020

Pandemic Pandemonium

March 11, 2020

A New Hope

March 4, 2020

Managing Expectations

February 26, 2020

A Mad Triad

February 19, 2020

Another Jail Fail?

February 12, 2020

Wacko Whatcom

February 5, 2020

Shelter From the Storm

January 29, 2020


January 22, 2020

‘I Have A Dream’

January 15, 2020

Olympia Olympics

January 8, 2020

What Dreams May Come

January 1, 2020


December 25, 2019

Missing Middle

December 18, 2019

War Waged on Two Fronts

December 11, 2019

Work Horse, Not Show Horse

December 4, 2019

Toward A Housing Summit

November 27, 2019

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