Voters can make difference in Bellingham waterfront development

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 23, 2013 

The Whatcom County chapter of the Washington Conservation Voters works to elect leaders who will protect environmental health and promote economic sustainability. This election season, we would like to remind people of the important issues facing our community, and why your vote is so important.

This election will influence the redevelopment of the Bellingham Bay waterfront. The four candidates for City Council (two incumbents are unopposed) and the two candidates for the Port Commission, will make decisions that have far-reaching impacts for our future. Redeveloping an existing site has the potential to be a big win for the environment. The port and the city have taken on a complicated project that can help to preserve land elsewhere in the county; they deserve commendation.

There are many ways in which this redevelopment can be even smarter, benefiting the environment and the businesses and people who will live and work in the area. We should provide careful habitat protection for the wildlife that shares the bay and the shoreline and the infrastructure built should meet the highest standards for efficiency and resiliency. To achieve these outcomes, we need elected officials governing the process who understand these issues and their importance to the constituents who elected them.

Community support for habitat protection and restoration has always been strong. The 2004 Waterfront Vision and Framework Plan, produced by the Waterfront Futures Group, remains a guiding principle for waterfront redevelopment and contains strong conservation principles. The current waterfront plan should be made as strong as the Waterfront Futures Group.

The waterfront plan includes a number of incompatible uses; when people and wildlife mingle, the wildlife will usually loose. A 50-foot buffer is designated throughout the waterfront district, but that includes pedestrian and bike trails within the buffers. Almost every site identified for habitat restoration is also identified for public access and boat launches, ignoring impacts from people and pets. Public access areas are important, but should be separate from wildlife habitat.

While some restoration projects are planned, most local species will not be actively protected. There are no plans for protection of migrating shorebirds and vulnerable sea birds nor to protect marine mammals such as harbor seals and river otters. The plan relies on an ineffective site specific approach to conservation. Decisions regarding prioritization and management of human/wildlife conflicts will be delayed until a project is being developed. By kicking the can down the road, we could miss opportunities for cost-effective solutions. But it's not too late, sound planning can help minimize impacts. We need leaders who will guide a comprehensive analysis to identify areas of higher conservation value to preserve, restore and protect, as well as areas of lower conservation value for development. Leaders elected this year will also guide the development of infrastructure on the waterfront. This community values smart infrastructure investments that protect the environment and save money. For example, Bellingham's recent Meador-Kansas-Ellis street project (between York and Sunnyland) has received national recognition as a certified green street. That project used smart innovations to control stormwater, included ultra-efficient street lights and used recycled paving materials - all on budget. We can, and should, do this kind of long-term thinking for the waterfront.

The proposed plan leaves open the door for such innovations, including more green streets, a district energy system to recycle waste heat, and a shared water reuse system. These innovations will save taxpayers and building owners money, while reducing environmental footprints. But they will each be complicated to implement. Putting them in the plan is an important first step, but diligent follow through will be required. We need elected leaders with commitment.

Habitat protection and smart infrastructure are just some of the important issues facing future leaders. Creation of good green jobs, an accessible multimodal transportation system, and careful cleanup could each take a column. Among the most important ways that the public can influence the outcome is to elect candidates who believe that the Bellingham Waterfront District can be world class. We've waited too long and worked too hard to accept less. This is why we have endorsed Pink Vargas and Roxanne Murphy in the contested city council races and Mike McAuley and Renata Kowalczyk for Port Commission.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Wendy Harris and Isabel Vanderslice wrote this on behalf of the Whatcom Chapter of the Washington Conservation Voters. Go to wcvoters.org/counties/Whatcom for more information about the group.

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