Community benefits agreement could ensure development honors values

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 10, 2013 

We want a waterfront that's built to last 100 years into the future. That's what the Whatcom chapter of Futurewise told the City Council last Monday.

The Waterfront District should be a vibrant, livable community that our great-grandchildren will still be able to enjoy when they grow up. We can do that by filling it with great community amenities like parks, trails, bicycle lanes and parking, retail and restaurants and jobs that take advantage of the connection to the water.

Reshaping our waterfront is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. It deserves our community's full attention.

For more than a decade, our community has been talking about how to change our waterfront - through public meetings, advisory groups and open houses. Unfortunately, the proposed plans and the current process are out of step with our community's values.

The public is confused and frustrated with the process. They feel like their comments don't matter, they aren't being heard and the plans are being pushed through the City Council while the public's questions go unanswered.

With all the years of work that have gone into this plan, we shouldn't rush the most important part - adoption. This is when we check and re-check the plan to make sure it is consistent with our vision and values. It's where the community points out the shortcomings and provides solutions, and the Council carefully balances those solutions to find the ones that fit our shared vision.

We're committed to getting our waterfront right.

That's why earlier this year, Futurewise joined with RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council and Jobs with Justice to form the Blue Green Waterfront Coalition to strengthen our collective voice. Together, we've worked hard over the last several months identifying problems with the proposed plan and sharing our solutions with the planning commission and City Council.

We're asking the Council to take a step back and make sure the community is engaged in, and bought into, the process and path forward. With this solidarity between the community and decision makers, we believe the Council, and eventually the port, can pass a plan that we can all be proud of. One way to reengage the public is for the City and port to negotiate a community benefits agreement with the residents of Bellingham.

Community benefit agreements are used frequently around the country to ensure that certain benefits are derived from development. An agreement could include a required percentage of affordable housing, identify specific areas designated for habitat or public access, or require a certain percentage of businesses to pay a living wage.

Such a negotiation would include ample opportunities for public comment and outreach to residents and businesses throughout Bellingham. The Blue Green Waterfront Coalition has some ideas about what we would like to be included in the community benefit agreement, but it would take a community discussion to ensure that the agreement represented our community values.

But of course, negotiating a community benefit agreement would likely take considerable time. And that could mean missing out on some key opportunities along our waterfront if the City Council can't move forward with adoption of a new waterfront plan.

Luckily, we don't have to wait. The City Council could add a policy to the waterfront plan now that would require development of a community benefit agreement in advance of any projects being approved on the site. This would ensure that our community has a say in how development occurs on our waterfront. And, it would go a long way toward rebuilding trust and enthusiasm when it comes to this project.

We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us, and we need to take the time to do it right. The waterfront belongs to all of us. We should all have a say in how it's developed. That's exactly why we need a community benefits agreement.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Blystone is director of the Whatcom Chapter of Futurewise, the local chapter of a statewide land-use advocacy organization. Futurewise, futurewise.org/Whatcom, works to promote healthy communities and cities while protecting working farms, working forests, and shorelines.

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