Port commissioners get an earful on Bellingham waterfront plans


BELLINGHAM - Concerned citizens packed the Port of Bellingham commissioners' room Tuesday, Aug. 20, to offer their critique of plans for redevelopment of 237 waterfront acres.

It was the port commission's first hearing on the completed plans, which port and city of Bellingham officials hope to have complete by the end of 2013. Those plans call for conversion of some areas now zoned heavy industrial into new sites for residential buildings, shops, offices and new facilities for Western Washington University.

Most of the comments repeated oft-stated public concerns that have been voiced at public meetings going back at least a decade as the current plans slowly emerged:

• People want assurances that the cleanup of the old Georgia-Pacific Corp. site and other industrial areas will be thorough enough to protect public health and the Bellingham Bay ecosystem.

• They want a return on the estimated hundreds of millions in cleanup and redevelopment costs, in the form of both parks and higher-wage industrial jobs.

• They are not convinced that a new marina is the best use for the G-P wastewater lagoon, even though port officials have been steadfast in keeping it in their long-range plan because it is the only feasible place to add more moorage space.

Wendy Steffensen, lead scientist at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, told commissioners they should consider going beyond the minimum cleanup standards enforced by the Washington Department of Ecology as they prepare the old industrial sites for new public uses.

Steffensen said she wasn't necessarily opposed to conversion of the wastewater lagoon into a marina, but she argued that other possibilities should get serious consideration before that decision becomes final. Among other things, she suggested that the lagoon could be a stormwater treatment facility or a disposal site for tainted sediments. It also could be converted back to open water, as it was before G-P constructed its huge breakwater in the mid -1970s.

Bob Marshall, a representative of Washington State Jobs With Justice, said public officials should make the redevelopment site available only to developers who are willing to sign a "community benefits agreement" to provide assurances that new waterfront jobs will provide good 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.

Matt Petryni, an organizer with RE Sources, told port commissioners they need to do a better job of listening to public opinion on environmental cleanup, marina alternatives and good jobs if they want broad support for the public investment the project will require.

"The city and port will need allies in the community to fight for this project," Petryni said.

Tim Niemier, founder of Ocean Kayak, told commissioners they should pay more attention to small paddle-powered boats and less attention to the large yachts that would use a new marina.

"We are easy, and, I think, a lot cheaper to accommodate," said Niemier, who sold his kayak-manufacturing firm in 1997.

Kate Blystone, director of Futurewise Whatcom, urged commissioners not to be in too much of a hurry to get the waterfront plans approved to clear the way for development. She said they need to take more time to listen to the latest round of comments and incorporate those comments into the final plans.

Darren Williams, a longshoreman, provided a different view near the end of the hearing.

Williams said he would prefer a plan with more emphasis on industrial jobs in businesses that need waterfront access: New condos and Western Washington University facilities could go other places, but some companies need to be near the water. He also contended that there are plenty of waterfront parks from the Canadian border to the Skagit County line.

"We're losing the ability of business to be able to function on the waterfront, for the sake of being able to launch a kayak," Williams said.

He also questioned the need for lengthy new rounds of public scrutiny of waterfront development plans.

"We have drug this on and drug this on and drug this on, trying to please everybody," Williams said. "When you try to please everybody you inevitably fail. Let's get it done."

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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