Trail issue illustrates Bellingham waterfront conflicts

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 24, 2013 

HARBOR SEALS, BELLINGHAM

A harbor seal scratches itself as it naps on a log in Bellingham Bay near the public beach at the end of Cornwall Ave. near the City dock on Nov. 1, 2012 in Bellingham.

ANDY BRONSON — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - City Council members recognized the difficult compromises that may lie ahead Monday, Sept. 23, as they discussed the conflicts among job creation, public recreation and wildlife habitat as the central waterfront redevelops.

"We really have three elements of competing interest with the public, competing for the same site," said Terry Bornemann, chairman of the council's waterfront committee. "They're all competing. How do we make it work for those three different groups? Because they're all very important. ... The council really has a tough balancing act. ... No matter what we do, it's going to upset parts of the public."

Bornemann spoke during his committee's day-long review of waterfront redevelopment plans. The committee consists of Bornemann, Cathy Lehman and Jack Weiss, but other council members were in attendance for all or most of the review.

Among many other things, the council briefly discussed plans for a water's edge trail that would lead from Roeder Avenue southwest along Whatcom Waterway to the Log Pond area, and perhaps beyond, potentially linking up with an over-water walkway from Cornwall Beach to Boulevard Park, where bike and pedestrian routes lead all the way to Fairhaven and points south.

But this seemingly simple trail illustrates the conflicts:

• Port officials say they can't commit to the portion of the trail that would run from the Log Pond through the shipping terminal area to Cornwall Beach, because potential job-creating industrial activity might block such a trail.

• After reviewing the waterfront plan, the City Planning Commission endorsed a trail with no interruptions between Whatcom Waterway, Cornwall Beach and Boulevard Park, recommending language that would encourage creation of the trail unless it is absolutely ruled out by industrial activity.

• At Monday's meeting, Council member Weiss said he, too, wanted to avoid any gap in the waterfront trail between Whatcom Waterway and Boulevard Park.

• At last week's Port Commission meeting, Commissioner Mike McAuley said a trail along the edge of the Log Pond might disturb the seals that have begun to hang out there.

• The over-water walkway portion connecting Cornwall Beach and Boulevard Park could meet resistance from Lummi Nation, because it might involve some obstruction of fishing grounds.

In a related discussion, city staff members tried to reassure the council and the public that the redevelopment will include extensive restoration of waterfront habitat that will encourage fish and other wildlife.

Steve Sundin, a city planner, said shorelines now studded with rotten, toxic old pilings and walled off with concrete will give way to more natural shorelines that will appeal to people as well as wildlife. He noted that the city has already done a similar project combining environmental cleanup, habitat restoration and park improvement in Maritime Heritage Park near the mouth of Whatcom Creek.

Renee LaCroix, ecology and restoration manager for the Public Works Department, said it may not be realistic to create wildlife habitat on the edge of downtown and expect people to stay away from it.

"We live in an urban area," LaCroix said. "People are going to want to access their waterfront. ... With an urban environment, it's important to have a realistic expectation of what kind of habitat we can achieve."

But she also suggested that the balancing of job creation, public recreation and wildlife habitat on the waterfront need not be seen as a conflict, since there should be gains in all three areas as the waterfront redevelops in the decades ahead.

Wendy Steffensen, lead scientist at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, acknowledged that the city has done some excellent habitat restoration in the past, but that doesn't mean that current plans don't need thorough review. Steffensen said she wants to be sure that habitat issues get enough study, so decision-makers understand the tradeoffs they are making and take steps to protect sensitive areas.

After sitting in on the council committee's morning session, RE Sources Executive Director Crina Hoyer said she was encouraged.

"It seems as though the city staff and the council are asking the right questions," Hoyer said. "Everyone seems to be concerned about habitat. It seems to be an issue that's in the forefront of everyone's mind."

The plans now before the council will guide the long-term future of 237 mostly empty waterfront acres, much of which is owned by the Port of Bellingham. The city has the legal authority to draft a land use plan for the area, similar to the neighborhood plans already in place elsewhere in the city. After years of on-and-off discussions with port officials, the council is moving to get the plans in final form for approval, perhaps by the end of the year, and the port is in preliminary talks with developers.

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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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