Bellingham council votes to approve waterfront plan

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 2, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - After making some concessions to critics who wanted stronger wildlife habitat protections and guarantees of higher-wage jobs, City Council voted 6-1 to approve long-awaited plans to guide redevelopment of the waterfront.

The plans approved Monday, Dec. 2 affect 237 waterfront acres that extend around the bay from the I&J Waterway next to the Bellwether development, all the way to a large new park site on a former city dump off the southern end of Cornwall Avenue. It includes the Port of Bellingham property formerly owned by Georgia-Pacific Corp.

Port of Bellingham commissioners are scheduled to take up the plans at a 3 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3 meeting at their Harbor Center meeting room, 1801 Roeder Ave.

Jack Weiss cast the council's only "no" vote.

Weiss said he wanted to see more guarantees of higher-wage jobs, environmental safeguards, and an emphasis on saving the red brick G-P buildings remaining on the site.

Weiss also said the plans commit the city to build millions of dollars' worth of roads and bridges to promote private development of the site, instead of requiring developers to shoulder that expense.

Weiss called the plans "workable, yet in my opinion still unfair." He said he believes his views are widely shared by city residents who have given up trying to make their voices heard.

Michael Lilliquist expressed regret that the plans were not more ambitious and visionary, with more parks and more progressive approaches to transportation.

But Lilliquist said he believed the plans were a step forward that laid the groundwork for future improvements.

Terry Bornemann said the grand waterfront visions of the early years had to give way to reality to some extent. He noted that the port, not the city, owns most of the waterfront, and the city cannot dictate what happens there.

"We have no idea what is going to go there," Bornemann said. "We are just setting the framework of what the possibilities can be."

Bornemann said he has spoken to many city residents who never attend public meetings, but want to see the planning process completed and development under way.

Council President Seth Fleetwood said the plans are a way forward.

"This plan permits progress," Fleetwood said. "I think it does represent a lot of Bellingham's cultural values."

Fleetwood said the council had made a number of changes to the plans in response to public comments.

Some last-minute changes were made at a Monday afternoon committee session. Council members agreed that the port and city will conduct an economic study of waterfront development every two years, instead of every five years as proposed in the first draft of the plans. At Fleetwood's urging, the council also specified that this study must evaluate the creation of living-wage jobs.

That is a far cry from the strict regulations that the Blue Green Waterfront Coalition of labor unions and environmentalists had wanted to include in waterfront redevelopment rules. Among other things, the coalition asked the council to mandate a waterfront wage minimum of $15 per hour for jobs with benefits, and $16.50 for jobs without benefits.

The council also added language to waterfront documents stating that the port and the city are committed to work together to create higher-wage jobs as they consider proposals from companies interested in locating their businesses on the waterfront.

The council also agreed to order city staff to gather information on waterfront habitat from recent studies, to help ensure that new developments do no harm to existing habitat and improve it whenever possible.

While the council angered some opponents of the plan by deciding not to schedule an additional public hearing, Fleetwood set no limits on the general public comment session at the start of the meeting, and 26 people out of a packed council chambers came forward to speak over the next hour and 15 minutes.

Most urged the council to delay approval.

Wendy Steffensen, North Sound baykeeper with ReSources for Sustainable Communities, said the proposed study of waterfront habitat may not do enough to insure that fish and wildlife will get a high enough priority as development projects move ahead.

Lori Province, a local labor leader, said she would have preferred stiffer rules on waterfront wages, but appreciated the changes that the council had made on that issue.

"We're all at a place where we've moved the needle," Province said. "I'm not happy, but I'm happy enough for right now."

Dan McShane, former County Council member and Bellingham mayoral candidate, said council members should not be afraid to vote no and start the planning process over again if necessary.

McShane said the port's insistence on using the G-P lagoon for a marina instead of a waste disposal site had increased waterfront cleanup costs by tens of millions of dollars.

But some urged the council to vote yes, including Bill Gorman, interim director of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Jeff Hegedus, an eight-year member of the Waterfront Advisory Group.

Hegedus said public involvement in the planning process has been robust.

"We've had 12 years of excellent public process and I think that needs to be acknowledged," Hegedus said. "I don't think we need more process."

Mayor Kelli Linville said the same.

"I think it is an excellent plan, and it has the flexibility for us to move forward," Linville said. "The alternative is a brownfield with no public access."

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Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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