No Net Loss
The Other Eight-Million Dollar Park Project
by Wendy Harris
Wendy Harris is a retired citizen who comments on development, mitigation and environmental impacts.
How the City Played Fast and Loose with Public Funds and Public Process
Public controversy surrounded the eight-million dollar Chuckanut Community Forest years before the Park District was approved. In the meanwhile, the city of Bellingham’s plan for an eight-million dollar pedestrian bridge over Bellingham Bay has generated little public discussion. Both areas contain important and vulnerable natural resources; scientific studies have identified Chuckanut Ridge as a priority for preservation and caution strongly against developing marine overwater structures which harm shoreline and near-shore ecological functions.
Bellingham promotes itself as a “green” city with progressive values and a love of the environment. But what does it really say when it was such a long, difficult battle to protect the Chuckanut Community Forest while, in comparison, development that harms Bellingham Bay was approved without much concern?
The city has bulldozed over public due process rights, Lummi treaty rights and the concerns of the environmental community in moving this project forward. It has misrepresented facts in its permit applications. It has, repeatedly, neglected its obligation to avoid and minimize harmful marine impacts. Only the Lummi Nation’s ongoing refusal to concur with the project, which is required before federal grants will be released, prevents the city from moving forward with this expensive, unnecessary and harmful shoreline and overwater development.
The City Misused the Public Process
The overwater walkway is an eight-million dollar concrete pedestrian bridge that will span fourteen to eighteen feet, for almost a half mile over Bellingham Bay. The current plans call for an arch design. The project connects and travels through three toxic remediation sites—Boulevard Park, the Whatcom Waterway, and Cornwall Avenue Landfill — and requires access through a fourth contaminated site, R.G. Haley. None of the remediation sites will be cleaned up before planned project construction, although all of these sites are polluted with hazardous waste.
From the beginning, the project was presented to the public as a fait accompli.
The first public meeting on the project was held on June 26, 2008. As reflected in the city’s feasibility study, there were twenty-seven public comments, many of which were negative.1 Public concerns and questions were brushed aside. For the next two years, the Parks Department continued to develop this project with minimal public input.
On May 17, 2010, the city posted a notice at Boulevard Park indicating that the overwater walkway was being constructed and would be funded through the Greenway III Levy and a federal grant. The notice contained information regarding project design, mitigation, and coordination with site clean-up actions. In other words, the notice indicated that project decisions had already been made.
In reality, the city had not completed its environmental review under SEPA (the State Environmental Policy Act), which includes a public comment period. The project consultant had not completed environmental studies. The city had not submitted its application to the Bellingham Hearings Examiner for a conditional use permit, which required a public hearing. The city notice failed to indicate that there were opportunities for public input. It is difficult to imagine a more effective means of discouraging public participation.
Any lingering question about whether or not public process was an empty formality was answered in an email sent by the project engineer, a Parks Department employee. Shortly before the November 17, 2010, hearing before the hearings examiner, the employee sent an email to “undisclosed recipients,” from a city email address, advising that “Supporters of the Boulevard to Cornwall Over Water Walkway are encouraged to attend the meeting. If you cannot attend the meeting, you are welcome to submit written comments of support.” I was on record as a project opponent and I was not included in the undisclosed public notice list. Apparently, the city was not as interested in encouraging my participation in the public process.
It is inappropriate for a city employee to engage in overt advocacy efforts for a development proposal that requires fair and unbiased consideration of public opinion and concerns; it is simply a conflict of interest. Where the city “stacks the deck” in its favor, its credibility and its effectiveness in serving the public interest is impaired. Perhaps even more troubling was the city’s response to employee efforts to influence the public process. The Interim Parks Director stated that employee advocacy efforts are entirely appropriate and that the project engineer had done nothing wrong.
Map of Area
1. Feasibility Report, Reid Middleton, September 22, 2009 at http://www.cob.org/documents/parks/development/projects/boulevard-overwater-walkway-feasibility-report.pdf.
2. City Ordinance 2006-03-033 at http://www.cob.org/web/legilog.nsf/0/344DC002B39AB0378825713100676C55/$file/200603033.pdf
3. City 30 percent design plans at http://www.cob.org/documents/parks/development/projects/boulevard-overwater-walkway-30%25-design-drawings.pdf.
5. Addendum to the Local Agency Environmental Classification Summary, page 2, Boulevard/Cornwall Overwater Pedestrian Walkway Project, June 2010.
6. COB PowerPoint presentation at June 28, 2008 public meeting at http://www.cob.org/documents/parks/development/projects/boulevard-shoreline-06-26-08-presentation.pdf;
7. City of Bellingham Greenways Levy Survery, Applied Research Northwest LLC, February, 2006 at http://www.arnorthwest.com/uploads/pdfs/Greenways%20Levy%20Report%20-%20Final.pdf.
10. 49 USC 303, Department of Transportation Act of 1966, as amended, de minimis (4f) determination.
11. Discussion of Aquatic Habitat Guidelines, and interagency approach at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/habitat/planning/ahg/what_is_ahg.html.
12. Williams and Thom, the White Paper on Marine and Estuarine Shoreline Modification, 2001; http://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/00054/wdfw00054.pdf.
13. Email from WDFW Area Habitat Biologist to the city, obtained through a public record request.
14. Nightingale and Simenstad; White Paper on Overwater Structures: Marine Issues, 2001, (page 91); http://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/00051.
15. The biological assessment by Anchor QEA, LLC (June 2010) is included in the Joint Aquatic Resources Permit Application (JARPA) found at http://www.cob.org/documents/parks/development/projects/boulevard-overwater-walkway-06-14-10-jarpa.pdf.
Improper Use of Greenway III Levy Funds
Almost half of the project costs —four million dollars — are funded through the Greenway III Levy. The city asserts, incorrectly, that use of Greenway levy funds was authorized pursuant to a public vote. This assertion is not supported by a review of the levy.
The Greenway III Levy was approved by a special election on May 26, 2006. No specific projects were identified in the levy language. However, a few months earlier, the City Council enacted the Greenways III Expenditure Guideline Summary, providing examples of potential projects. (Ordinance 2003-03-033, March 13, 2006.)2
Under a category for “Project Completions,” the Ordinance allocated $4 million for a “Future Waterfront Redevelopment Area Trail.” Other projects in this category were more specifically identified, such as “Complete Phase 2 future Squalicum Creek Park,” “Extend Bay-to-Baker Trail” or “Complete future Samish Crest Hiking Trail.”
The only thing known about this project was its location within the waterfront redevelopment area. Yet the overwater bridge fails to meet the only designated criterion for the project. The Cornwall Avenue Landfill is the southern boundary of the waterfront district, and this is where one of the bridge’s landings will be constructed. Except for this landing segment, the project is not located in the waterfront district.3
The city’s $8 million bridge over Bellingham Bay is almost entirely located in the South Hill district. This is really a project involving the lease of public aquatic lands from DNR, rather than waterfront redevelopment. The city asserts that the bridge was included in the city’s planning process since 2002. If this is true, then why wasn’t the bridge specifically and adequately identified in the Greenways III Expenditure Guideline Summary?
Misrepresentation of Facts
The city engages in a particularly misleading tactic: it adopts large, comprehensive planning documents, such as the updated Shoreline Master Program, or the Park, Recreation and Open Space Plan, with suggestions for potential projects often buried between policies and goals within the lengthy pages of the documents. The public rarely pays attention to specific details. However, when the city moves forward with a project, it cites the recommendations in the planning document as “proof” of the public’s vote of approval. It cannot be presumed that the public approves of every single potential proposal reflected in a planning document; to state otherwise is simply dishonest.
The city then reduces its accountability by referencing the entire document, rather than citing the applicable provision within the document. For example, at the June 26, 2008, public meeting, the city cited the “2007 SMP” (Shoreline Master Program) as proof of public process and public approval.4 The 2007 SMP was only a draft document, replaced by the 2009 SMP, which was not approved until 2013. The relevant provision in the SMP, Sec. 22.02.20.D.2.h, identifies the overwater walkway as an area that may be established or enhanced for public shoreline access.
The city grants itself creative license in representing facts. The Greenways III Expenditure Guideline Summary includes a “Future Waterfront Redevelopment Area Trail.’ In project documents, this was translated as “Bellingham City Council recorded intent to pursue a list of potential greenway projects that included the overwater walkway.” 5
The city also hand-selects citizens for advisory boards and visioning processes, and uses this as evidence of public input and approval. At the June 26, 2008, public meeting, the city cited the work of the citizen advisory Waterfront Futures Group as evidence of a public process.6 I was not a resident of Bellingham at the time, but even I am aware of the controversy that surrounded the creation of the Waterfront Futures Group.
Divided Public Opinion
How strong is public support for the eight-million dollar pedestrian bridge? Until the city held a public meeting on June 26, 2008, there was none. A city telephone survey of 400 city residents and a web-based survey were conducted prior to the special election for the Greenway.7 Not one single survey response mentions a pedestrian walkway over Bellingham Bay. Chuckanut Ridge was mentioned extensively, as was development of the GP/waterfront area. After the Greenway III Levy passed, public comment regarding implementation of the proceeds was posted in a city comment tracker. 8 Again, in 19 pages of public comment, not one person mentioned the overwater walkway—Chuckanut Ridge, however, is mentioned extensively. Clearly, the overwater walkway was not the result of public demand.
The city has found some support for its efforts. The most vocal group of advocates are affiliated with city staff through appointment to citizen advisory boards, such as the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. Members of the Parks Advisory Board are also involved in the South Hill Neighborhood Association, which, unsurprisingly, also supports the project. Others support the project because they believe it will bring economic development to the waterfront. In my experience, most citizens who support this project are unaware of, or unrealistically minimize, the environmental impacts from overwater structures.
However, those focused on the environmental impacts of the proposal rather than its “fun for me” factor or alleged economic benefit, oppose the project. This includes ReSources, People for Puget Sound, Lummi Nation and a number of informed citizens. Other citizens believe the money is better spent elsewhere, or that the project is unnecessary.
In short, as with the Chuckanut Community Forest or the Gateway Pacific Terminal, the public (at least those who are aware of the project) is polarized largely along lines of development versus environment. But you will not see any reference to this in project documents. The city asserts that the project is something that the public wants and strongly supports. The city refuses to acknowledge the controversy and public opposition that is clearly reflected in a project’s public comment tracker.9
A primary issue is whether the pedestrian bridge is a transportation necessity or a duplication of existing routes. In order to prevent unnecessary destruction of public land, Federal Highway Administration (FHA) grant funds can not be used to construct roads over public park land when an alternative transportation route is available, or unless all efforts are made to minimize environmental harm.10 In other words, the pedestrian bridge should not be built if an alternative land route exists that would avoid harmful shoreline and near-shore impacts to Bellingham Bay.
The city states that no alternative transportation alignment exists in the project area. Certainly none is readily apparent in the map that the city submitted with its application to the FHA. (See above small map). It also asserts that the pedestrian bridge is necessary to provide public access to inaccessible shoreline areas and to increase shoreline recreational opportunities.
I requested and paid for a city map that contained additional information. (See above large map). This map indicates that the existing transportation routes for the South Bay trail and the Boulevard St/S. State Street bicycle lane run parallel to the overwater walkway, making the bridge redundant. Lummi Nation has still not concurred on this project, in part, because it questions the bridge’s necessity.
Moreover, because the city intends to redevelop Boulevard Park and the Cornwall Ave. Landfill for parks, trails and public shoreline access, the bridge is not necessary to enhance public shoreline access or to increase shoreline recreational opportunities.
Unmitigated Enviromental Impacts
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this project is the city’s refusal to acknowledge, avoid and mitigate project impacts to fish and wildlife. Washington’s Marine Aquatic Habitat Guidelines acknowledge the extremely harmful impacts of overwater structures on the shoreline and near-shore ecosystem through altering light, wave energy and substrate.11 The effects on spawning, rearing, and refugia are particularly harmful to juvenile fish. The recommended method of protecting the sensitive marine ecosystem is to avoid shoreline structural modification altogether.12
This pedestrian bridge was approved under the city’s outdated 1989 SMP standards, which predate revisions to the Shoreline Management Act. It is unlikely that this project, a recreational amenity that requires shoreline armoring with concrete riprap, and shoreline fill and grading in a location rated for high seismic activity, could be approved under the city’s updated shoreline development standards.
The city’s lack of concern with project impacts was clear from the beginning. It conducted its SEPA review before the consultant’s environmental studies were complete. The city simply listed the pending environmental studies as a “mitigated” condition for the SEPA permit. For obvious reasons, DOE strongly recommends that environmental studies be completed prior to SEPA review.
The only meaningful mitigation is an eelgrass-replacement project and it reflects imposed requirements for a state hydraulic permit. The city has been less than enthusiastic about this requirement, as reflected in its eelgrass plan proposal. Even after WDFW discussed the plan with the city consultant in the Summer of 2010, and required modification of the eelgrass monitoring and mitigation plan, problems continued. In November 2010, WDFW stated that it “was surprised and disappointed that the eelgrass monitoring and analysis sections continue to be inconsistent with WDFW survey guidelines.”13 This suggests that eelgrass mitigation was not a matter of high priority for the city.
The city refused to conduct a cumulative impact analysis for pedestrian bridge impacts, despite the presence of other overwater marine structures, Taylor Dock and the Paddlepoint Trestle. As the number of overwater marine structures increase in a given area, impacts to shoreline functions exponentially increase, posing substantive risks of significant harm.14
Additionally, project impacts to Bellingham Bay needed to be considered based on the totality of impacts from redevelopment along the waterfront and at Boulevard Park. New shoreline access points increase the presence of people, pets and watercraft, which reduces the habitat available to local aquatic and shoreline species. Mitigation for shoreline buffers should have included the increased intensity of shoreline use. Although the city asserts the bridge is within the waterfront area for purposes of funding, for purposes of environmental review, it was treated as an unrelated shoreline development.
The city’s refusal to provide compensatory habitat will have significant consequences. The project area includes state-designated priority estuarine habitat. The Biological Evaluation conducted for the project limited its review to species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).15 This precluded review of many state-priority fish and wildlife species, and ignored the importance of the Bellingham Bay as habitat for migrating birds and wintering seabirds.
Even with this limitation, the Biological Evaluation determined that there would be likely adverse impact to an ESA-designated “Evolutionary Significant Unit” of Chinook salmon, as well as bocaccio, yelloweye rockfish and canary rockfish. ESA species present, but determined to be less likely impacted, included genetically-distinct Puget Sound steelhead, killer whales, bull trout and marbled murrelet.
The city performed an environmental analysis within or near the project area for the updated 2009 SMP (Marine Reaches 6 through 9).16 State priority species documented in or near the project area include coho salmon, Pandalid shrimp, harbor seals and California sea lions, and offshore grey whales. The south end of Boulevard Park supports vulnerable concentrations of spawning surf smelt and sand lance. Most importantly, the city documented areas of significant importance and vulnerability for water birds, with high concentrations of marine birds noted during the winter.
Incomplete Land Uses
This project reflects the same fatal flaw found in the plans for Boulevard Park redevelopment and the waterfront redevelopment. The city is siting public shoreline access and habitat restoration in the same location. The reality, established by scientific studies, is that these are incompatible land uses. For wildlife species to thrive, they must be provided safe habitat and adequate buffers. When habitat is lost, species die, and when priority estuarine habitat is lost, the impacts are amplified.
The overwater bridge is a “fun” amenity, rather than a transportation necessity, and is being constructed to attract tourists to the waterfront without considering the environmental costs. If Bellingham is to remain green, it must avoid unnecessary development of its sensitive lands and waters, and it must mitigate unavoidable impacts. It is easy to oppose unwanted residential development. The real test of this city’s values lies in its willingness to say no to appealing but environmentally-harmful park proposals.
A NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review will still be required if the city is successful in negotiations with the Lummi Nation, and this will allow the final opportunity for public comment. It is not too late for city residents to say no to this project and to object to the city’s mishandling of this matter.
The due process concerns discussed in this article reflect long-standing problems with city governance and are not unique to any one administration. Entrenched, systemic problems are difficult to correct without concerted effect. If public transparency and open government are to exist in Bellingham, it will take vigilance on the part of the public in order to keep a wayward city administration in check.