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Citizens Promote Ecologically- and Neighborhood-Friendly Waterfront

January 2004

Citizens Promote Ecologically- and Neighborhood-Friendly Waterfront

by Wendy Steffensen

Wendy Steffensen has been director of the North Sound Baykeeper program at RE Sources for the past year. She currently is working on waterfront redevelopment, the Bellingham Bay cleanup, stormwater pollution and the designation of Cherry Point as an aquatic reserve. Contact her at 733-8307 or

Part Two

Group Findings


The closure of Georgia-Pacific’s pulp and chemical operation signals the end of a heavy industrial era on Bellingham Bay. The city now has the opportunity to develop a cohesive waterfront plan that integrates ecosystem function with economic viability and aesthetic enjoyment. Simply bringing such a vision into focus presents a daunting task. Translating these ideas into physical reality will be a huge challenge. We recognize this work will need to include the entire community and continue for the long term—perhaps a hundred years and more.

In the short term, specific sites should be identified that can deliver a high reward for minimal input when the costs and benefits to habitat, public access and the economy all have been considered. Healthy ecosystems should provide the essential basis for a vital economy as well as a high quality of life under this long-term plan. Therefore, in this presentation of ideas, the preservation and restoration of ecosystem functions are not simple rhetoric; they are central to the success of any plan for the sustainable development and stewardship of our waterfront.


Speculation about the redevelopment of the waterfront has led to a stream of ideas rich with ways to invigorate the economy as well as the environment, from parkland to corporate office space, from houseboats to amphitheaters. As within a healthy ecosystem, diversity within the economic base of a community allows resiliency as well as stability.

The charrette group agreed that they did not want the waterfront to become an area that was solely a paved commercial enterprise. Public access and habitat uses must be integrated into the planning of not only public land, but also private areas designated as residential or commercial. Multiple-use redevelopment and small-scale building could yield results beneficial to all interests if the healthy functioning of natural processes is used as the definitive baseline for planning.

Numerous “anchor” proposals have been expressed—from park or public facility to a maritime exploration center to a big ship harbor. The choice of the anchor needs to be made with the appreciation of the diversity of Bellingham, and keeping the health of the environment foremost in consideration.


Although Bellingham Bay historically supported a diverse array of species, it, like other urban areas has been contaminated. Contamination affects the life that healthy water and sediment quality support, and the economic and recreation interests that rely on them. To recover a healthy bay we must also address present, on-going contamination that exists. The present contamination must be removed in the most ecologically sound manner possible, and ongoing pollution must be minimized to the greatest extent possible. To these ends, we ask for the following items:

1. Redevelopment of an area should be disallowed until it is clear of contamination.
2. Rezones allowing redevelopment of properties held by parties responsible for pollution, including, but not limited to the port, city and Georgia- Pacific, should be disallowed until plans for addressing contamination are in place, and until designated monies for remediation are set aside.
3. The city and port should ask that there be no discharge of persistent pollutants, and that AKART or “All Known And Reasonable Technology” be applied for all pollution discharges, granted by the Department of Ecology where the discharge flows into Bellingham Bay.
4. Stormwater from facilities and municipal roadways should be monitored and treated in accordance with BMPs (Best Management Practices) and AKART.

We find that business cannot be practiced as it has been in the past, where the cost of doing business was subsidized by environmental degradation and by other externalized costs to the community. To this end, we ask that those responsible for the contamination pay for its cleanup and that stiffer regulations be enforced to prevent further contamination from industrial discharges and from polluted stormwater.


Habitat must be restored in order to provide connectivity and support for the flora and fauna that live in the upland, shoreline and nearshore areas. Habitats in urban environments cannot be ignored as they provide linkages upstream and downstream of the urban area. In the case of our native salmon, this urban area is their home by birthright. During this current round of redevelopment we have the awareness of the importance of fish and wildlife habitat, and we can no longer ignore this priority in both economic and environmental terms.

For these reasons, the charrette group maintains that wherever possible, nearshore habitat must be restored or enhanced. These actions include pulling back the shoreline and/or filling and grading where possible to restore nearshore habitat. All hard shore armoring should be replaced with soft shore protection and no new shoreline armoring should be allowed without it both being necessary and providing mitigation for environmental impacts.

Additionally, the charrette group concurs with the recommendations advanced by the Habitat Action Team of the Bellingham Bay Pilot, as outlined in the Bellingham Bay Comprehensive Strategy, Final Environmental Impact Statement, WA DOE, 10/2000.

General Recommendations

Habitat And Access
1. There should be a marine corridor offshore along the whole length of Bellingham.
2. Upland connectivity/corridors should be addressed and enhanced at all estuary/creek sites: Little Squalicum, Squalicum, Whatcom, Padden and Chuckanut.
3. High priorities for habitat restoration are along the riparian zone and low banks along the nearshore.
4. Attention should be paid to the benefit that a healthy ecosystem provides to the community, in terms of jobs, increased quality of life and in making eco-tourism possible. Specifically, the opportunity to view marine mammals and birds in an aesthetically and environmentally pleasing habitat has the potential to draw numerous visitors and tourists who will provide an economic benefit to the city.
5. Trails are one of the wonderful attributes of the city of Bellingham. These can and should function as wildlife corridors and provide connectivity throughout the area. In order that trails function for our benefit as well as for the benefit of the environment, they need to meet the following requirements:
• Set back from the water’s edge to provide a buffer for habitat protection.
• Use native plants for landscaping to help keep people on the trails.
• Use native plants to provide forage and refuge habitat for native flora and fauna.
• Trails must be the most permeable possible given the overall use for the trail.
• There should generally be no use of impervious material.
• There should be no pesticide or herbicide use as a matter of course, and use of Integrated Pest Management strategies when necessary.
• Where there is a large natural area, trails should be near the edges of the area, to enhance habitat value and to reduce fragmentation.
6. There should be a system of habitat-friendly parks with connecting trails.
7. There should be a priority of connecting bike/pedestrian facilities for “continuous access” (for example, frequent links to the Coast Millennium Trail, and an overpass at Broadway to provide access to the Harbor Area, over the railroad tracks and Roeder Avenue).
8. Small boat access should be enhanced with an adequate number of no-fee sites for hand launching.
Commercial and Residential
1. We support mixed-use developments integrating living, working, public access and transit-friendly spaces. This will provides a more diverse and vibrant waterfront and downtown. For example, apartments can be placed over businesses, and small docks could be integrated with bayside restaurants.
2. We support making transit an integral part of the waterfront for several reasons. Transit will make the waterfront accessible to more people, will limit the number of polluting cars on the waterfront and will reduce use of waterfront land for parking lots.
3. We support making the waterfront affordable. Affordable waterfront housing may be possible through live-aboards/houseboats.
4. To preserve our community character, and to preserve our jobs and economy, we support local and sustainable businesses. We do not want national and international large businesses on the waterfront, and we want to limit the size of buildings to prevent big box developments. We support building these stipulations into city regulations.
5. We support the fishing industry. Thus, we want to maintain the “support businesses” for the fishing community, including sport fishing.
6. Toxic discharges from industrial uses should be phased out, but existing businesses should be maintained and encouraged to adopt sustainable practices where appropriate.
7. Low Impact Development (LID) standards need to be defined and enforced for all waterfront redevelopment.
8. Whenever areas are upzoned, transfer of development rights should be used, such that we minimize building in the Lake Whatcom watershed and better protect our drinking water source.
9. We support the use of city and county regulations, as well as incentives to help protect the environment and the character of the city of Bellingham in a manner that is more protective than what is provided for under current government regulations.
Specific Geographic Recommendations

The specific geographic recommendations and maps, like the general recommendations, highlight citizens’ desires to reconnect to the waterfront- both from a physical public access perspective and from a philosophical aesthetic and ecological perspective. The recommendations include removing rip-rap, creosoted pilings and steep bulkheads, wherever possible. They include using newer, more ecologically responsible technologies where needed, such as beach nourishment and soft-shore armoring.

They include preserving natural places like Squalicum Beach, and making those natural places accessible by foot, bike or kayak. The specific recommendations will be made available on the RE Sources Web site ( in mid-December. They will also be presented to the Waterfront Futures Group, the Bellingham City Council and the Port of Bellingham commissioners.

The Waterfront Futures Group process, for all of its shortcomings, does bring the central question of what should be done with our waterfront into focus. Just like voting—if you don’t participate in the game, it’s difficult to justify dissatisfaction about the end product. If we do our work, participate, and be counted, we just might also like the result. If not, we will still have a strong vision of what we do and don’t want, and a strong coalition to advance our goals. Exclusive Economic Zone. §

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