Election Q&A: Bellingham City Council, Part 3

This week, BBJToday.com is running a series of Q&As with candidates for the Bellingham City Council.

In Part 3, the BBJ reached out to current council incumbents Michael Lilliquist (Ward 6) and Gene Knutson (Ward 2), who are both running unopposed for their seats in this election cycle.

Part 1, which was published Tuesday, Sept. 3, features Clayton Petree and Pinky Vargas, candidates for City Council’s Ward 4 seat. Part 2, which was published on Wednesday, Sept. 4, features Bob Burr and Roxanne Murphy, candidates for the council’s At Large seat.

The candidates were asked three questions involving city business and the local economy:

1. With City Council now beginning its deliberations on plans for the Waterfront District, do you think the process is on the right track? What contributions do you want to make as the plans move forward?

2. What should the council’s strategy be when it comes to bolstering future economic development and vitality across Bellingham?

3. How would you describe the current relationship between the city’s government and local business owners and developers? And how do you plan to engage with the local business community?

The Q&As also appear in the September print edition of The Bellingham Business Journal.

This year’s general election is scheduled for Nov. 5.

Michael Lilliquist (Ward 6)

Question 1 

I regret to say that the entire process has been flawed from the beginning, but I still hold out hope that the final result will be what Bellingham needs to move forward. To succeed, we need to get enough of the details right and keep the big picture in balance to provide for the many different (and sometimes competing) goals our community seeks.

Under the latest plans, just over half of the 237 total acres will remain zoned for industrial and marine activities. That’s good. Those areas are vital to the “working waterfront” that we need to keep and create higher-wage, skilled jobs that have been the waterfront’s backbone.

The “downtown” portion of the site, which has drawn the most speculation and debate, is only 15 percent of the total area, yet those 37 acres create the opportunity to expand downtown by half again as much. Again, that’s good.

The central message of the Waterfront Futures Group is to reconnect Bellingham to the bay by providing enough public access to the shoreline, either visually through nearby development, or physically through parks and trails. The draft plans calls for dedication of up to 33 acres for public parks and trails, most of it on or near the shoreline. That’s also good. This is close to the balance we need: a working waterfront and downtown expansion and public access and a healthier shoreline.

Problems remain, however. Here are some of the things I am looking at:

– First, City Council has asked repeatedly for innovative approaches to transportation and public infrastructure—to build a 21st Century city that is not dominated by cars, streets, parking lots, and limited by outdated energy and stormwater systems, for example. I see very little of that in the plans, yet we have a blank slate before us that would make this easy and more affordable.

– Second, we have heard contradictory calls for greater public access to the water and also for restoration of the shoreline habitat. Those two are not truly compatible. Similarly, some people think it is good to put buildings right along the waterway, but this blocks other views, lowering property values, and puts healthier shorelines at risk. We should be prepared to separate uses with some distance, and give a little rather than try to “have it all.”

– Third, although the final tally of public parks is large, only one-tenth of that will be dedicated for public use during the first two phases. The bulk of the parkland, ultimately, is not coming from the port, but is already under city ownership at the “Cornwall Beach” site.

– I also remain skeptical about the level of review and thought that has gone into the port’s marina idea. Even more troubling for me, I don’t see an adequate review on the horizon. We need to know if this is still a good idea, not just a forgone conclusion.

– I also remain concerned about financing the public investments from the city. Every single model I have seen since 2004 shows a troubling funding gap. The most recent version has $37.5 million of “new funding to be identified” that will be necessary to complete the $142 million build-out of phase three over the next 20 years.

– Finally, everything depends upon a cleanup process that instills confidence in private investors and potential buyers, and that process is not under the city’s control. The port seems to believe that meeting required environmental standards is “good enough,” but I believe our future depends upon going beyond the minimum. If we are depending upon unprecedented levels of private investment to follow our public commitments for infrastructure, it should be a sure bet and not a gamble.

The Bellingham City Council actually has not one, but several documents that we must consider: the waterfront plan itself, plus development regulations, design standards, a planned action ordinance (for environmental review), a development agreement, and an inter-governmental agreement with the Port of Bellingham. All these pieces need to fit together.

I have been waiting as long as everyone else for a chance to put in my own two cents, and I’d like to move ahead quickly. But given the complexity, size, and importance of the waterfront, I will resist urgings to simply pass what we have before us.

My duty as City Council member is to ask questions, and to decide only when satisfactory answers have been provided and the public’s best interests have been served.

Question 2

Several years ago, my colleagues on the City Council and I insisted upon creation of the city’s first-ever economic development chapter for Bellingham’s comprehensive plan. Our past efforts on economic development have been a bit too ad hoc and not always strategic. I felt we needed a clear foundation to let everyone know what the city does and does not do with regard to promoting local economic vitality.

In my view, the private sector and government sector are distinctly different but complementary parts of our economy. It’s often just as important as know what your role is not, as to know what your role is.

The document that came forward to the City Council last spring was good, but not good enough for me. I pushed hard and succeeded in several key additions.

The plan originally lacked a clear commitment to the local manufacturing sector for higher-wage jobs, nor did it make policy commitments to small businesses as a local economic driver, nor did it directly address the issue of worker education that has been an ongoing issue for employers. With the support of the council, the final draft was strengthened with my suggestions.

Here’s what our economic policy says in a nutshell: The city’s job is not direct job creation, but rather the laying of the foundation for economic activity. We do this primarily by providing reliable, trouble-free infrastructure (roads, water supply, sewer treatment, etc., which is, after all, two-thirds of the city’s budget), and by insuring quality of life amenities that make Bellingham an attractive place to live and work.

The same qualities thantare enjoyed by Bellingham’s residents also attract employers. Put simply, quality of life is an economic asset.

Under our new economic policy, the city also committed to providing the right mix of zoning and land use, for a diverse economic base that includes professional, technical, industrial, as well as retail and service sectors. Bellingham is healthier than many communities, because we have avoided too much reliance on any one economic sector, and we need to keep it that way with good planning for our land supply.

In the building boom years, Bellingham, like many other cities, grew too used to the steady stream of tax income from construction and real-estate transactions, and we felt the drop hard. The building industry is important, but one industry alone should not drive our economic policies, nor our tax policies.

City government, in my view, needs to stick to our job of providing timely and professional government services, public amenities and infrastructure, and avoid chasing revenues or playing economic favorites.

Question 3

To be honest, I would say the relationship is a bit like walking up a down escalator. I know we have been making good progress for several years under multiple administrations, but if we stop we would lose that progress.

Complaints are fewer, but I still hear them. Personally, I stay in touch with the Chamber and other groups, and I serve on the boards of Bellingham-Whatcom Tourism, Sustainable Connections and the Downtown Bellingham Partnership.

The truth is that city government (thankfully) has very little to do with day-to-day private sector business, except in one particular area that gets most of the attention: building permits.

Every city administration in recent memory has promised to improve the professionalism and predictability of the permitting progress, and I think great strides forward have been taken. I urge the mayor to keep up the improvements, but the city charter is very clear that the City Council has no administrative role to play. We can’t hire, fire, or change practices that are under the mayor’s control.

The City Council does have authority over city policies, however, and for several years I have been advocating for reforms to our building impact fee system. I believe we can and should adopt a fairer way of assessing fees, to encourage smarter forms of growth that are less burdensome on taxpayers, and discourage sprawling expansion that costs taxpayers more to provide with services.

The groundwork for these reforms has already been laid, and all that is needed is a committed majority on the City Council and the administration to move ahead.

Gene Knutson (Ward 2)

Question 1

I think the city and port are on the right track. We have to do this right, and over the next few months the council will be working on the plan making sure we have the right mix down on the waterfront. Jobs, jobs, jobs will be my number one item as we work through this.

The right overall master plan is the future of this city and county, and I am optimistic the council and port will get it right.

Question 2

We have been working on this issue since Mayor Kelli Linville took office, and have made great strides.

The Pacific Highway annexation and the property we bought for a regional stormwater facility will make it possible for more businesses to come to Bellingham, and the ones that are in that area could expand. Downtown also is important. There are plans for some new buildings downtown that has not happened for decades, and we need to do whatever it takes to make that part of town attractive to new businesses and anchor businesses that are already there.

I think the permit department overhaul has been a great tool to help builders, homeowners and the community members in the trade make it easier to get projects started and completed. We have come a long way over the years it is starting to show in great ways.

Question 3

I think over the last few years our relationship with the business community has improved very much. I hear it all the time. Just look at all the new building permits that are in the news. New companies are locating here, anchor stores are investing in expansion and relocating to a better location.

Again, I have to give kudos to Mayor Linville. She has reached out to the business community along with the council to say let’s work together, and it is working.

Bellingham is getting on the “most popular” lists in the world, and it is not luck, it is hard work by the council and mayor and past councils and mayors that have made Bellingham a great place to do business.


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