Planning commission votes in favor of wharf district zoning amendment

By Stefanie Donahue

After much discussion, Blaine planning commissioners voted to recommend approval of a modified proposal to amend Blaine’s Wharf District Master Plan (WDMP).

Commissioners cast the vote on December 8 after evaluating a proposal to expand permitted uses and building heights in an area called Mariner Village in Blaine’s WDMP. Blaine City Council will take the recommendation into consideration prior to casting a final vote, likely in January.

Adopted by the city of Blaine and the Port of Bellingham in 2007, the WDMP outlines a mix of commercial, marine, industrial and recreational uses in areas along Marine Drive. Mariner Village, located between the Blaine Harbor office and Sundance Yachts (formerly Blaine Marine Services), is zoned for water-oriented commercial, retail and service space on the ground level with office, residential and lodging accommodations on higher floors. Building heights in this particular area are to remain between 25 and 55 feet, according to the plan.

After nearly 10 years, the city has yet to receive substantial development interest that falls within the existing guidelines. In June, the Port of Bellingham approached the city of Blaine with a request to amend those rules, calling for the inclusion of marine-related use in Mariner Village and an increase to building heights from 45 to 55 feet in one sub-area and 35 to 45 feet
in another.

If approved, Portland-based Sundance Yachts would like to expand its facilities in Blaine. The company has already secured options for an 80-year lease on the former site of Blaine Marine Services and has publicly aired an interest in constructing a 60,000-square-foot, $9 million boat storage facility capable of housing up to 350 boats.

The company opened in 1972 and currently offers customers retail boat sales, storage facilities and other amenities in Seattle and Portland. However, use of the Portland-based 90,000-square-foot boat storage facility was put on hold last February after a fire destroyed the company’s boat storage facility housing an estimated 350 boats.

Over the course of two public meetings, commissioners raised several questions to city staff and the port. At the forefront were concerns about preserving waterfront views and maintaining the vision of the WDMP, which was intended establish the wharf district as a destination and gateway to Blaine’s downtown.

Despite reservations, commissioners opted to modify the original amendment proposal and offer a final recommendation of approval to city council. In all, they requested to isolate non-industrial marine-related use to the area east of Milhollin Drive, which cuts through Mariner Village. Types of development that fit within this category should have a clear connection to the shoreline and could include uses such as boat storage, said Blaine community planner Alex Wenger.

Commissioners also recommended a decrease in building height restrictions from 55 feet to 25 feet in all sub-areas bordering the west side of Milhollin Drive. In two sub-areas bordering the train tracks on the east side of the drive, building heights are recommended to increase from 35 feet to 55 feet. In one other sub-area bordering the east side of the drive, building heights should decrease from 45 feet to 25 feet, per the recommendation.

“We’ve talked about economic development in Blaine and for that to happen we need to have income from some source,” said commission chair Van Tabb, who characterized the WDMP as overly ambitious.

“It’s something that allows something to happen down there that has not happened in the last nine years, almost 10 years now,” he said. “The fact is, you can’t expect the city or the port to wave a magic wand and create revenue-producing facilities. Somebody has to pay for it.”

Commissioners participated in a swift back-and-forth in response to questions raised about downtown views, the expansion of marine-related use and the future of Blaine’s economy. Members of the public also came forward to express a mix of opinions on the proposal, with some lauding the project as a step forward in boosting activity along Marine Drive while others felt the amendment would warp the original vision of the plan.

“As an active boater and a member of both Semiahmoo and Birch Bay Village Yacht clubs, this proposal would provide highly-sought-after services,” said Lynette Morris-Reade in a letter addressed to Blaine’s planning commission. “Being a small community, there are not many vendors in Blaine who can provide the services and amenities that Sundance Yachts is proposing.”

Ed Lee shared similar sentiments, telling commissioners in a letter, “Anything the community can do to encourage the recreational boater and commercial marine operator to stop in Blaine on the way north or south will pay great dividends to Blaine and the surrounding area.”

Pat Grubb and Louise Mugar, both publishers and owners of The Northern Light building located at 225 Marine Drive in Mariner Village urged commissioners to consider the amendment based on its merit and not on the existence of a potential tenant.

John LeBrun approached commissioners with the same concern, commenting, “A long-term lease raising the height for a warehouse would preclude the use of this area in the future as it was intended.”

The fate of the proposal is now in the hands of Blaine City Council, which is likely to vote on the amendment in January. Councilmembers have the option to approve or deny the original or modified application and can also make changes of their own.

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