Should they zone the shoreline near the former Kimberly-Clark mill for water-dependent industries, to take advantage of the property's rare access to deep water and rail lines? Or should they reserve the 90-plus acres for office parks and light manufacturing, which some believe promise more jobs and higher wages?
Another dilemma: whether to allow public access to this slice of waterfront at the risk of irking its neighbors, Naval Station Everett and the Port of Everett.
Knowing their decision could reverberate for generations to come, the City Council is taking its time. Last week, Council President Ron Gipson pushed back a vote that had been expected Wednesday, though people still have the chance to testify during a 6:30 p.m. hearing that evening in City Council chambers. That makes a final decision unlikely until January.
"It's going to be something that's going to be with us for the rest of our lives," Gipson said. "We'll make sure everybody's comfortable with it."
The vote involves the city's land-use regulations and part of its comprehensive plan.
Everett, once known as Mill Town, lost its final mill in April, when Dallas-based Kimberly-Clark closed its Everett site for good. More than 700 people lost jobs. Demolition began last summer.
Kimberly-Clark is trying to sell the vacant 66-acre property, which makes up the bulk of the waterfront area the city is looking to rezone.
Kimberly-Clark has talked to several prospective buyers, though confidentiality agreements prevent disclosing who they are, company spokesman Bob Brand said. One party, however, has made no secret of its interest: The Port of Everett.
The city has spent months examining the issues at play, through public meetings, an economic analysis and hours of testimony from everyday people and experts alike.
The information led the city Planning Commission, in October, to a unanimous recommendation of zoning the immediate shoreline for water-dependent industrial development. That option would allow development that doesn't require water access in areas farther from the shore.
The commission had three other options to consider: keeping the area's current zoning for heavy industry and some other uses, a path Kimberly-Clark supported; requiring mostly water-dependent industrial uses; or zoning for business parks with more opportunities for the general public to enjoy the waterfront.
The commission's recommendation added restrictions, such as a 50-foot height limit, that could go up to 80 feet to accommodate manufacturing equipment. It also bars some types of heavy manufacturing that create unpleasant smells, excessive noise or dust.
Fish processing, composting and petroleum refineries wouldn't be allowed, city planning director Allan Giffen said.
Mayor Ray Stephanson said he supports the commission's choice and the "thoughtful approach" they used to get there.
"A majority of the people who participated in the process spoke in favor of keeping the site as a jobs center with industrial zoning," Stephanson said.
Whether in greater port operations, shipbuilding or the aerospace industry, the mayor said that course would lead the city in a prudent direction.
Stephanson said he has no issue with the council taking more time for its decision, so long as they vote by late January. That would allow the new rules to take effect before Feb. 15, when a year-long city development moratorium for the site is set to expire.
"Without a moratorium, we could certainly have an outcome there that's not in concert with what the planning commission recommended," Stephanson said.
Not everyone on the City Council is ready to sign onto the commission's recommended plan.
Councilwoman Brenda Stonecipher reasons that business parks and light manufacturing best serve the city's goal of economic development, environmental cleanup and public access. Banking the city's future on heavy industry is short-sighted, Stonecipher said.
"I think that vision really only lasts for 10, 20 years, then you're going to see this kind of operation gone," she said. "Shouldn't we look at an 80- to 100-year plan? That's really the timeline for waterfront development if you look nationally."
Stonecipher points to the economic analysis performed for the city, showing that business parks would create a higher density of jobs and higher average wages than heavy industry.
Furthermore, she contends the Port of Everett isn't big enough to compete with the much larger ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
"The economic case is pretty clear-cut as to which alternative is better for the city and the taxpayers," Stonecipher said.
Councilman Paul Roberts said he's continuing to study the options, but that Stonecipher's argument deserves consideration. Roberts said there's a wealth of information to inform any decision the council makes, thanks to the planning commission's work.
Councilman Shannon Affholter, meanwhile, said he's comfortable with the conclusion reached by the Planning Commission.
"We have a long history of a working waterfront," Affholter said. "Maybe there's a potential for expanding cargo handling and shipbuilding capabilities."
While an office park might, theoretically, support more jobs, Affholter wondered whether the market would support it. There's evidence of an oversupply of this type of commercial property, he said, and companies might prefer to locate office parks in less expensive commercial zones farther from the water.
"The worst thing we can do is to get stuck with ideas that look good on paper, but might ultimately fail because of economic realities," he said. "The last thing I want to see is for this property to sit vacant for a decade or longer."
Everett's waterfront was first developed at the turn of the previous century. From the 1930s on, it was mostly used for pulp and paper manufacturing.
That's left toxic trouble spots to clean up, including petroleum products on land and chemicals left over from the paper-making process in the adjacent waterway.
The state Department of Ecology has reached an agreement with Kimberly-Clark outlining the kinds of studies and investigations needed to clean up the contamination on land. Those studies will be used to put together a cleanup plan.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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