Big crowd turns out for discussion on Aberdeen waterfront

About 90 people joined the Aberdeen Planning Commission Thursday night at the Rotary Log Pavilion for a special discussion on what the city should be doing with its waterfront.

Planning Commission Chairman Brian Little said the city is doing its once-in-a-decade update of the comprehensive land-use plan, noting that the old plan, crafted in 2001, focused mainly on the timber industry. An updated plan is a chance to “memorialize our voice and speak to future generations,” Little said.

“We’re never going to have the mills the way they were,” Little said. “That’s all changed. And what we’re doing tonight is adapting to that change and what we’re doing is helping to shape the future.”

The Planning Commission had asked members of the public to come to last night’s meeting to offer input on the future of downtown and the waterfront.

Little says the update needs to focus more on mixed uses, allowing companies like Willis Industries and Sierra Pacific to continue to function, while, at the same time, turning the old Weyerhaeuser site into something that allows the public to better connect with the waterfront.

Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Director Les Bolton is in negotiations with Weyerhaeuser and the state Department of Natural Resources to take over the property as the new Seaport Landing, the planned home for the Hawaiian Chieftain and The Lady Washington, which would include a marina and a museum.

Bolton says the Weyerhaeuser site has 2,225 feet of waterfront with a 340-foot-long pier and a lot of potential uses for the community as a whole.

“We have an opportunity to make a change,” said Planning Commission member John Martinsen. “It’s time to say ‘enough is enough.’ Let’s do something about it.”

“We need to make some changes,” agreed Planning Commission member Bill Sidor.

Little took the crowd on a tour through history in photos, showing how back in 1953, a marina packed with fishing boats existed right outside where the Log Pavilion exists today. But as the logging industry improved, the marina was removed. He also showed photos from the 1960s of mills that once dotted the riverside.

Those photos were contrasted with a virtual tour using aerial photos Bolton displayed that showed how much of the banks of the Wishkah and Chehalis rivers are now just barren mud flats or home to sewage ponds and industrial sites with relatively few access points for the public.

“We have 11 miles of shoreline but not a lot of ways to get to it,” Bolton said. “… This is the second most productive river in the state, but we don’t have a marina or a canoe or kayak company.”

Community Development Director Lisa Scott noted that there is only one place on the southside of Aberdeen near the old Pakonen boat yard where a boat can be launched and yet the boat launch is barely functional. Scott said there has been a frequent demand for the public to have more places it can put boats in the river.

Little explained that the pilings up and down the river should also not necessarily all be removed, noting that once pilings are removed, they are very hard to replace and the city needs to think ahead to what those future uses for pilings could be, including marinas.

Although there was a packed house, there wasn’t a whole lot of room for public comment. Those attending were asked mainly to put their thoughts down on paper and answer some critical questions, such as why does Aberdeen exist? What is Aberdeen? What shaped Aberdeen and what will shape the future Aberdeen?

Linda Orgel, with the Friends of Grays Harbor, said she’d been involved in a lot of discussions on what to do with the city’s waterfront “and what we heard from everybody is public access and public use and being able to get to the river and celebrate the river.”

Orgel and City Council President Kathi Hoder both lobbied the Planning Commission to include more public access in the updated comprehensive plan.

“Once this beautiful Seaport is built across the way, we’re going to want eateries and trails and it’s all going to grow from this diamond we have across the river,” Hoder said.

Aaron Nickell of Aberdeen urged the Planning Commission to possibly consider a tax-setting authority such as a waterfront public facilities district to pay for some of the needed changes.

Little said issues like a public facilities district should be handled by the mayor and the Aberdeen City Council, but Scott said she’s prepared to look into the issue if that comprehensive plan calls for the idea.