NOAA's move to Newport hits a legal snag

Port of Bellingham attorneys have discovered a federal restriction, dating back to Jimmy Carter times, banning the location of new federal buildings on wetlands and flood plains. Guess what Newport sits on?
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NOAA ships at their Seattle base

Port of Bellingham attorneys have discovered a federal restriction, dating back to Jimmy Carter times, banning the location of new federal buildings on wetlands and flood plains. Guess what Newport sits on?

Early in his term as President, Jimmy Carter cracked down on agencies planning to locate new federal buildings on wetlands and flood plains. Executive Order 11988, which Carter issued on May 24, 1977, made it all but impossible to site federal facilities on lands subject to flooding. The idea was to "avoid direct or indirect support of floodplain development wherever there is a practicable alternative."

Guess what? Newport, Oregon is in the 100-year flood plain, a problem the procurement team who chose Newport as the new site of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Center, seems not to have taken seriously.

Just before a late afternoon deadline Thursday, the Port of Bellingham filed a formal appeal of NOAA's choice of Newport, based largely on the flood plain restrictions of the 1977 Executive Order. The appeal goes to the US Government Accountability Office, which oversees the process of buying and building government property. The action by the Bellingham commissioners is a 180-degree turn from their decision of a few days earlier, when they voted not to appeal the NOAA move, after being briefed by NOAA officials on the outcome of the competition between Bellingham, Seattle, Port Angeles, and Newport.

At that meeting (August 19) Bellingham Port attorney Frank Chmelik told the Commissioners that while NOAA might have miscalculated some of the technical factors in choosing Newport, those factors weren't likely to lead to overturn the agency's decision. But the flood plain restriction is of a different nature. This could be a game-changer, Chmelik believes. "With the new information we have found, " Chmelik told the commissioners, "I believe that if this issue prevails the Port will have the opportunity to actually get NOAA."

The flood plain issue was hiding in plain sight, but neither NOAA's procurement team nor Bellingham's suitors had made much of it. The federal agency's own environmental assessment points it out: "Site Alternatives 2 and Four" &mdash that's Port Angeles and Newport &mdash "appear to be within a base flood plain. The lessor must ensure compliance with the requirements of the SFO (Solicitation For Offers) and be consistent with Executive Order 11988." That's President Carter's set of administrative hoops all federal agencies have to jump through, meant to discourage them from locating in flood plains. The Port of Bellingham's Washington DC attorneys say they don't see any evidence of NOAA considering those requirements before naming Newport as its new home.

The Bellingham site, on the other hand, has no such problem. The NEPA assessment says, "...the proposed alternative [Bellingham] would have negligible effects on floodplains and flooding characteristics within the site vicinity." And in the next paragraph "...the site is not within an identified floodplain."

A news release from the Port of Bellingham says that if NOAA approved a site that did not meet its stated criteria, "the federal agency would have to either remove Newport from consideration and choose another site, or would have to change its Solicitation for Offers and allow new bids to be submitted."

The NOAA Marine center has been located on Seattle's Lake Union for nearly 50 years. The Seattle lease expires in 2011, and NOAA pondered offers from Seattle, Port Angeles, Newport, and Bellingham before announcing its choice of Newport.

At stake is a prestigious 20-year contract that brings with it a fleet of research ships and some 175 jobs. At stake for Bellingham is a good deal more: the port and city have been counting on NOAA as the anchor tenant for a huge and costly waterfront redevelopment project where the 137-acre Georgia Pacific Pulp and Paper Mill used to be.

Bellingham port officials were told a few days ago that they had come very close to winning the NOAA decision. The two sites were virtually tied on technical factors such as geography, weather, and "quality of life" (school excellence, housing costs, entertainment and restaurant availability among other things). But Newport and the state of Oregon offered to help defray the cost of moving the NOAA center from Seattle. Bellingham declined to subsidize the move. Bellingham Port officials conjectured that the money offer outweighed the other factors. Now, with the flood plain issue to be considered, the move to Newport would appear a lot more expensive than it seemed a week ago.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.