Birch Bay plan stalled by sudden policy snafu

Published on Thu, Sep 26, 2002 by Jack Kintner

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Birch Bay plan stalled by sudden policy snafu

By Jack Kintner

“We’ll see this through to the end,” said an exasperated Meg Grable, chair of the Birch Bay Steering Committee, “We will not give up on our dream.” Less than a day before what was to have been their last meeting before passing their final report on to the next level, committee members were notified that the report as written would be rejected by the county unless changed within an impossibly short time limit. More work, perhaps a year’s worth, still lies ahead of them before the Birch Bay Community Plan (BBCP) is ready for submission.

At issue is the report’s disposition of an 1,100-acre tract of land owned by the Trillium Corporation west of the BP-Cherry Point refinery. The land is zoned for heavy impact industrial use, but the report suggests rezoning the area for residential use, separating the houses from the refinery with a buffer that would be zoned for lighter industrial use.

The committee has almost evenly split on this issue in several lengthy discussions as the issue has surfaced and re-surfaced in recent months. A slight majority of from one to five votes more than the opposition usually has sided with Trillium’s Bob Libolt in advocating the re-zone as a way of blocking further heavy industry from locating at Cherry Point, while others agreed with BP-Cherry Point Refinery’s Mike Abendhoff that a re-zone is unfair to the industries already there and opens up land for development in an area that’s dangerous to live in.

This issue was narrowly decided in favor of those wanting the BBCP to reflect a desire to preclude more industrial development from Cherry Point at a meeting last April 24, revisited with the same result on July 17 and again on August 14th. In September the county’s senior land use specialist John Guenther, responsible for checking the report’s compliance with the state environmental policy act (SEPA), responded with several specific requests for clarification, and the committee reconvened. All but one of the points were answered, the exception being the description of their preference for re-zoning the land at Cherry Point.

Guenther had requested a “professional written opinion” on how compatible a refinery and a residential area could be, and when the response indicated that there would be significant issues, Guenther determined that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would be required unless the report itself were modified to eliminate the area in contention from consideration.

Guenther’s letter informing the committee of this decision was dated and went out September 17th, but so late in the day it had to be delivered by hand to some committee members to get to them before their scheduled meeting the next day. Guenther said in his letter that he was delaying his determination until after that meeting to give the committee a chance to respond, but since the committee had already approved the report only minor corrections based on discrepancies with the minutes could be allowed.

It had developed into a Catch-22 Joseph Heller would have appreciated. The report was unacceptable unless changed, but the report couldn’t be changed by Guenther’s one-day deadline, making it inevitable that an environmental impact statement would be required, since according to county planner Sylvia Goodwin, “Once a determination of significance (DS) is made an EIS must be prepared.”

The inch-thick, 18-chapter Birch Bay Community Plan had been produced by the efforts of several hundred Birch Bay residents over the past year and a half and at a cost of $120,000. Neighborhood representatives meeting as a steering committee for the last 18 months developed descriptions of what they would like to see Birch Bay become in the next 20 years. “I thought we did what they told us to do,” said Grable.

Fatigue was evident toward the end of the meeting as despite the chair’s ruling that major changes were out of order, a motion was made to revise the committee’s previous decision supporting the re-zoning of Cherry Point from heavy impact industrial to partly residential and partly light industrial, specific boundaries between the two to be determined later. Although eight voted yes and seven voted no, the motion needed a two-thirds majority and therefore failed.

Grable appointed a committee of Carol Sandvig, Dora Lee Booth, Lori Edmonds and Claudia Hollod to work with consultant Mart Kask to make minor revisions and corrections, but no further work was planned pending a written response from Guenther..


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