Neighbors for Birch Point group formed, fighting potential retreat with petition

Published on Thu, Dec 4, 2003
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Neighbors for Birch Point group formed, fighting potential retreat with petition

In response to a proposed 10-acre retreat-spa on Birch Point Road, residents have formed a new organization and are fighting the project through a petition drive.

Neighbors for Birch Point was recently formed by several property owners along Semiahmoo Lane to address the project. The group intends to contact 47 households through a petition drive and defeat the adoption of a 10-acre commercial retreat-spa project proposed by Ellen Shea, creator of the Chrysalis Inn in Fairhaven. Shea is asking the county to rezone the Birch Point area from UR 4 (urban residential 4) to resort commercial, and it is this rezone possibility that is stirring up some emotion among local residents.

�Ms. Shea described the project as a small spa with relatively little impact on the neighborhood and environment,� said Jo Slivinski, one of the residents spearheading Neighbors for Birch Point. �However, of key concern to the lane neighbors and to many others in the community is the rezone itself required for this project ... We regard that as a huge impact.�

Permitted uses within the rezone, should it happen, would allow for hotels, motels, or timeshare condominiums accommodating 16 or less sleeping units, as well as retail shops, restaurants, professional offices, and taverns, Slivinski said. �Reading the actual Whatcom County code for resort commercial zoning is a bit of an eye opener,� she continued. �We feel there will be widespread opposition to this rezone in the community, once the word really gets out.�

According to the county, the rezone can be conditioned to state that the land only be used for a spa.

�However, whether such conditions actually get attached to the rezone is another question� Sliviniski added.

In addition to the rezone, the issues and concerns of Neighbors for Birch Point range from the impact of any commercial venture to the question of what else could be put there should the spa fail. Strangers in the neighborhood, as well as increased traffic and the process by which the proposal has surfaced also concerns residents, Slivinski said.

Shea, who does not yet own the property, wants to construct a retreat environment where guests can �nurture their body, relax their mind and refresh their spirit,� she stated in a letter to the Whatcom County planning commission, noting the project would be more than a bed and breakfast. �The acreage is secluded and completely fenced allowing for total privacy and little impact, if any, on neighboring properties.�

Full service retreats, as well as spa services will be available, according to Shea, and the land will remain fenced in. The existing house is about 13,000 square feet with three bedrooms, and Shea would like to construct an additional 12 guest rooms, for a total of 15 overnight guest bedrooms.

The project, she said, would benefit the community by reducing the amount of development on the site, which could potentially see 22 to 32 homes in the future.

Some residents question why Shea did not present her plan prior to the closing of the public hearing for the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan, which includes the Birch Bay SubArea plan.

�We learned from the county that Ellen Shea had not participated in the public hearing ... Instead, as the county explained, Ms. Shea submitted a letter/proposal to the planning commission on October 9 as part of the written comment period open for two weeks following the closing of the public hearing,� Slivinski said.

But Shea said she could not provide any information prior to that time because she was not yet aware of the Birch Point Road property. In September, Shea made an offer on the $3.4 million property and the offer was accepted. (The sellers are represented by realtor Mike Kent.)

Since her letter to the planning commission, Shea has voluntarily discussed her proposed project at the Birch Bay Steering Committee meeting held on November 12, and made contact with local residents about the project.

One such homeowner, Cindy Reimer of New Westminster, B.C., owns a summer home near the location and said she received a call from Shea in early November about the project, but is against it.

�Her and Mike Kent phoned a few neighbors. Some were notified, some were not,� Reimer said. �I have nothing against growth, that happens. But I just don�t like the fact it�s going to be a commercial resort where I don�t know my neighbors.�

Reimer has three children and said the rezoning of the area is something she�s very concerned about.

�I would much rather it be a residential area. I never ever thought something like a commercial resort would come into the area.�

In addition, Reimer said she is concerned about the traffic flow the commercial area could generate. �Traffic is also a concern, and at this point in time, there is no such concern,� she said.

At a November 23 meeting organized by Neighbors for Birch Point, about 30 local property owners discussed the project. About 88 percent of those in attendance, according to Slivinski, voted against the project and rezone, resolving to start the petition campaign.

The petition, �Say No to the Proposed Birch Point Spa/Rezone� requests that the Whatcom County planning commission reject the spa project and the rezone, and if not, open a public hearing and written comment period regarding it. The group is extending its petition drive to include The Petition Mobile, a temporarily converted motorhome that will be parked at various local venues, including this Sunday afternoon in Birch Bay, across from Teriyaki Cafe.

�It�s an easy way for folks to learn more about this and to sign the petition,� Slivinski said. �In addition, we�re offering home delivery � people can call us for an appointment that�s convenient for them, and we�ll send someone out with the petition to sign. And in standard petition protocol, of course, we�re going door to door.�

In response to the petition drive, Shea said she has tried to work with local residents and property owners to address their concerns, but they won�t talk to her. Only two residents have been in actual verbal contact, Shea said, while she has given her email address and phone number to those in the area so they can contact her.

�I said at the meeting that I am willing to talk to them about putting conditions on rezoning,� Shea said. �I feel like I am being open and honest about what I am doing. They have a lot of misinformation and are assuming the worst.�

She intends to continue with her plans for development, and said she honestly believes the spa-retreat would be good for the environment and community. �It has a lot less impact than housing,� she said, noting the waterfront environment. �There could be about three or four more homes built on the bluff there.�

Realtor Mike Kent said it�s a shame the petitioners have not provided a venue to hear the truth about Shea�s plan and then decide. �I�d probably sign the petition myself if I�d only heard the petitioners story,� he said. �The real shame is the likelihood of this (land) being just another housing development. And that�s increasing each day. Twenty to 50 years from now wooded waterfront acreage for folks in general to enjoy will be rare, if not extinct, other than our parks.�

The Whatcom County planning commission meets Thursday, December 11, and is scheduled to discuss the project then, when it considers the adoption of the Whatcom County comprehensive plan.

In the meantime, Sylvia Goodwin of Whatcom County planning has recommended a public hearing be held for the project.