Birch Point rezone voted down 7-1
After nearly three hours of public comment and discussion last Thursday evening, the Whatcom County planning commission voted against a Birch Point rezone that would have allowed a 10-acre spa-retreat to be built.
Commissioners shot down the planned rezone of urban residential to marine commercial, citing concerns from area residents regarding traffic, environmental impacts, and having strangers in their neighborhood. However, despite voting no, some commissioners felt the community would have been better off with the spa-retreat project than the potential amount of homes that could be built in the area.
�The (retreat) proposal is consistent with the county comprehensive plan and the Birch Bay community plan,� Whatcom County planning services division manager Sylvia Goodwin said, recommending the commission pass the proposal. �Between both plans, this is an appropriate rezone with appropriate conditions. The Birch Bay plan has goals to promote tourism and recognizes that.�
The rezone, she said, would only affect the 10 acres being proposed as a spa-retreat, and it would include an agreement specifying the area could not be used for another business such as a tavern, recreational vehicle park, or restaurant, should the business fail.
�Those are all uses that would be incompatible with that neighborhood,� Goodwin said. �The agreement would run with the land forever.�
The 10-acre site, which includes two acres of tidelands and eight acres of uplands, currently has a 12,000 square foot mansion on site that would be utilized for the retreat project. In addition, six duplexes would be constructed for a total of 15 guest rooms that would accommodate up to 30 guests staying between two and five nights. Currently, the area is zoned residential and could see four homes per acre. These homes, Goodwin said, could produce more environmental impacts than the spa-retreat.
For example, she said, the spa-retreat would handle sewage through a county-approved septic tank, as the area currently has no sewer service. But in 20 years, she said, that area will likely be serviced by the Birch Bay Water and Sewer District and could potentially see sewage from over 30 homes within those 10 acres. The project would leave the land secluded, and would create less traffic and effects on the shoreline - all things that Ellen Shea, the project�s proposer, commented on.
�I believe in protecting the environment. I believe it will have less impact on the bank (shore),� Shea said, noting the area�s tranquility and the fact she wishes to keep it that way. �What I want to create is a small, intimate place serving about 15-30 people.�
Shea said she has done extensive work on the bank, specifically drainage to ensure minimal impact, and added she would only cut a few trees on the property. Despite Shea�s environmental intentions, a number of local landowners attended the meeting to voice against the project, including Neighbors for Birch Point, a group created to fight the rezone.
Jo Slivinski, a New Westminster, B.C. resident who owns land on Birch Point and is the spokesperson for Neighbors for Birch Point, stated she was concerned about what the rezone could potentially open the neighborhood up to and asked the planning commission to reject the plan.
Lincoln Rutter, a Semiahmoo Drive resident, argued the plan was not brought before the planning commission properly, and cited concerns about growth in the area already, including the recent logging of hundreds of acres by Trillium. The logging, he said, has left geologically unstable areas and piles that have yet to be cleared. �There�s no effort to replant and now we�re talking about building hotels. There�s some serious issues,� Rutter said.
Commissioner John Belisle questioned the way the plan was brought to the planning commission as well. Usually, he said, a rezone would take a year to be heard, but this one appeared in front of the commission within three months.
�The reason this happened so fast is because Birch Bay is in the middle of its subarea plan and we�ve been working on that for four years,� Goodwin responded. �It just happened this came in at the tail end of the plan.�
Birch Bay resident Barbara Spindler, who worked on the community plan, said there was never any mention of rezoning Birch Point, therefore she was against it. She described the uniqueness of the land, comparing it to places such as the Grand Canyon, Big Sur and Deception Pass. �Well, Birch Point to Birch Bay to Point Whitehorn and the (Semiahmoo) spit to Drayton Harbor is also one of these places,� she said.
In response to those questioning the project�s location, Shea said she did look at existing commercial areas, but nothing fit the ambience and solitude she was seeking. Birch Point resident Kathy Seaman agreed with the plan, with conditions. �This is a small resort in the middle of an ideal setting. I believe a developer would come in and have much more impact on that land,� she said, adding retreat users are reclusive and peaceful.
But local neighbor Cindy Reimer said she was concerned about the spa users and the safety of her three children at home. �Our front door resides a mere 100 feet (from the property),� she said. �I have to question what kind of neighborhood this is now.�
Kathy Berg, the vice-chair of the Birch Bay steering committee and Birch Bay resident, said �It just seems to me a neighbor of peace and tranquility is a better neighbor than 30 or 20 homes. So I support the rezone.�
Commissioner Robert Wiesen, the only commissioner to vote yes, said the project would not work on the waterfront of Birch Bay, but would fit into Birch Point. �I think that to turn this down is not a good thing for the community as a whole. This is an insignificant development and it conforms to our comprehensive plan.�
Although some commissioners acknowledged the project would be beneficial to the area, they still voted no in the end.
�I have concerns about it ... and I�m not going to support it,� commissioner Geoff Menzies said. �This sets a precedent for more commercial development in the area.�
Commissioner John Belisle commented on the fear expressed by some neighbors including strangers and traffic. �I�m surprised at the fear of the spa...the massage oil and the tranquil music. I don�t understand where all the fear comes from. I really think it�s positive,� he said. �But the community doesn�t believe in it, so I have to vote no on this.�
Commissioner David Hunter agreed. �This is a very close call. Frankly if I were you guys I would have worked to resolve this,� he told the audience, adding he was not at all satisfied that this project would have more of an affect on the environment than the potential homes that could be built there in the future. �The neighborhood gets my vote, but I�m not entirely cheerful about it.�
Although the planning commission turned down the plan, county council can pass it.