County committee struggles over incorporation issue
The three-member planning and development committee of the Whatcom County Council continued their deliberations over the Birch Bay community plan earlier this week, a process they plan to finish on June 15. This will allow them to submit the plan to the entire county council for a hearing and a vote on June 29.
Though other topics were briefly addressed, planning division manager Sylvia Goodwin of the county Planning and Development Services office identified the two key issues that remained to be discussed as those of governance and of ways of paying for needed capital facilities. Most of the committee’s time was taken up with governance, and the discussion about methods of paying for capital facilities was left for the next meeting on June 15.
The Birch Bay Steering Committee (BBSC) included three options in writing the community plan regarding governance: to incorporate, to incorporate by merging with Blaine or do nothing. The committee members suggested removing the third option since they do not want to be left in the position of providing urban services to the area simply because it’s unwilling to incorporate and tax itself to provide those services.
At its last meeting the BBSC responded, according to Goodwin, reiterating its position by saying that while it recognizes that Birch Bay will continue to grow and that incorporation is likely in the future, they want to keep all three options alive. “They do not want the community to become polarized over the issue of incorporation or to make that the key issue in the plan,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin’s suggestion for a council response was to propose two governing options with interim strategies to provide for delivery of services until incorporation happens one way or the other.
In her wording she quoted from the state’s Growth Management Act, saying “it is appropriate that urban government services be provided by cities, and urban government services should not be provided in rural areas.”
Council member Laurie Caskey-Schrieber spoke of providing incentives for Birch Bay to work toward incorporation, saying that the only way she could vote for the plan at all is “if I see some really clear language concerning the transfer of government services.”
Council member Barbara Brenner disagreed, saying “I think we’ve gone about as far as we want to in promoting incorporation. We can’t force the issue. We’ve let them know the way we want to go. We want to make sure that there’s not a lot of dissension about the plan.”
Council member Sharon Roy, while not a member of the committee itself, added that perhaps there are ways to give Birch Bay people some support in the incorporation process. “There’s an economic analysis required. We need to know if 6,000 people would generate enough tax revenue to make incorporation feasible.”
Roy and other council members expressed concern over the lack of businesses or industrial facilities that would help broaden and deepen the tax base, although the BBSC’s own community plan suggests that the tax base is already big enough for incorporation.
Goodwin said in answer to a question that in the ’90s the county had opposed Birch Bay annexation because the new city sought to include the Cherry Point area and the Beacon Studios for a bigger tax base. “The county opposed that but not the idea of annexation in general,” Goodwin said, “and now they’re generally supportive of Birch Bay incorporating. It’s not a reversal of their position so much as it’s just different circumstances,” she said.
The discussion continues on June 15 in council chambers.