County clips Birch Bay UGA to protect environment
“I met with and talked to people on both sides of the question,” said Whatcom County Council member and Birch Bay resident Sharon Roy. “I kept asking for facts, and at the end of the day I had to vote for what was best for the area, for the future. I’m very comfortable with what I did.”
Roy voted with the council majority twice last July 27 to modify the Birch Bay Urban Growth Area (UGA) by removing two parcels of land totaling nearly 800 acres.
The modification is extensive enough to warrant re-introducing the ordinance implementing the Birch Bay Community Plan which is based on and applies to the area outlined by the UGA. Since the plan must first be revised to reflect the council’s revision, it’s not expected to be presented to the council until September 14, and it would then undergo a public hearing in its new configuration two weeks later.
Council member Laurie Caskey-Schreiber, who voted to remove the parcels as a way of protecting them from development, said that she knew “the result disappointed a lot of people and pleased others, but this is the end result of all the wrestling people were doing with how this community is going to grow while keeping viable the very thing people seem to love out here, the environment and integrity of Birch Bay itself. This plan allows for growth while protecting natural resources, and I and the others in the majority feel that they hit a good balance.”
Roy and council member Barbara Brenner were the two swing votes on the council in what has become a lengthy debate over whether or not to include the two sensitive acreages within the UGA. Two votes were taken at the July 27 council meeting. One, which passed 5-2, with Sam Crawford and Ward Nelson voting no, removed 85 acres of undeveloped land south of Grandview Road on Point Whitehorn. The other, passing 4-3 with Barbara Brenner joining Crawford and Nelson in voting no, removed 660 acres west of Birch Bay village.
Hal Hart, director of Whatcom County Planning and Development Services, said “This is most likely a permanent step, and I don’t see the council re-opening the specific issue of including or excluding these areas.”
As late as the day before the council met, Roy had indicated that she had not yet made up her mind. “I met with Trillium and their geologist,” Roy said after the votes were taken, “with the [state] department of ecology, with the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, the Bay Keepers, and I kept asking the same questions about why the restrictions already in the plan weren’t good enough. Especially after talking with ecology, I became convinced that we couldn’t intervene strongly enough to keep stormwater from doing damage to the bluffs and in Birch Bay. It was a stormwater issue and a water quality issue, and the most persuasive arguments were from the state department of ecology.”
Roy added that it was “really hard to keep personal feelings out of it. I have close friends on each side, but I feel that this is the right way to protect the area.”
The council also added a one hundred acre parcel on the east side of the UGA near the center of a planned general commercial area near Blaine and Arnie roads.
Roy ultimately agreed with Caskey-Schreiber and others that excluding the acreage from the Birch Bay UGA garners the strongest protection available for bluff lots along Birch Point that have been subject to cliffside erosion, something that some landowners attribute to logging the Trillium Corporation has done immediately to the east of Birch Point. At Point Whitehorn, removal will help preserve a natural area that overlooks a shoreline with sensitive eel grass beds required for the area’s declining but important population of herring, a primary source of food for salmon.
“We’re disappointed with the way it turned out,” said Wayne Schwandt, a Trillium vice-president who spoke for the corporation, the major land owner in the area. “We think that the policies that have been in place for the last 20 years here were good planning,” Schwandt said, adding that Trillium has no immediate plans to appeal the council’s decision, “We’re going to take a look at the options we have before us in the longer run and focus on those areas that are within the UGA. But we’re not going to pursue this any farther in this round,” Schwandt said.
The council’s action reduced the boundaries of an area with which the Birch Bay Steering Committee has been working for a number of years as it has developed its community plan. Sylvia Goodwin of Whatcom County Planning and Development Services will go through the plan and change all the numbers and maps affected by the decision.
“It will take some time to do all that,” Goodwin said, “because a number of the land use formulas now have to be re-computed, but I expect that we’ll be able to present it by the September 14 county council meeting.”
Hal Hart, director of Whatcom County Planning and Development Services, said that the next question is how Birch Bay expects to pay for amenities and infrastructure that the plan mandates. As an example, he cited a new $160,000 study being undertaken by the county’s Parks Department and Public Works Department to find out what kinds of open spaces, recreational amenities and greenbelts people want to save, a process of up-dating a plan dating from 1990 that will set priorities all over the county.
“How do we provide for open spaces and recreational land, everything from birding areas to soccer fields, and how do we pay for it? That’s the question,” Hart said, “because this area could very easily become a bedroom community like Arlington’s becoming to the south, and lose a lot of land for public use in the process. Twenty to 30 years from now will we have protected spaces around Dakota Creek, for example, or will we have enough space for the normal kinds of amenities for Birch Bay? Will there still be a green belt between Blaine and Birch Bay?”
Hart said that another similar project is the up-coming Birch Bay Berm, a project that includes boardwalks and significant shoreline protection along Birch Bay Drive. “It involves the handling of storm water and keeping to low impact development, working with landowners on critical area protection and things like that as this plan moves through the various phases in its implementation,” Hart said.
Caskey-Schreiber said that she felt one positive thing about the plan as it now sits is that it’s geared to help Birch Bay become an organized community, that is, incorporate, an issue that has been faced before in the 1990s and was rejected then by Birch Bay voters. “This lays out a plan that leads to incorporation which will give them more control over how their tax dollars are spent. It’s really important to have a commercial center so they can have a tax base over the years to come, and this plan identifies that and will help make it happen rather than letting it continue to sprawl.”