Whopays for roads as Birch Bay grows?

Published on Thu, Sep 1, 2005
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Who pays for roads as Birch Bay grows?

by Tara Nelson

The many development proposals for Blaine and Birch Bay are creating concerns about increases in traffic on poorly maintained roads for some residents. Of those concerns, the main question is who will pay for transportation infrastructure improvements the state’s growth management act requires to keep up with development.

One of those individuals is Lincoln Rutter, a member of the citizen group Futurewise, formerly known as 1,000 Friends of Washington, an advocacy group for growth management issues. Rutter said he worries about the external costs of development and if Birch Bay residents will have to pick up those costs in the long run.

Mike Kent a real estate agent who is running for Whatcom County Council said at a Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce meeting last week that approximately 4,000 new addresses, or plats, are planned for construction in Blaine and Birch Bay in the next 24 months.

The 2005 Whatcom county comprehensive plan requires that road improvements are made in concurrence with land-use developments and warns that congestion and inadequate road conditions can have hidden costs to taxpayers both in the form of increased traffic accidents and subsequent emergency services as well as potential lawsuits to the county. This could be a particular problem for the Birch Bay area because it is an unincorporated community and therefore has no method of ensuring developers pay for the percentage of impact they create.

“The whole point of the growth management act is to make sure that the cost of the projects are paid for by the underlying transactions that create the growth rather than passing the cost on to citizens,” Rutter said. “Right now, there is no mechanism to do that.”

Whatcom county council member Sharon Roy, agreed.

Roy, a resident of Birch Bay, said she thinks the lack of a fixed traffic impact fee is one of the biggest issues facing the community. She said this is a particularly big problem given the capacity and design of the existing roadways.

Currently, Whatcom County has the authority to impose fees on developers through the state environmental protection act (SEPA) but it has done so sparingly, partly because of administrative costs and partly because of the difficulty assessing impact on a case-by-case basis.

“Fees have to be based on fact,” said Whatcom County council member Barbara Brenner. “We can’t just make up charges, they have to come from somewhere.”

Brenner said the council approved a resolution several months ago that would require developers to pay traffic impact fees. The council requested the public works department develop a proposal, but they have not heard back from public works, she said.

“We requested this quite a while ago, if not years, than many months,” Brenner said.

Mike Donahue, a traffic engineer with Whatcom County engineering who helped to develop the traffic impact fee proposal, said the Whatcom Council of Governments has constructed a traffic model based on the number of projected trips on a peak day but that model has not been released yet, although rumors speculate it could be released in 2006.

“We have been working on it for some time,” he said. “But there’s no timeline on it.”

Hal Hart, director of Whatcom county planning and development services said county officials are looking at a variety of issues before they develop the final proposal.

“There’s a lot of equity issues we are struggling with,” he said. “How much of the burden do you put on the new people versus the people who already live there?”

Roy said, however, in the meantime, the pressure is building. Last week, for example, Roy said she counted more than 30 cars backed up at the Blaine and Birch Bay-Lynden Road intersection. That problem is expected to worsen as a result of community growth projections, which include more than 1,600 new residential units with an average of two people per unit within the next three years and no new funds to pay for road improvements or maintenance of existing roads.

“We’re already getting close to a crisis,” she said. “Right now people can get where they need to go, but you add another 2,000 or 3,000 people in this area and we’re heading for a real crisis. The way we’re currently set up, property taxes do not pay for new infrastructure and the more we build, the more we’re getting in the hole with some of these new developments,” she said.

She said other options for paying for road improvements include raising taxes, limiting building permits based on projected growth, collecting a voluntary collection impact fee under SEPA, or requesting more state funding, the availability of which could hinge on the success of the state gas tax repeal initiative.

Another option is if the county can prove that the development would impede the level transportation service, it could deny the permit or offer the developer a chance to voluntarily improve transportation infrastructure. Either way, the developer could lobby the county council to reprioritize plans for improvement at taxpayer expense.
For these reasons, Roy said she prefers the impact fees.

“It doesn’t seem fair to me that we raise everybody’s taxes which is the other choice we have,” she said. “And we just don’t have the budget capacity to be building new roads all over the county and rebuilding the ones we have. We’re pretty much in a ‘maintain the roads we already have’ (mode), financially speaking.”

Opponents of the impact fee argue it could increase home prices, but Roy said every solution has a caveat.

“The other option is to tax everybody and that has its own built-in unfairness, too,” she said.