Plans for Birch Bay church hit snag

Published on Thu, Jan 15, 2009 by Jack Kintner

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Plans for Birch Bay church hit snag

By Jack Kintner

The Birch Bay Bible Community Church’s plans to build a new $6 million facility at Bay and Blaine roads east of Birch Bay hit a snag recently when county planners required substantial revisions with regards to wetland mitigations.

Feeling that the restrictions would make it needlessly difficult for the church to conduct its ministry as planned both by staff and their architect, Philip Frisk of Seattle, the congregation responded by spending $50,000 to gain access to a neighbor’s existing higher quality category three (on a scale of four) wetland, intending to restore it as a way of mitigating their filling of the lower quality wetland on their building site.

Such off-site mitigation is allowed by county regulations under certain conditions, and in this case would not only let the church go ahead with their facility as planned on land they bought nearly four years ago but is actually preferable in terms of wetland preservation, according to comments from the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE).

“New wetlands that are constructed to mitigate a lost wetland fail half the time,” said the DOE’s Susan Meyer, “but restored wetlands work pretty well. In this case, the one they want to restore will be a better, higher-functioning wetland that will also expand an adjacent peat soils wetland complex. From an ecological standpoint that’s a better approach, [an example of] when it makes more sense to move the wetland to where it will do more good. It’s a net gain.”

But county planners so far haven’t budged, saying the applicable ordinances won’t allow them to make such an exception in this case because there are other alternatives. According to senior planner Lyn Morgan-Hill of the Whatcom County Planning and Development Services, there’s not much room to maneuver within the confines of the county ordinances governing construction that affects wetlands, found in the Whatcom County Code (WCC) chapter 16.16, Critical areas, a part of the county’s comprehensive plan mandated by the state’s Growth Management Act.

The church, along with Bay Community Baptist on Harborview Road one of only two in Birch Bay, wants to build a 588-seat sanctuary that at 43,100 square feet is bigger than the Blaine Cost Cutter grocery. They also plan a 244-stall parking lot and a soccer field that would also serve as the top surface of their drain field.

The county wants them to reduce the building’s footprint by adding a second story and reduce the size of the parking lot by half. They’ve also told them to eliminate the soccer field, which alone would substantially reduce the project’s impact, said the planning department’s staff report that Morgan-Hill prepared.

“It has not been clearly demonstrated why the requirement for a soccer field is intrinsic and/or interdependent with the church or is somehow required for the church to perform its intended purpose,” her report states.

Senior Pastor Rick Eshbaugh disagrees, although he was eager to point out that all parties are well-intentioned, and that this should not be seen as an attack on his church.

“We’re not being discriminated against,” he said, “because the [planning department staff] are hardworking guys trying to do this right. They’re required to follow the code. It’s just that our resources have told us that, using the best available science, restoring the neighboring wetland is the best way to go. We’re very much in favor of saving wetlands, which is how we came up with this plan.”

He said that right now his Sunday attendance is 160, about as much as their current building can hold. It’s also already been sold to the BP Cherry Point refinery, and to make way for them they’ve been asked to move their Sunday worship to the gymnasium by next summer.
“For a congregation to be viable these days we feel that you really need about 250 or more attending,” Eshbaugh said. A smaller parking lot or one too far from the sanctuary would quickly become a limiting factor as well, he said, “For example, when they suggested we park people at the water slides and bus them over. That won’t work.”

County regulations allow a builder to compensate for adverse wetlands impact “ replacing, enhancing, or providing similar substitute resources or environments...” under the so-called reasonable use section, WCC 16.16.270.

It provides an approval process for the kind of mitigation the church is proposing, but several criteria must be met, among them that, “There is no feasible alternative to the proposed activities that will provide reasonable economic use with less adverse impact on critical areas and/or buffers.”

Such alternatives include relocating the activity, a change in use, reduction in size of a structure, change in timing of activity, and/or revision of project design. It’s this section that seems to tie the hands of county planners.

The two-year-old application ended up in front of Whatcom County hearing examiner Michael Bobbink on January 7 in a three-hour hearing at which no opposition to the church’s plan was expressed.
Meanwhile, Bobbink emphasized that the specific uses to which the property would be put don’t matter if there are reasonable alternatives of any kind, church-related or not.

Bobbink could decide to deny the appeal, requiring the church to adopt the county’s changes to their plan, or allow them to mitigate their wetland as they have proposed. His decision will be released later in the month. If the church is denied their request, the next avenue of appeal is to the Whatcom County Council.