Public can comment on UGA cuts Sept. 17

Published on Wed, Sep 9, 2009 by Tara Nelson

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Those wishing to comment on Whatcom County’s proposal to eliminate large swaths of land from the Blaine and Birch Bay urban growth areas (UGA) will want to attend a joint hearing of the Whatcom County planning commission and county council next week.

The meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, September 17, will discuss Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen’s proposed cuts to Blaine and Birch Bay’s UGAs as well alternative proposals introduced by the city of Blaine and the Whatcom County planning and development department.

Kremen’s proposal would eliminate 1,199 acres from the current 5,290 acres in the Birch Bay UGA and 2,549 acres from the 3,725 acres currently in the Blaine UGA. Whatcom County officials say Blaine’s UGA is the “most significantly oversized” UGA in the county.

Some opponents of the cuts such as Birch Bay resident and chamber of commerce president Lisa Guthrie say the proposed amendments would give short shrift to the Birch Bay Community Plan that was created by a group of citizens in 2004.

Guthrie, who is also the director of development for Homestead NW, a Lynden-based company that redeveloped the Birch Bay Waterslides, CJ’s Beach House and built the Grand Bay Resort, said the downzones included in Kremen’s proposal would have an unfair impact on developers that have invested in property in Birch Bay.

An example, Guthrie said, is an area owned by Homestead behind Sealinks Golf Course that currently allows for 229 units under the existing six units per acre zoning. Under Kremen’s proposal, the zoning would be reduced to one unit per 10 acres, allowing only three units on the property.

“At $7,000 per door, that’s an estimated $1.5 million value lost in land,” Guthrie said.

Meanwhile, Birch Bay resident Doralee Booth, who helped develop the Birch Bay Community Plan, said her concern was whether Kremen’s proposal would allow Birch Bay to develop in accordance with the way the community had envisioned.

One issue, she said, was the planned commercial development as proposed by Kremen’s plan would be limited to the corner of Blaine and Birch Bay-Lynden roads whereas the Birch Bay Community Plan would allow for commercial nodes, or small areas of commercial development, along Birch Bay Drive, and general commercial services would be focused along Alderson and Blaine roads to keep residential traffic off Birch Bay Drive.

“(The Birch Bay Community Plan) recognizes the uniqueness of the Birch Bay situation and was very consciously and deliberately devised over time with a great deal of public input,” she wrote in a letter to Kremen. Guthrie added that she thought the areas designated as wetlands were underestimated. Guthrie said Kremen’s proposal estimated that 20 to 30 percent of Birch Bay’s UGA is undevelopable because of wetlands or other critical areas, but thought 40 to 75 percent was a more accurate assessment. After working with Whatcom County parks to redevelop the Bay Horizon park, county officials’ estimated that wetlands comprised 65 percent of the park.

“When you add buffers to that area, that could be another huge percentage loss of useable acreage on the site,” she said. “The county’s argument is you can transfer that density somewhere else but my question is where? You start to run out of places.”

Blaine UGA

A second proposal put forth by Blaine community development director Terry Galvin, however, would have left most of the west UGA intact.

Galvin’s plan, if approved by Whatcom County, would remove the southern portion and reduce the east and west portions of the city’s UGA but preserve much of the areas that already have an urban level of density, such as west Blaine’s Normar Place neighborhood.

Although the Whatcom County Council could feasibly eliminate Blaine’s UGA altogether, Galvin said he recommended they allow Blaine to keep at least 400 acres in  east Blaine to allow adequate space for industrial and commercial development, and 600 acres in west Blaine because of the “considerable” real estate investment that has already been made there.

What’s next?

After the September 17 work session, the proposals will go back to the Whatcom County planning commission. Whatcom County Council will make a final decision December 1.