County planning commission mulls Birch Bay wetland mitigation program

Published on Tue, Dec 13, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Landowners in Birch Bay could have more environmentally friendly options open to them when building on their land, but Whatcom County’s planning commissioners still think the proposed program needs tweaking.

The core of the voluntary program is a collection of incentives available to developers who utilize low-impact development practices, such as preserving trees and forestland and protecting wetlands and streams, senior county planner Peter Gill said. The incentives would include an accelerated permitting process and the option to pay a fee instead of improving wetlands on-site.

The program would also give landowners the option of paying into a fund set aside for use on wetlands improvement projects in the Birch Bay watershed. Developers could pay into this habitat mitigation fund in lieu of mitigating environmental impacts on their own property.

“We’d like to see more of the mitigation dollars put into the ground,” Gill said.

However, county planning commissioners, speaking at their December 8 meeting, had concerns about the program and voted against recommending it to the Whatcom County Council. Commission chair Michelle Luke said the written public comment period on the program will be open until January 12, and the earliest it could appear before the commission again is January 26.

“I want to put that additional work into it so it will benefit the Birch Bay community,” Luke said.

Commissioners heard at least one hour of public testimony on the program at their meeting before deciding to consider the program at a later date. Several local community members spoke in favor of the program, including Birch Bay Steering Committee co-chair Kathy Berg.

“This effort is the culmination of 12 years of work,” Berg said.

The low-impact development program also garnered support from Whatcom Conservation District executive director George Boggs and a local biologist who has experience working with landowners in Birch Bay. Boggs said he thinks the proposed mitigation fund will provide for faster reforestation and eventually lead to cheaper mitigation.

Wendy Harris, a member of the community group Futurewise Whatcom, said a portion of the program allowing an undefined “technical director” to waive low-impact developments requirements is worrisome and should be removed. Harris said this provision would allow a single position to authorize a specific project’s use of the mitigation fund without using low-impact development practices.

In addition to comments specific to the merits of the program, meeting attendees aired their concerns about how the program might potentially interact with the $600 million Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed for the Cherry Point area south of Birch Bay. Most people attending the meeting supported the program on the condition that certain changes Gill proposed to address the terminal issue were included.

Many meeting attendees were under the impression SSA Marine, the terminal’s proponents, would be able to use the habitat mitigation fund to pay their way out of mitigating the wetlands impact the terminal will have. Two terminal opponent groups in particular, Salish Land Policy Solutions and Communitywise Bellingham, claimed SSA Marine had had a hand in developing the mitigation fund language, which county officials and SSA Marine representatives have denied.  It has been made clear to The Northern Light that these statements about Salish Land Policy Solutions and Communitywise Bellingham were incorrect. The Northern Light reporter Jeremy Schwartz apologizes for the error.

For SSA Marine to be able to take advantage of the mitigation fund, the terminal project would have to be considered “low-impact development,” Gill explained. Since the terminal’s construction will destroy about 140 acres of wetlands in the Cherry Point area, the “low-impact’ moniker does not apply.

Despite SSA Marine’s inability to use the fund, Gill proposed changes to the low-impact development program before the meeting took place that would disallow landowners in the Cherry Point area and industrial developers from using the fund. Gill said he was especially disappointed the planning commission did not at least vote to recommend these changes, thereby possibly removing the specter of the Gateway Pacific Terminal from the low-impact development discussion.

“It distracts from the quality of this discussion,” Gill said, referring to the terminal issue. “[The commissioners] should be talking about what’s good for Birch Bay.”

While offering general support to the amendments dealing with the terminal, commissioner Gary Honcoop said industrial areas should not be barred from using the habitat mitigation fund because large industrial projects could be some of the fund’s largest contributors. The fund has to be flexible enough so people want to use it, he added.

Commissioner Ken Bell said he thought the habitat mitigation fund had not been well designed. He said the fund should be used to correct wetlands problems already present in Birch Bay.

“Right now, the fund is pretty nebulous and ambiguous,” Bell said.

How exactly the planning commissioners want to move forward with the program is unclear, Gill said. He suggested conducting a line-by-line review of the program with commissioners to help them understand it, but did not get a clear answer on whether or not commissioners wanted to go this route.

“If [the commissioners] are not planning on supporting it, then were not going to spend another two hours at a work session,” Gill said. “It’s hard to guess what’s going to happen.”