Birch Bay shoreline project funds dependent on DOE

Published on Wed, May 2, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Whatcom County officials are seeking funding from a number of sources for major Birch Bay shoreline enhancements, but money from the most promising source will be dependent upon a decision from the state Department of Ecology (DOE).

Whatcom County Council members have given county public works staff an informal nod to seek a $7 million loan from the state’s public works trust fund, which issues low-interest construction loans to counties and cities across the state. However, Whatcom County is currently ineligible for public works trust fund dollars because the county is in violation of state growth management regulations.

To get around this, county public works staff are seeking a letter from DOE in support of the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility, formally known as the berm project. The project will add a pedestrian and bike path on the west side of Birch Bay Drive, in addition to strengthening the shoreline with an elevated berm and adding stormwater treatment structures. County public works staff hope these additions, and the environmental improvements they’re expected to bring, will convince the DOE the project is worth doing.

“[DOE has] a lot of issues to consider,” county public works director Frank Abart said. “We will not apply [this year] if we do not have a letter from DOE.”

The project must address a number of specific criteria to get a letter of approval from ecology officials, DOE spokesperson Larry Altose said. These criteria include improvements to water quality, fish passage and other environmental enhancements. Ultimately, DOE officials would have to determine a “substantial environmental degradation” would occur were the project not completed.

DOE officials are in the process of collecting information on the project from public works staff. Public works staff must get a letter of approval from DOE before the trust fund loan application deadline on May 11, Abart said.

“Certainly DOE has questions,” Abart said. “This is not something they take lightly.”

But DOE’s support of the project is just the first step in an loan application review process that could take as long as six months.

“[DOE approval] is just the hurdle to get to the point where we can apply,” Abart said.

Public works trust fund staff must review the county’s application and present it to the trust fund board by this August. By then, the county’s application will be one of multiple applications being reviewed. If the application meets board approval, it will be forwarded to the state legislature for a vote in the 2012/2013 legislative session, Abart explained.

“There’s a massive amount of requirements for this stuff,” he said.

If the state legislature eventually approves the 10-year, $7 million loan, the county would repay approximately $719,000 per year from the county’s road fund, Abart explained. The loan would be repaid at an interest rate of one-half of 1 percent, which amounts to just less than $194,000 over 10 years.

“One half of one percent is pretty good investment,” Abart said.

Abart said the county will also seek about $1 million in county real estate excise tax funds and an additional $1.5 million in county economic development funds for project, estimated to cost a total of $10 million. Smaller funding sources include pedestrian-project specific grants and possible help from the Birch Bay Watershed and Aquatic Resource Management District.

Whatcom County government has submitted three applications for public works trust fund money since 2005, according to the public works trust fund website. The projects included approximately $9.5 million for ferry vessel and dock improvements and, in 2009, $3.4 million for improvements for jail electronic controls. None of the requests were funded.

If DOE does not issue an approval, Abart said county public works staff will continue to search for sources of funding for the shoreline enhancements. A loan application denial this year will not prevent public works staff from applying again in subsequent years, he explained.

“That will not be the end of the project,” Abart said. “We have time to make this work.”