Restared development could affect heron rookery

Published on Wed, Aug 22, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Construction activities in a recently purchased development in Birch Bay could affect a nearby heron rookery, even if the developer follows the conditions set by the county.

The rules for building homes in the newly christened Heronswood housing development just south of Drayton Harbor differ from those that were originally recommended, although no one seems to know why.

Whatcom County critical areas ordinances state that construction taking place in close proximity to priority species, such as great blue herons, are to be based upon Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) rules. This means developers essentially rely upon WDFW biologists for direction on building restrictions, such as when construction should not occur in order to avoid disturbing priority species.

The development, originally known as Shintaffer Farms, was required to provide a habitat management plan due to its location near a heron rookery. The 13-lot development, now called Heronswood by new owner Brady Mayson, sits within roughly 1,000 feet of an active colony of great blue herons, which the WDFW has identified as a priority species. Work on the original development stopped in 2009 after the original owners were forced to hand the property over to The Bank of the Pacific.

Jennifer Bohannon was the main WDFW staff biologist responsible for the Shintaffer Farms habitat management plan. According to the plan, home construction within a 984-foot radius of the edges of the heron colony, referred to as the Drayton Harbor colony, should cease between February 15 and July 31, which is when herons mate, nest and start raising their young. This radius was referred to as the seasonal noise disturbance buffer.

However, documents on file with Whatcom County set the construction limitation timeframe for the development from February 15 to June 30, a month shorter than the WDFW management recommendation. When asked about the discrepancy in a phone interview with The Northern Light, Bohannon said the February 15 to July 31 range should have been recorded in the development’s official documents, called the plat.

“I’m not sure where that’s coming from,” Bohannon said, referencing the February 15 to June 30 timeframe.

The original owners had requested that the period be shortened by a month, but Bohannon said she stuck with her original recommendation. She had recommended that Whatcom County approve the habitat management plan with the stipulation that the seasonal noise buffer remain the original length.

As of August 20, Mayson had submitted one building permit to the county for a 2,196 square foot home on lot three in the development. Lot three is in the southwest portion of the property and is bisected by the 984-foot seasonal noise buffer. Mayson said the lots have attracted strong interest, though no sales have been closed.

In an interview with The Northern Light in July, Mayson said he was fully intent on following the seasonal noise buffer restrictions, as defined on the plat, and said he wanted to make his development as low-impact to the environment as possible. Mayson cited the voluntary stream restoration work he did when building the Hawthorne Meadows housing development west of the Grandview Golf Course as evidence of his care for critical areas.

“My concerns for the environment are top notch,” Mayson said.

Nine of the 13 lots in the Heronswood development are within or intersected by the 984-foot season noise buffer. The largest lots, on the eastern side of the property, are within the 328-foot season no-disturbance buffer, in which the management plan forbids all human activity during the mating season.

Bohannon estimated the heron colony comprises at least 30 nesting pairs living in the stand of trees east of the development. It is believed the colony began in 2009 after having splintered off a larger colony that once existed near the BP Cherry Point Refinery.

The last month or so of the heron nesting season sees young herons developing flight feathers and exercising their wing muscles for flight, Bohannon said. Young herons will often walk or hop from branch to branch during this stage, but are still dependent on their parents and return to their nests to rest.

Noise associated with home construction could disturb the young herons, causing them to lose their footing and fall from their perches, Bohannon explained. Noise disturbances could also frighten adults away from their nests, making it easier for eagles and other raptors to prey upon the young herons.

Despite the approval of the original development, Bohannon and Ann Eissinger, a private wildlife biologist and heron specialist who helped observe the colony, share concerns over the development’s mere existence. WDFW’s general guidelines for development near active heron colonies recommend against construction at any time of the year within 984 feet of a colony due to herons’ sensitivity to even low-impact human activity.

Eissinger, who has been observing herons in Whatcom County since 1988, took a harder line, saying the development should not be allowed to move forward at all based on its proximity to the colony. She said near-shore, mature forest is rare enough, let alone having an active heron colony in it. Heronswood sits smack in the middle of this habitat.

“[That habitat] is kind of the hallmark of the northwest’s natural history,” Eissinger said. “There’s no sacred ground here, that’s sort of the long and short of it. This is an unfortunate situation, let’s just say that.”