Whatcom County Council members were surprised to hear an outpouring of opposition to the Birch Bay shoreline enhancement project at a presentation on right of way issues along Birch Bay Drive.
In a presentation in council chambers March 26, county engineer Joseph Rutan said the 60-foot right of way is based on the establishment of County Road No. 46 in 1884, a mapping of the drive in 1916 by a county engineer, a reconstructing and monumenting in 1930 and reestablishment of the centerline monuments in 1974 and 2012.
“As far as we know, nowhere in the public record after 1877 does it mention anything but a 60-foot right of way,” Rutan said. “If anyone else has anything that says otherwise, make us aware of it and we’ll investigate it and resolve those issues as they come up.”
Rutan made a point of stating that the 60-foot right of way does not mean anyone’s private property will be acquisitioned in support of the project.
He added that the law requires just compensation for any land acquisition in a right of way, but council members said they wouldn’t approve acquisition of land from unwilling landowners anyway.
Engineers and surveyors have been staking out the 60-foot corridor for the past week. The stakes extend 30 feet on each side of the centerline.
Council members queried Rutan about the project’s design details. Preliminary designs show the berm along the beachfront rising to knee height.
“That’s lower than the Jersey barriers that are out there now,” Rutan said. He added that the conversion to underground utilities would further enhance views for property owners along Birch Bay.
A complex drainage system would enhance storm-water management along the project corridor, preventing flooding to abutting properties. The berm itself should prevent storm surges like the one that damaged the Via Birch Bay Café and Bistro in December 2012. Rutan added that a bike path on either side of the road and a walking path on top of the berm would reduce car traffic.
The pavement would be 35 to 40 feet wide, which is 5 to 10 feet wider than the current paved surface.
Many Birch Bay residents in attendance expressed their disapproval of the shoreline enhancement project. Some were concerned that the project would encroach upon their property. Rutan and council members stressed that they would not take any land for the purposes of the project from unwilling landowners.
Other Birch Bay residents said they were concerned that altering the shoreline would unintentionally damage the beach.
“We don’t want to lose our beach,” one Birch Bay resident said, and some in attendance clapped in support of his statement. Rutan assured those in attendance that the project would aim to preserve the character of the beach and the bay.
Residents also expressed concerns that the berm would prevent storm water from draining back into the bay. One property owner said, “Floods routinely reach the first floor joists, which we can deal with, but if they get higher than that there will be problems.”
Rutan said designs were in the works for a complex drainage system that prevents tidewater from entering the land side of the berm, but allows storm water to drain to the bay.
“This project is being done partially as a flood mitigation measure, so storm water management is one of our biggest concerns,” Rutan said. “When we design roads, we think about three things: drainage, drainage and when we’re done thinking about that, we think about drainage.”
After fielding objections to the project, Rutan emphasized that the project’s sole purpose is to improve Birch Bay Drive in the residents’ benefit.
“If it doesn’t work for you, then we don’t want to do it,” Rutan said. “It’s very much a project for the community of Birch Bay.”
Council members and county executive Jack Louws said they were surprised to hear ardent opposition to the project, and urged residents who opposed the project to write letters or emails to the council and public works departments outlining and explaining their concerns.
“I’m asking people to e-mail their concerns in this early stage of the project so we can work through them on an individual basis,” Louws said.