Plans almost complete for Birch Bay berm project

P1460220By Oliver Lazenby

Project managers are finishing the design for the long-awaited Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility project, commonly called the Birch Bay berm. The county’s next step is securing easements so that construction can begin in September 2016.

The project’s design is currently 90 percent complete.

At an open house on Saturday, February 6 at the Birch Bay Bible Community Church, the Whatcom County Public Works Department and consultants on the project presented a construction schedule and discussed right of way negotiations, walking paths, utilities and other public concerns.

The $11.5 million project’s main feature is a sand and gravel berm between Birch Bay Drive and the shoreline that would be a more natural and effective substitution for the current system of seawalls, rip rap, bulkheads and concrete groynes.

The berm would run for 1.6 miles between Lora Lane in the south to Cedar Avenue in the north. Current plans call for the berm to be 2.25 feet higher than Birch Bay Drive. That’s high enough to protect the road and adjacent properties from 50-year floods but not tall enough to significantly block views, said Paul Agrimis, project manager for Environmental Science Associates, the project’s main consultant.

“If stopping floods was the only goal the berm would be higher,” Agrimis said at the meeting. “Because other concerns are balanced in the plan – the view, for example – the berm is lower.”

The project’s many goals include reducing erosion and storm damage, returning the beach to a more natural state by removing seawalls, improving pedestrian access and bicycle safety and improving storm drainage.

Construction schedule

To minimize impacts to Birch Bay during the summer tourist season, all work on the berm is scheduled to happen between Labor Day and Memorial Day over the next two years.

That doesn’t mean residents won’t be affected. During construction, four to 10 trucks an hour will dump a total of 6,800 truckloads of sand and gravel on the beach.

“Trucks would be coming day and night,” Agrimis said. “There would be lights, back-up horns, flaggers. There will be impacts and we want to make that clear.”

At least one lane of Birch Bay Drive will probably close during construction.

The county hopes to hire a contractor for the project by this August, according to the construction schedule presented at the open house.

Between September 2016 and May 2017 the contractor would:

Begin building the southern half of the berm.

Construct a pedestrian path along the southern portion of the project.

Construct a fish culvert on Golf Course Creek.

Construct stormwater utilities and swales alongside Birch Bay Drive.

Plant native grasses, rushes and sedges on the berm and in the swale between the road and the berm.

Construction plans for the following year are roughly the same, with the addition of installing furnishings and signs, and paving and striping parking areas.

Right of way offers

Before work can begin, Whatcom County has to secure easements from property owners along the berm. This week, the county mailed out offers to purchase those easements

It’s possible that the negotiation process could delay construction, said Steve Reinhart, project manager Universal Field Services, the company hired to manage the purchases.

“You can’t have a berm here with a bunch of blank spots,” he said. “One or two people could stall the whole process.”

The county plans to finish negotiations by July, according to the construction schedule. If that doesn’t happen, the project could be stalled for another year, Reinhart said.

Roland Middleton expects the negotiations to be straight forward, he said. Middleton is the county public works department’s special programs manager for the project, and he’s been working with the community on the berm since 1990.

“The project benefits property owners,” he said. “We’ve talked to all the property owners and we’ve been talking about it for years.”

Walking paths

Three types of walking paths will run the length of the

For most of the berm’s length, a path will run either on top of the berm or between the berm and roadside parking. In a 1,200-foot section on the north end of the bay, the path would go beside the road on a widened shoulder.

Plans call for the path to be ADA-accessible and have a surface made up of crushed, compacted limestone with a binding agent applied to make it suitable for wheels.

Underground utilities

At the last few open houses, residents and consultants have discussed using the project as an opportunity to bury electric, phone and other utility cables. Earlier plans included burying the lines, but were scrapped due to cost. A previous consultant estimated that it would cost $25 to $30 million to bury utilities.

Utility lines could be buried beneath the berm in the future, but it would likely be cheaper to do it during berm construction, Middleton said.

During a show of hands at the meeting, about 50 percent of attendees indicated that they would be willing to pay more taxes to bury utility lines.

Middleton recommended that residents form a Local Improvement District (LID), which would be able to levy funds for burying utilities.

Doralee Booth, a member of the Chamber Board of Directors said people interested in forming an LID should contact the Birch Bay Chamber, but she thinks it might be too late to raise enough money in time.

The project is a big deal for Birch Bay residents, but it’s also significant statewide for its scale.

“As far as I know, and I researched a couple hundred of these, this will be the largest beach nourishment project for habitat and recreation in the greater Puget Sound region,” said Jim Johannessen, president of Coastal Geologic Services, a project consultant.

A 2013 seawall removal and beach restoration project in Burien is one of the largest similar projects in the state, Johannessen said. That project restored a little less than a mile of shoreline.

Local hydrologist Wolf Bauer first proposed the Birch Bay berm in 1975. Bauer passed away on January 23, at 103 years old. The last time Middleton saw Bauer, he brought him a copy of the design.

Bauer thanked Middleton and asked him to officially apologize to the people of Birch Bay for taking 42 years to get the project done, Middleton said.

On February 9, Whatcom County Council introduced a motion to name the Terrell Creek delta after Bauer in recognition of his contributions. The landmass cannot be renamed until five years after Bauer’s death.

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