Birch Bay berm project may be facing roadblocks

By Oliver Lazenby

Whatcom County Council approved an amendment to its contract with the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility Project contractor at the May 3 council meeting. The amendment authorizes an additional $48,660 for unforeseen costs for the project, commonly called the Birch Bay berm.

That’s minor compared to the roughly $11.5 million total cost for the project, which involves building a protective sand-and-gravel berm between Birch Bay Drive and the shoreline. The berm will be a more natural and effective substitute for the current system of seawalls, riprap, bulkheads and concrete groins. But the need for more money reveals factors that could stall construction, which is scheduled to start after Labor Day.

The county needs the funds to pay its contractor, Environmental Science Associates, for work related to archaeology and cultural resources sampling, additional negotiating to obtain permanent and temporary easements from property owners, and management costs brought about by property ownership changes.

During initial cultural resources investigation, which the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation required for the project, a layer of cobblestone was discovered a few feet underground along 1,400 feet of Birch Bay Drive, said county project engineer Kevin Thompson.

As a result, the department of historical preservation requested that additional test pits be dug in the area, which is outside the scope of the original contract. That work is expected to cost a little more than $18,000, Thompson said. Another factor that’s proving more costly than anticipated is negotiating and securing easements from property owners along Birch Bay Drive. The county has been working on the project with the community since 1990 and – since it benefits property owners, county special programs manager Roland Middleton said at a February 2016 open house – expected negotiations to be straightforward.

A county document describing the scope of extra work, however, said the easement negotiations received a “higher rate of negative responses from property owners than was understood from open house feedback…”

Middleton said in a phone interview that the negative responses are not negative toward the project as a whole. Rather, property owners are negotiating about park benches, access ramps and stairs, and other details.

“For the most part, the community is still very excited about moving forward,” Middleton said.

Several property owners requested modifications, such as signs on the shoreline side of the berm that indicate land west of the berm is private property, Thompson said. Nearly all properties east of Birch Bay Drive also own the tidelands west of the road.

Though the property negotiations could stall the whole project, Thompson said the county is hopeful that all property owners will grant easements for the project to avoid delay. The county’s construction timeline requires these negotiations be complete by July.

“We are actively moving forward to complete ROW [right of way] negotiations by July 2016 or before,” Thompson said in an email. “If all easements are obtained from property owners and all permits are approved by state and federal agencies soon, we will begin work after Labor Day 2016.”

Most of the additional funds are covered by a federal Surface Transportation Program grant, with 13.5 percent ($6,570) of the money coming from county local road funds.

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