By Oliver Lazenby
The Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce’s library committee had its first meeting in February 2015, when a group of citizens gathered to discuss bringing a Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) branch to the growing town on the bay.
The committee installed a free library box last month outside the visitor information center, but soon they could be celebrating a much bigger milestone.
The WCLS board of trustees at its September meeting voted to study a possible new library location in Birch Bay – a brown Craftsman-style house owned by Gary and Cindy Lou Vogt, of the pioneering Vogt family. Gary Vogt would like to see the community benefit from the 0.86-acre property at 7968 Birch Bay Drive, so he has offered it to WCLS or a “Friends of the Library” organization for $750,000. The trustees have to decide if it could work as a library, but the offer he’s galvanized support for a Birch Bay library.
Vogt, 60, is the third generation of Vogts to own the 2,135-square-foot brown Craftsman house that’s just north of the future county park. It was built in 1913 and the property has 165 feet of beachfront. Vogt no longer wants to maintain the property, but he’d rather it didn’t get bulldozed for condos, as several developers have offered.
“They reached the decision that it’s OK to sell grandma and grandpa’s house, but they didn’t want it to just be anything,” said Pat Jerns, a Birch Bay real estate broker representing the Vogt family. “I think anyone knows that property knows it could be sold quickly for much more than $750,000.”
The property’s zoning would allow for approximately 18 condos. It’s not currently for sale, Jerns said, but offered exclusively as a library.
Jerns and the Vogts have discussed the property for years and when the idea struck to offer the building as a library, they “immediately fell in love with that concept,” Jerns said.
Appropriate as a library?
The big house on nearly an acre of beachfront may be a deal, but now WCLS has to figure out if it could be a library.
The two-story house has three upstairs bedrooms, one bathroom on each floor, and a 1,493-square-foot first floor with a large living room, dining room, kitchen and game room, Jerns said.
The space may be funkier than most Whatcom County libraries, but WCLS executive director Christine Perkins said that’s not necessarily a drawback. Lummi Island’s branch is also a remodeled house.
“For many years there was an oven right in the middle of the library,” she said. “It’s now a super comfortable modern library, so it can be done.”
The building’s main floor might be a little small for Birch Bay’s needs, Perkins said, but it could be expanded. The property also has two shop buildings that could possible be used or renovated.
“We are definitely intrigued by the possibility,” she said. “We are very grateful for the family for being open to the idea and really grateful we have the opportunity to thoroughly [consider] it.”
Before the trustees’ next meeting, on October 18, Perkins plans to start assessing the building, so she can present her initial findings at the meeting.
WCLS has a long list of things to determine before making a decision on whether it wants the building, including whether it can commit to staffing another library, how big a facility Birch Bay should have, whether the property could accommodate parking, what repairs the structure might need, who will purchase the property, and what other issues might affect the property.
At this point, neither the trustees nor Jerns know if the building could even hold dozens of shelves of books.
WCLS will need to work fast – the Vogts’ offer lasts until January 31, 2017, or “as soon thereafter as possible,” according to a document Jerns submitted to the trustees. The date is flexible, but the Vogt family wants to sell soon because “There are some timelines involved that would have some significant tax consequences,” Jerns said.
WCLS or a friends of the library organization would need to come up with a $150,000 down payment and close the deal by the end of January.
If WCLS determines the property could work as a library and that they can commit to staffing it, funding the purchase will be the biggest hurdle.
Libraries are funded in a variety of ways. Most of the properties where WCLS branches operate are owned by city governments. Lummi Island, Deming and North Fork, are owned by friends of the library groups. The Point Roberts Park & Recreation Department owns the Point Roberts Library building and the Sudden Valley Community Association owns the building that temporarily houses the South Whatcom Library.
The Whatcom County Library System owns just its administration center, but it could potentially purchase a building for a library. With the short timeline for the Vogt property, that may be an option, Perkins said.
“We do recognize that sometimes extraordinary opportunities come your way and we need to be flexible in order to adapt to that,” she said. “There’s a strong group of supporters in Birch Bay, but could they raise that amount by the deadline?”
Libraries and library construction projects can also be financed through one-time levies. The Friends of the Point Roberts Library raised more than $500,000 toward renovating a fire hall and converting it into a new library, but to raise the rest of the money they need, they are asking voters to pass a levy this November.
WCLS also has a capital budget for making repairs and renovations to libraries, and it has money set aside in its capital budget for the Point Roberts library.
Agreement on need
In a 2008 assessment and masterplan, WCLS recommended building a small “storefront” library in Birch Bay. Since then, Birch Bay’s population has swelled to more than 8,400, which is similar to the population served by the South Whatcom Library in Sudden Valley, Perkins said, and almost twice the population of Blaine, where many Birch Bay residents go for library services.
The 2008 plan also found that most Birch Bay residents live more than 10 minutes from the nearest library, which is either Blaine or Ferndale, depending on where they live.
“If you’re looking at the county, there are only a few pockets that are beyond a 10-minute radius for a library and that’s one of them,” Perkins said.
Several board of trustees members have gone to Birch Bay see the Vogt property.
Board chair Marvin Waschke hadn’t previously been to Birch Bay in years.
“I was really struck,” Waschke said at the meeting. “This place probably needs a library. It looks like the kind of place that should have a library. I’m very much in favor of the idea of seriously considering a branch for Birch Bay.”
He thought the offer was wonderful and that the location would make it a jewel among WCLS locations.
Birch Bay is currently served by a WCLS bookmobile – a traveling mobile library that parks in Birch Bay on Wednesday afternoons. Perkins said the bookmobile service gets a lot of use in Birch Bay.
It’s not just Birch Bay’s size, but also its demographics that makes it a good spot for a new branch, trustees said. The majority of students in the Blaine school district live in Birch Bay.
“You picture Birch Bay and you picture vacation houses, but there’s this whole other population,” said library trustee Gwen Vanderhage, trustee. “It’s packed with kids.”
Valerie McBeth, who leads the committee that formed early last year with the goal of bringing a library to Birch Bay, was encouraged both that the trustees were interested in the Vogt property and that they support a library in Birch Bay.
“This property may not turn out to be the place – it may turn out to be the place, certainly the location is wonderful – but one way or another the trustees are behind a better presence for us,” she said.