By Oliver Lazenby
After more than 40 years of waiting, planning and design, the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facilities project will likely be delayed another year.
County officials hoped construction on the project known as the Birch Bay berm would begin this fall, but ground breaking will likely be delayed until after Labor Day 2017.
Whatcom County needed to obtain property easements before construction could start on the project, which would naturalize the beach along Birch Bay Drive, replacing concrete seawalls and breakwaters with a sand and gravel beach that would more effectively protect the road from floods.
The county hoped to obtain those easements and start construction this September, but negotiations are taking longer than expected; the county has obtained eight easements and still needs 30 more, said county project engineer Kevin Thompson in an email.
“The construction will be starting in September 2017, dependent on obtaining right-of-way easements and all environmental permits,” Thompson said.
The construction timeline is constricted by two factors: fish and tourism. Work below the tideline can only be done between salmon rearing and herring spawning seasons, a window between July 15 and February 15. The county also committed to working around Birch Bay’s summer tourist season from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
At this point, the fish window and lack of easements makes it “very unlikely we will be able to start construction this winter,” Thompson said.
Thompson didn’t say why the county hadn’t reached deals with the remaining property owners, but he did say they are still negotiating.
Earlier this year, county special programs manager Roland Middleton said sticking points in the negotiations included details such as park benches, access ramps and stairs.
The $11.5 million project will also include a pedestrian walkway and bike path on top of and next to the berm on a 1.6-mile stretch of Birch Bay Drive. Birch Bay Drive is already popular with walkers and bicyclists.
The county still expects construction to happen in two phases over a two-year period. In the first year, between September and May, a 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 but on the northern half of the berm, with the addition of installing furnishings and signs, and paving and striping parking areas.