Despite delays, county officials say they’re making progress on Birch Bay berm

By Oliver Lazenby

After an appraisal process that took longer than expected, Whatcom County is ready to pick up the easement negotiation process that delayed the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facilities Project – commonly called the Birch Bay berm – for another year.

The county needs about 38 easements – both temporary construction easements and permanent easements for the path and beach – before construction on the $11.5 million beach restoration and pedestrian path project can begin.

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The Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility project would replace seawalls and concrete groynes along Birch Bay Drive with a sand and gravel berm. Photo by Oliver Lazenby.

The county and its contractor, Universal Field Services of Edmonds, Washington, started negotiating easements this spring but many properties required a third party appraisal due to the value of the easements and complicating factors including views and improvements made to the properties.

The county said last month that construction would be pushed back until next fall. To start construction after Labor Day 2016, as planned, the county needed to wrap up easement negotiations by July, according to a timeline presented at a February 6 meeting. The third party appraiser didn’t start until June or July, however, and took much longer than expected, county project manager Roland Middleton said.

“There were some miscommunications. I don’t know the specifics of it,” he said. “It took a few months longer than we had hoped for.”

The county rarely deals with projects that involve so many easements and properties, said public works administrator Andrew Hester.

“Appraisals are just about done,” He said. “We’re reviewing them and signing off on them. Some folks haven’t even been given an offer yet. We’re hopeful this will go smoothly the rest of the way.”

The process frustrates some Birch Bay Drive property owners.

Ron Walken owns two properties on Birch Bay Drive and said the project overall is a win for him. The project aims to restore the beach to a more natural state that would make it more effective at protecting the road and his properties from erosion.

But he’s frustrated with the lack of communication from the county and Universal Field Services. He’s only received an easement offer for one of his properties, and said the contractor hadn’t been in touch about why he hadn’t received an offer for the other property.

Walken is also hesitant to sign an easement on his private beach, he said.

“I don’t object if anybody used it, none of us really do,” he said. “But you get 18-year-olds with a couple racks of beer. I do have the right to go down and tell them to leave.”

The county also needs to have a public shoreline hearing before it can obtain a necessary shoreline permit. That’s not scheduled, but should happen in the next couple of months, Middleton said.

Though the process has hit some snags, Middleton wanted to reaffirm his commitment to the berm project.

“Don’t lose heart. This has been a very important project for the community since 1976. I know that’s 40 years ago, but it is moving forward,” he said. “I know it can seem very painfully slow, but a lot has been done since August. Behind the scenes there are things moving and the commitment to get it done hasn’t changed.”

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