By Oliver Lazenby
Though it’s not quite official, it looks like the Vogt property at 7986 Birch Bay Drive will in time become the Birch Bay branch of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS).
The WCLS board of trustees voted unanimously to allow its executive director, Christine Perkins, to sign a purchase agreement for the property for $675,000 once a few minor changes are made to the agreement.
The vote took place at the board’s April 18 meeting.
“I think that it’s a beautiful property and a beautiful location, and I think the community saw it as the right place for a library,” said board chair Marvin Waschke. “To me, that is more important than anything.”
Perkins and a two-member finance committee have been negotiating with the property owners, Gary and Cindy Lou Vogt and their real estate representative, Pat Jerns, since the board’s last meeting on March 28.
The Vogts offered the property to the library system or a “Friends of the Library” organization last September, with the hopes that the public use of the property would save the historic building from being bulldozed to build condos. The property’s zoning would allow up to 18 condos.
The property is a Birch Bay landmark, and the Vogt family were some of the first white settlers at Birch Bay.
The Vogts originally offered the 0.86-acre property, which includes a 2,135-square-foot Craftsman-style house and two outbuildings, for $750,000.
The library system on April 18 requested changes to the sale agreement to give it more flexibility and ensure that it could modify the building to make it a usable library.
A memorandum of understanding between the Vogts and WCLS reads, “The buyer agrees to not destroy the home presently located on the property […] and to utilize the existing structure, including the basic architecture style, into any new structures to be built as part of the future library, to whatever extent reasonably possible.”
The board updated the language and added the following addendum to the purchase and sale agreement: “To the extent reasonably possible, as determined by the Buyer in its sole discretion, Buyer shall incorporate the current improvements on the Property and/or design elements from those improvements into any library constructed by the Buyer on the property. Notwithstanding the foregoing, Buyer may remove the two pole buildings currently located on the property.”
Jerns thought the family would be open to the changes the board requested.
“Those words “to whatever degree reasonable,” were to provide you with flexibility, not to lock you in,” he told the board of trustees.
The Vogts also requested a right to have the library named the Birch Bay-Vogt Community Library, or something similar.
The house is not currently big enough to properly serve the Birch Bay community, Perkins said. The bottom floor is about 1,500 square feet, which would make it the smallest library in Whatcom County in terms of size per person in its service area, the library board found.
The second floor is not ADA accessible and due to its narrow staircase, WCLS does not plan to offer public library services on that floor, Perkins said.
“Long term, the idea is to add an addition that connects the old structure, or a portion of the old structure, or the facade of the old structure to a more modern, efficient building that is sized to serve the large and growing population of Birch Bay,” Perkins said.
The design conditions in the agreement between WCLS and the Vogts have a 5-year term, after which WCLS could sell the property if it isn’t working out as a library.
The decision to purchase the property represents a change in approach for WCLS. The library system does not currently own any of the properties in which it operates libraries. It does own a property at 5205 Northwest Drive, outside Bellingham, where its administrative building is located.
Waschke said WCLS has considered purchasing property for years, but this is the first time that it really makes sense.
“We’re trying to give the Friends of the Birch Bay Library the best platform possible for building that library,” he said. “By buying this piece of property I think we have given them a real foundation in getting started, but it’s going to be the community that raises the funds.”
Perkins said to think of WCLS’ purchase as a long-term loan to the community.
It could still be years before a library opens in Birch Bay. Perkins said a very rough initial estimate – including the cost of the Vogt property – is that it will take about $3.5 million before the finished library can open. A “Friends of the Library” group or other entity will have to raise that money.
WCLS has so far spent about $30,000 inspecting the property. Though the house was built in 1913, the inspection didn’t find any significant issues, Perkins said.
“My understanding of the inspection report is that overall nothing unexpected came out of it,” she told the board of trustees. “The big hallelujah is there was no evidence of wood-destroying organisms on site, so that’s great.”
The building does need some things, including a new furnace, insulation work, ADA-accessible restrooms, handrails for the stairway to comply with building codes and some new wiring.
Several library trustees said they voted in favor of the purchase due to strong community support for it and they expect the community will be able to raise the funds needed to open it.
Point Roberts, which has a population of less than 1,500, raised $540,000 in five years for its library. Birch Bay’s population as of the 2010 census was 8,413.
Strong public support for a Birch Bay library makes sense; WCLS found that Birch Bay is one of three locations in Whatcom County with a significant population and a drive time beyond 10 minutes to the nearest library. WCLS’ research found that 5,200 library cardholders live in Birch Bay.
Birch Bay residents packed the small conference room for the trustees meeting, but not all were supportive of the space. Patrick Alesse, owner of The C Shop in Birch Bay, thought it could be done cheaper.
“You could go out today and buy new construction for 2,000 square feet for $200,000,” he said, referring to a building at 4819 Alderson Road in Birch Bay that WCLS considered earlier in the process. “It seems to me like we’re pouring a lot of resources and land into this project and some of us have a vision of something else.”
The WCLS board found that particular property didn’t have enough parking to make it a contender for a Birch Bay library. The board could find few other suitable locations in the time they had to make a decision on the Vogt property – the Vogts’ real estate representative originally told the library board that the offer expired at the end of January or soon after “with some flexibility.”
According to the memorandum of understanding between the parties, WCLS plans to close on the property by April 28, if its criteria are met.
The original version of this article included the wrong purchase price. The Whatcom County Library System plans to buy the property on Birch Bay Drive for $675,000, not $750,000, as originally reported. We regret the error. Also, the article has been updated to include the most recent language from the purchase and sale agreement.