By Oliver Lazenby
Since delaying the project last year, Whatcom County has made progress on permitting and acquiring easements for the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility project, commonly called the Birch Bay berm. But there’s more to do before fall, when construction is planned to start, and whether it will get done is an open question.
The biggest obstacle right now is likely the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) permit, county officials said. As part of that, agencies involved must assess the project’s impacts to local tribes and consult with tribes about artifacts at the project location.
“Worst case scenario: it takes us all next winter to negotiate the cultural resources. So worst case scenario for starting would be we start after Labor Day 2018,” said Roland Middleton, Whatcom County special projects manager, at a Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce meeting on July 20.
Construction is planned for two winter seasons – between Labor Day and Memorial Day – to avoid blocking the road during Birch Bay’s busy summer tourist season.
The project would add roughly 100,000 tons of sand and gravel to a 1.58-mile stretch of beach, between Lora Lane and Cedar Drive, to restore the natural beach and protect the road from flooding during storms. It will also include a pedestrian walkway and other improvements along Birch Bay Drive for bicyclists and walkers.
In about a dozen areas along the bay, the county will dig for pipes to direct stormwater, and that excavation could potentially affect tribal artifacts from the Lummi, Nooksack, Suquamish, Swinomish, Samish, Sauk-Suiattle and Tulalip tribes. The Lummi Nation has taken the lead for cultural resource issues for the project.
The county finished required archaeological sampling along the project in April and is currently working with the tribes, Washington State Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration and Department of Archaeological and Historic Preservation on an agreement, according to county public works staff.
Did the samples turn up anything of interest to the tribes?
“Yes, is all I can say,” said Jim Karcher, Whatcom County design and construction manager. “Cultural issues are confidential.”
The Lummi Nation’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office didn’t respond to questions about the project.
The county has already checked off a long list of permits and approvals for the project, and the remaining approvals hinge on the cultural resources agreement.
The county also needs to finish securing temporary construction easements and permanent easements for the walkway along the length of the project. It currently has 75 percent of those easements.
Karcher said he thinks the cultural resource agreement is the biggest hurdle at this point, but getting the remaining easements is also challenging for a variety of reasons.
Since Birch Bay is a resort community, many property owners don’t actually live there. Some properties are owned by multiple people or involve a board of directors, all of whom have to agree to the price and conditions for the easements. Additionally, some owners have concerns about how the easements will impact their property value.
Middleton told chamber members the county should still be able to secure the easements before Labor Day, but he pointed out that he said the same thing at a similar meeting last year, just months before the county announced that the project would be pushed back another year.
“No one is saying no, we just have some details to work out and we’re getting those worked out,” Middleton said. Those details include design issues such as plantings along the walkway and beach access, he said. “There are minor things like that.”