New program could bring higher density housing to Birch Bay

By Oliver Lazenby

A new Whatcom County program could use Birch Bay as the first area to test denser single-family housing, in exchange for a fee that would benefit the preservation of farmland.

On November 21, Whatcom County Council passed a zoning amendment that would allow developers to build up to 14 single-family homes per acre, up from seven, in the resort commercial zone in Birch Bay. Developers would need to buy a “density credit” at a proposed cost of $4,000 for each additional unit beyond what current zoning allows.

The fees would be used for the county’s purchase of development rights program, which pays owners of qualifying farmland to abandon their right to develop their land in the future.

“The county essentially purchases an easement that says you can’t build more houses on the property, but you can continue farming it,” said county senior planner Matt Aamot.

The county’s purchase of development rights program began in 2001 and to date has purchased 127 development rights totaling 899 acres. The council will determine what to charge for density credits at its Tuesday, December 5 meeting, Aamot said. Multiple county committees suggested that credits should cost $4,000.

Council member Barbara Brenner entered the sole vote against the amendment, saying the proposed $4,000 cost is too high.

“I love the idea; I think density belongs in Birch Bay,” she said. “I think there might be some people who want to do this and this is just adding another cost that is going to be hard for them to afford. If you want affordable housing, I guess it would be nice to have it be affordable for everyone involved.”

Birch Bay’s resort commercial zoning applies to about 340 acres near the water and includes Latitude 49 Resort Park, Birch Bay Resort, Sea Links at Birch Bay and Lighthouse by the Bay Resort.

Developers wouldn’t be able to purchase density credits for the approximately 155 acres of the Resort Commercial district located in the floodplain. The county hearing examiner and county council would have to approve each development seeking density credits.

The county planning commission prepared the amendment as part of the county’s comprehensive plan. Commissioners believed the amendment would help preserve Birch Bay’s traditional cottages on small lots, which “enhance the character of the area,” according to the planning commission’s report.

Maureen Wilson, Birch Bay Resort’s manager, spoke on behalf of resort ownership at a public hearing on the amendment. She said the resort supports the density increase and the $4,000 per unit density credit charge. She was the only speaker.

The amendment includes a new chapter in the county’s zoning code about density credits – if the program works in Birch Bay, it could be applied elsewhere in the county, Aamot said.

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