By Oliver Lazenby
First it was the worst case-scenario, then it seemed likely and now it’s confirmed: construction on the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility Project, often called the berm, won’t start before fall 2018.
The county needs temporary construction easements and permanent easements for four more properties along the length of the project, and three more permits. County officials think those issues can be resolved by fall, in time for construction to start on the project, which aims to restore the beach along a 1.58-mile section of Birch Bay by adding roughly 100,000 tons of sand and gravel.
That will sound familiar to those following the project. The county once hoped to break ground in fall 2016 and then pushed the start date back to fall 2017. Repeatedly for three years, the Birch Bay Community has heard that permits and easements should be obtained in time for construction
in the fall.
County officials say they’re making progress on the project, which may be the largest beach restoration project in the northwest. A year ago, the county had secured temporary and permanent easements for 19 of 40 properties affected by the project.
The county has obtained a long list of permits but is still working on the cultural resources section of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) permit, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit and a Whatcom County shoreline permit.
The county needs to reach easement agreements on the remaining four properties by June 2018 to start construction in the fall, according to Whatcom County Public Works staff.
County officials wouldn’t say where the outstanding properties are or what the owners want.
“It would not be appropriate during ongoing negotiations to provide details of the negotiations,” staff said in an email. Asked if the county is considering eminent domain proceeding, staff said they are negotiating those easements “under good faith conditions.”
In addition to temporary construction easements, the county needs permanent easements for the pedestrian walkway planned for the beach side of Birch Bay Drive. In addition to restoring the beach, the project calls for a walkway, bike lanes and other pedestrian improvements to the road, which is popular with walkers and bicyclists.
Easement negotiations began in spring 2016. At that time Whatcom County project manager Roland Middleton expected the process to be quick since the project should benefit property owners by protecting their land from floods and storm surges, in addition to restoring the beach.
The process was delayed because many property owners don’t live in Birch Bay and some properties are owned by multiple people or managed by a board of directors.
In general, negotiations for any kind of property rights can be lengthy and obtaining easements over waterfront property that is valuable and that in many cases involves multiple vested property owners lengthens the negotiation time. “Public works is committed to providing all owners with the time needed to evaluate the offers and to negotiate in good faith.”
As the county negotiates those final easements the clock is ticking on eight previously obtained temporary easements expiring this year. Staff said those easements are “not being renegotiated at this time.”
The final permits for the project hinge on section 106 of the NEPA permit, which requires the county to sign an agreement with the Lummi, Nooksack, Suquamish, Swinomish, Samish, Sauk-Suiattle and Tulalip tribes on how to handle culturally sensitive material.
The project primarily involves adding material to the beach, but the county will excavate for about 14 drainage pipes along the project and digging could unearth artifacts. County staff said they expect to reach an agreement with the tribes by next fall.
“Since we are negotiating in good faith and have been for some time it is a reasonable assumption that section 106 of NEPA will be resolved,” public works staff said.
The county is still working within its $11.5 budget for the project, staff said.
Whatcom County and the Birch Bay community started planning for the berm in the 1975 when hydrologist Wolf Bauer recommended a natural sand and gravel berm to replace seawalls and other ineffective concrete structures.
Birch Bay has a “sediment deficit” because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers excavated between 200,000 and 300,000 cubic yards of sediment from Birch Bay to build the Blaine Air Force Station and other facilities in the early 1950s.
To get email updates from Whatcom County on the project, go to whatcomcounty.us/list.aspx, enter your email address in the field at the top of the page, scroll down to “Public Works – Birch Bay Drive & Pedestrian Facility,” under the News Flash heading, and click on the envelope icon to subscribe.
The county also has a website on the project: whatcomcounty.us/522/Birch-Bay-Drive-Pedestrian-Facility-Proj.