Pragmatic concerns dominate neighborhood forums

Published on Thu, Jun 13, 2002 by Jack Kintner

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Pragmatic concerns dominate neighborhood forums

By Jack Kintner

“As expected, issues centered on utilities, infrastructure maintenance and the economy,” said Blaine City Manager Gary Tomsic following the first of two neighborhood meetings held last week. Designed to air citizen concerns, both also carried a post-9/11 sense of pragmatic concern with basic issues, unlike last year’s focus on ways of marketing Blaine for tourists. Both drew about 25 people.

The first meeting’s primary item took more than half of the two hour session at the Blaine Senior Center, and dealt with paying for the city’s $36 million sewer and water commitments with Birch Bay. City officials said the process at this time has become a search for both federal and state funding sources. Interest was also expressed in adding bike lanes to roads on the east side of Drayton Harbor as the sewer line is laid between Blaine and Birch Bay.

State Representative Doug Ericksen attended only the first meeting but spoke to most issues. He responded to concerns over road construction and maintenance expenses by recommending tax increases at the county and local level. “In case the Governor’s $7.7 billion tax increase doesn’t pass next fall,” Ericksen said, referring to Referendum 51, “revenues can easily be replaced through increased county and local gasoline taxes and levies.”

Questions were raised by Dave Gagnon about the “chopped up” commercial zoning along the truck route, making it difficult to create large commercial facilities. Tomsic admitted that the design of highway 543 may already have gotten beyond the stage where it could be significantly changed for Blaine’s benefit, “meaning we may have helped renovate Highway 543 without being able to act quickly enough on meeting our own needs in the design phase.”

“The question,” Tomsic continued, “is how can that or any road be designed to benefit our economic needs here in Blaine? How do we design that in?” Grant Stewart, director of Blaine’s public works department, added that since trucks must stop anyway for customs, it makes sense to design ways to take advantage of this.

Gagnon also raised the issue of the airport’s location as one which could stifle development possibilities in what otherwise might be a prime location for a commercial truck terminal of some kind.

Council member Mike Myers and Fred Jansen both responded that the airport represents an opportunity, not a liability, and should not be closed because “once it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Myers. Tomsic added that a feasibility study will be initiated shortly with council approval to research this issue. “It may be that it should be lengthened or moved toward the south,” Tomsic said, “but we also want to get solid answers to these questions.” The study was approved by council last Monday night.
The second meeting at the Semiahmoo fire hall spent its first hour on traffic problems at the Bell Road/Peace Portal Drive intersection. Many ideas were proposed, but assistant director of public works Steve Banham later described that particular intersection as one of two that have become the subject of an 8-point federal study, the other being interchange 276, to qualify them for federal highway funding in making needed changes.

Public works director Grant Stewart explained later that the study is funded with grants obtained by the International Mobility and Trade corridor (IMTC) project of the Whatcom Council of Governments. An additional grant will study the feasibility of ferry service in the area. Both studies generate design criteria for the interchanges or ferry service based on traffic research and predictions, and then help find federal funding to pay for it.

“It’s a strange project, in a way,” said Stewart. “Here’s little Blaine taking the lead position in this access study that is mandated by state and federal law. We’re helping them do their job since it so directly impacts us,” Stewarts said.

The study kicked off yesterday in Mt. Vernon as city public works staff met with representatives from the Washington State Department of Transportation and the federal highway funding sources.

The eight points in the IMTC studies to be applied to both interchanges and the ferry service are: The need for new access, finding reasonable alternatives, evaluation of the proposed project, addressing design issues, land use and transportation plans, other anticipated access (e.g. nearby interchanges), third-party commitment (getting developers to coordinate plans, e.g. Bellis Fair Mall) and environmental issues.

Banham said that if access findings in part six of the study indicate that interchange 274 is already in the best location, then Bell Road may simply be configured to meet Peace Portal Drive at right angles directly opposite the on and off ramps. “In any case, we want to make them meet at 90 degrees for safety’s sake,” Banham said.

Stewart said that once the customs expands at the Peace Arch, interchange 276 would move south, with on and off-ramps for southbound I-5 traffic ending at the corner of Third and G streets.
The other major concern at the second meeting was Blaine’s negative reputation among area businesses. Ron Leach spoke for the need “to make it as user-friendly as possible” to locate a business in Blaine. “You can’t please everybody,” he said, “but we’ve got to make a reasonable effort.”

Community Development Director Terry Galvin responded by saying, “We’ve made a Herculean effort to address exactly that image and perceived problem, and we’re proud of our results so far. We’ve improved our customer service dramatically, especially with the “Green Book” that community planner Russell Nelson is working on. We want to give good ‘front desk’ support through the use of this customer friendly service book. It’s got information distilled down for just about every permit or development activity you can carry on in Blaine.”

Galvin went on to describe, as he had previously at the senior center, success in getting some new motorist information signage (MIS) describing Blaine be put on the freeway. He also outlined the extent of the planned downtown boardwalk. “Construction will begin next summer,” he said. “We’re anticipating good grant support for this to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars.”

Tomsic added that though a mid-price hotel downtown would be a nice anchor to tie the area together, “we don’t necessarily need to wait for someone else to make the first move. We can do this now, and we will.”

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