Shea holds open house, neighbors continue fight
About 100 people attended an open house last Saturday afternoon at the site of a proposed retreat on Birch Point � a meeting held by developer Ellen Shea to explain the controversial project.
�I want to let people know that I�m not trying to rezone the whole peninsula,� Shea said, when asked why she held an open house. �I think a lot of people have misinformation about what exactly I am trying to do.�
Last fall, Shea announced plans to create a retreat in a 12,000 square-foot former residence located on Birch Point Road, a 10-acre property surrounded by tall cedar hedges and overlooking the bay. �I want to create an environment for people who want to get away from large places and relax and rejuvenate in a place that is small and nurturing,� she said.
In order for Shea�s dream to come true, however, the 10 acres of property must be rezoned from urban residential to resort commercial � a plan that was squashed by the Whatcom County planning commission 7-1 on January 8. Although the planning commission voted down the project, county council can decide to hold a public hearing and vote on the matter themselves. This possibility leaves Shea hopeful, but Neighbors for Birch Point have vowed to continue fighting the project.
The potential rezone, which will also be an amendment to the Birch Bay community plan, has spurred opposition by some neighbors who have banded together to form Neighbors for Birch Point. The group has circulated a petition opposing the project, which has signatures from about 125 residents.
�Neighbors for Birch Point has not, for one moment, complacently assumed that this matter was concluded, despite the planning commission�s landslide 7-1 vote,� said Jo Slivinski, spokesperson of Neighbors for Birch Point. Since then, the group has �been steadily working and planning our strategy for the next step, approaching the county council,� she said. �
�We�re fighting�to preserve our neighborhood, so we�intend to stay united as a neighborhood to�battle this rezone/amendment/spa all the way. As the Birch Bay Subarea Plan goes to the county council, we will be organized and ready. Should the council decide to revise the commission�s recommendation, we are poised to respond.�
But Shea feels the retreat fits Birch Bay. �The Birch Bay Plan�s vision statement says enhance the quality of life and enrich the human spirit,� she said, adding the project would do just that. �It will create jobs for the economy. It will create tax bases. It will bring tourists to the area and this community is known for tourism.�
Many local residents don�t want to see a commercial business in the area, Slivinski said. �As commission chairman Dave Pros said at the January 8 hearing before casting his vote against the rezone/ amendment, �We are under a county-wide planning policy A-4, which says we are to take into account what we hear and make evident in our rulings what we have heard. The majority of the people who testified are against this.� I would hope that policy governs the county council as well,� she said.
By the time the Birch Bay Subarea Plan is introduced to the county council later this month, Neighbors for Birch Point hope to have �well over 200 relevant signatures of community residents who oppose this,� Slivinski said.
As of last Saturday, Shea herself started a petition recording the names of those who support her project. �What we need to do is to get the county council to decide to hold a public hearing. That�s what I am working on now. I started my own petition drive,� she said. �The project�s not dead yet. And the people that are in support of it need to come forward now so we can get it out in the open to the council.� In addition to the petition, Shea said there are also postcards circulating that state the project is good.
Shea said she invited the neighbors, as well as the steering committee, county council and planning commission to the open house. Some of the neighbors � including several from Neighbors for Birch Point � and steering committee members showed; however, no members of the county council showed. But several against the project voiced concerns that Kathy Berg, the vice-chair of the steering committee, was providing tours of the property, and that Sylvia Goodwin, manager of the county planning services division was present.
Resident Barbara Skudlarick did not attend the open house, she said, because she was paged to respond to a sudden death as she is a volunteer with the Support Officer Community Care Organization, but is concerned. �I was invited to the open house via an e-mail from Kathy Berg. I thought this was unusual for the acting chairman of our Birch Bay Steering Committee to be sending me, an alternate steering committee member, representing the Birch Point Neighborhood, an e-mail with the invitation,� she said.
Slivinski agrees, stating �I question the appropriateness of someone chairing a steering committee to be a promoter, as Kathy Berg was on January 31 in her role as tour guide for the open house, for the special interest of a private party whose development has been turned down by the planning commission. I question whether Ms. Berg�s action that day constitutes a clear conflict-of-interest or an abuse of her power, which possibly mandates her resignation or removal from the steering committee, as several of our supporters have called for,� she said. �I question why Sylvia Goodwin of planning and development services was at the open house, given that she had told me one day before that �as far as the council is concerned, this is coming to them as a dead issue. . .� (or words to that effect). I seriously question whether planning and development services considers this a �dead issue� if their officials are seen participating in an open house for it on a Saturday, weeks after the planning commission rejected it.�
In response to this, Berg said she wants to make it clear she is acting under her own personal opinion, not as vice-chair of the steering committee. �I have no right to speak for the committee except on those rare occasions when the committee specifically instructs me to do so,� she said. �Yes, I was invited. Yes, I attended and served as a tour guide so that all those who showed up could see the house and understand better what it is that Shea proposes to make up their own minds. I supported the project and zone change at the public hearing before the planning commission because it is very consistent with the vision and purpose of the Birch Bay Community Plan.�
Sylvia Goodwin, general manager of the planning and services department, could not be reached for comment before press time.
Alan Friedlob, co-founder of Smart Growth Birch Bay, said he did not attend the open house, but regardless of the project�s outcome, it is very positive that citizens living in Birch Point have come together to form an organization that can look critically at the future of land use in their community. �After this issue is resolved, I would hope the group would join with groups like Smart Growth Birch Bay and other interested citizens to monitor future large-scale residential development in our community.�
In days after the open house, does Shea feel she made an impact on the community? �We did have an impact on their thinking. One lady in particular asked how big of an area was going to rezoned. When I explained it was just the 10 acres and showed her the boundaries she looked at me and said �that�s it?� Shea said. �From what people were saying, she thought otherwise.�
In response to the rumor that Shea will build a restaurant on the premises, Shea said she �will be serving food to my guests and that is it.�
A number of neighbors have stated they are concerned the retreat will hurt the residential neighborhood, citing traffic, strangers in the area, property structures and the potential that more land could be rezoned in the future. Shea stressed that the property is �totally fenced in with high cedar trees. You can�t see in and you can�t see out.�
There are restrictions on the potential rezone, she said, including no building can be constructed higher than 35 feet and the number of units that could be built on the site are restricted, dependent upon sewer service. Currently, there is no sewer service at the property, which means the maximum number of overnight units is 16. However once sewer is established, the maximum number rises to 32. If the retreat plan were to fail, 32 homes could be built on the 10 acres of property in the future, county planning said.
Interested residents can send their opinions to Whatcom county council at 311Grand Avenue, Bellingham, WA 98225 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.