BirchBay plan to go before full county council

Published on Thu, Jul 22, 2004 by ack Kintner

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Birch Bay plan to go before full county council

By Jack Kintner

Next Tuesday night the Whatcom County Council gives the Birch Bay Community Plan its last public hearing before adopting the 18 chapter, three-quarter inch thick document as a part of the county’s comprehensive plan update as mandated by the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA).

Since this is the last opportunity for changes to be made before the plan’s adoption, Tuesday’s hearing promises to be lively. Disagreements ranging from minor sticking points over grammar to heated discussions stopping just short of fisticuffs have marked the plan’s three years of development by a steering committee made up of representatives of 10 Birch Bay neighborhoods.

The plan defines itself as a snapshot of what Birch Bay should be in 20 years, integrated with appropriate state and county laws and policies. Once the plan is adopted, the county Planning and Development Services department becomes responsible for carrying out its recommendations and making them part of future development regulations, such as the zoning code or subdivision code, though significant changes to these regulations must go through a public review process of their own.

The biggest remaining issue, one that is certain to be a major part of Tuesday’s hearing, has to do with the specific boundaries of the area that the plan covers, known as the Birch Bay Urban Growth Area (UGA). Many people living in Birch Point, by population the smallest of the 10 neighborhoods, do not wish to be included. They feel that it will lead directly to the kind of development that literally threatens the ground beneath their feet, accelerating the disintegration of the bluff due to increased stormwater and groundwater runoff from the 1,000 acres that the Trillium Corporation is developing east of Semiahmoo Drive.

“We bought our place in 1999,” said Pullman native and retired IBM software engineer Ken Pettichord. He and his wife Pat lived in a fifth wheel trailer while building their retirement house on the Birch Point bluff in the 8600 block of Semiahmoo Drive.

“At first I wasn’t concerned about Trillium’s logging their land behind us,” Pettichord continued, “because I thought they’d done a good job with the earlier Semiahmoo developments. But since they’ve begun developing the area our neighborhood is experiencing more slides along the bluffs. It’s definitely increased.”

Wayne Schwandt of Trillium disagrees. “We hired an outfit called Geoengineers to find out what would happen to groundwater and storm water runoff as a result of harvesting the trees on our land,” he said, “and they concluded that the change for groundwater movement between the third-growth forest land that’s there and the pastureland that will be there when we’re done is minimal. For stormwater they recommended retention ponds, which we’re building.”

Schwandt also pointed out that Trillium is leaving slightly less than half of their land, about 475 acres, undeveloped. “The engineer’s conclusions were reviewed and accepted by both the state Department of Natural Resources and the county,” Schwandt said, “and we’ve yet to see anything scientific that differs.”

Some residents along Semiahmoo Drive vehemently disagree, pointing out conclusions that their own consultants have reached as well as problems with Trillium’s permitting process that allowed the logging to take place. These disagreements led the state to issue a stop work order to ALRT, the Everson-based logging company Trillium hired, in October of 2002, since rescinded.

Until water and sewer service is available the allowable density in the area is restricted to one house per five acres. Since there are no plans to extend sewer service into unincorporated areas in Whatcom County, the thinking goes, keeping Birch Point outside the UGA protects it from development since it means that it will be outside the area that may incorporate as the town of Birch Bay. Sylvia Goodwin of the county’s planning and development department said that “there is incentive built into this plan” leading to incorporation since the county otherwise may find itself responsible for providing urban services to what in effect is an urban area, “but that’s Birch Bay’s decision to make.”

Whether or not Birch Bay incorporates, members of the Birch Bay steering committee that produced the community plan feel that the Birch Point area will enjoy greater protection by being included in the UGA as a special area rather than by being excluded. “If you leave this little island of county land between two UGA’s,” said committee member Claudia Hollod in a meeting some months ago, “it won’t be controlled very well at all. The county isn’t interested in that.”

In the meantime, Pettichord points out a large chunk of his bluff that’s now on the beach below his house, saying “that went just last April. My wife was walking the beach and came home to tell me that our bluff was going, and the neighbor’s stairway down to the beach recently became unusable due to the hillside slipping away.”

It’s the third time in 30 years that the county has developed comprehensive plans that directly effect Birch Bay. The first was completed in 1977 and its recommendations and resulting zoning decisions are for the most part still in place. The second, in 1987, sought greater community involvement but made few changes to the 1977 plan.

In 1990 the state passed the GMA, which mandated 13 goals that the county’s comprehensive plan of 1997 addressed. The Birch Bay Community Plan is part of a required up-dating of that comprehensive plan, something which all Washington cities and counties are required to complete by December of this year.

Initial impetus for Birch Bay’s planning process came from a year-long study completed in September of 2000 by the Birch Bay Planning and Development Group, funded by the Port of Bellingham, as well as from extensive shoreline enhancement efforts sponsored by the Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce over the four years from 1999 to 2003.

Birch Bay is unincorporated but it continues to be the fastest growing area in the county, and is expected to have nearly 10,000 people at the end of the 20-year period the plan describes.
Whatcom County Council meets at 7 p.m. in council chambers in the county courthouse at 311 Grand Avenue in Bellingham. For information, call council offices at 676-6700.