Planners and public in for heavy slog as Sea Grass hearings continue
The Blaine planning commission opened hearings last week on the 22-acre Seagrass Cottages development planned for Semiahmoo spit. For many of the 200 plus people at the meeting, which because of the crowd was held in the Blaine performing arts center (PAC), it was an exercise in frustration as they waited for a chance to speak that never came. Commission chairman Brad O’Neill later expressed sympathy but added, “They won’t get a chance next time, either.”
That’s because the Trillium Corporation, representing the project’s developer Gepetto Properties, still isn’t finished with their initial presentation. O’Neill figures they’ll need another hour and a half, and then there are two appeals of earlier rulings by Blaine’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) official, Terry Galvin, and rebuttals to the appeals, before the planning commission gets a chance to react to the appeals themselves. Then the public gets a chance to speak, something O’Neill predicted would not happen until the commission’s March 24 meeting at the earliest.
“I know a lot of people were disappointed,” O’Neill said. “Welcome to being on the planning commission,” he continued, “because we wade through this kind of detailed testimony all the time. It’s the public process, and it can take a lot of time but believe me,” he said, “Everyone will get a chance to have their say. The planning commission members will be the last ones out of the room, no matter how many meetings this all takes.”
Trillium’s thorough approach was necessary, Trillium attorney Jack Grant explained, because it showed “what the rules and requirements are for developments, and then how we intend to follow them, and there’s a lot of detail.”
But much of Trillium’s presentation, led by attorney Sandy Mackie, seemed to be read directly from design manuals and code books. Some in attendance found the consultants Trillium brought to be sub-par. At one point fishing charter operator Jim Jorgensen reacted skeptically to a consultant’s claim that the development would have negligible impact on sea birds by asking pointedly if he’d ever actually been out to the spit.
“This has been a nice academic presentation,” said Dr. Mary Barr of Birch Bay Village, “and boring as hell. A lot of this material doesn’t even apply.” Barr, who is a kayaker, challenged the claim that the entire beach surrounding the peninsula plus an access corridor across the middle remain open to the public. She was once told not to land on the north side of the Semiahmoo peninsula by residents she assumed were living in the Beach Walker condominiums. “That’s a part of the beach that Trillium describes as public access,” she said, “And I was going in there primarily because of wind and chop outside Drayton Harbor. I was refused beach access so I paddled around to the end of the spit as I was told to do. There’s really no way to guarantee that public areas remain public.”
A major sticking point in Trillium’s presentation for many in the audience had to do with storm water run-off. Consultant Andy Law from the Evergreen Anvil Corporation said that the goal of the low impact development practices that will be used is to minimize storm water runoff as much as possible, to use absorbent dry swales to match the characteristics that existed before building the development. “Seagrass meets this condition,” Law said.
Geoff Menzies of the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm pointed out that similar systems Trillium has constructed have failed to contain pollutants in at least two places, “especially along Drayton Harbor Road,” adding “there’s been an on-going water quality impact.”
Law said that the swales on the spit differ in that they are on level ground. In response to a question from Lincoln Rutter of the Pointe at Semiahmoo Homeowner’s Association, Law said that he “had nothing to do” with designing drainage systems Trillium installed along Birch Point Road that have also failed.
O’Neill then called the meeting back to order saying that the time for questions would come later. At the 10 p.m. adjournment it was announced that the hearing would be continued on March 10 at 7 p.m. at the PAC.
In response to questions about the process O’Neill said later that the issue is so important he “can’t tell you how seriously I take all this. In 11 years on the planning commission I’ve never seen such a big staff report – four inches thick – and this is also the first time we’ve faced two appeals of a SEPA determination.
The principle O’Neill said he tries to operate with, “following the guidelines of the American Planning Association, is to be fair in both appearance and performance. There are no time limits on applicants. We also have to be explicitly legal in the format in which these hearing are conducted,” O’Neill continued, “which is why they’re being recorded verbatim. People just have to wait their turn because that’s the public process.”