Buildinga better Birch Bay

Published on Thu, Apr 6, 2006 by ara Nelson

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Building a better Birch Bay

By Tara Nelson

For Kathy Berg, there are two rules for getting what you want from government agencies: know what you want and don’t go away.
On January 21, 2001, Berg and a group of approximately 300 Birch Bay residents gathered in the dining hall of Bay Horizon Park to discuss their concerns and their visions of Birch Bay during a time of unprecedented growth and uncertainty. Using Robert’s Rules of Order, a transparent public process, little scientific background and no budget, the group – now known as the Birch Bay Steering Committee (BBSC) – formed a network of seven subcommittees and set out to create an advisory plan for Birch Bay that would include ideas for economic development, environmental quality, land use, and the protection of Birch Bay – the one common denominator that brought them all together.

Five years later, the committee has made significant impacts on a countywide level, receiving a variety of grants for shoreline enhancement studies, design guidelines and economic development.

“It started with the way we organized ourselves with the neighborhood,” said Berg, who is now chair of the committee. “We had neighborhood meetings, and whoever showed up nominated two reps and an alternate to a steering committee. Then we worked hard at making it abundantly clear to the public what the topic is and what the questions were. What we thought would take one year, took four years. But in the process, we came together as a community and we gained some credibility with the county at the same time.”

And the county has listened. In November 2001, at the recommendation of the steering committee, the Whatcom Council of Governments commissioned an improvement design plan for Birch Bay’s beaches through Philip Williamson and Associates, which evaluated the coastal processes at work in the bay and prepared a conceptual design of a beach berm, or a steep slope constructed from sand and cobble to absorb the impact of crashing waves; and in 2004, the Whatcom County Council adopted the committee’s vision as the Birch Bay sub area plan, an amendment to the county’s 1997 comprehensive plan. The committee has also garnered several grants from county and state agencies; most recently, a $35,000 grant from Community Trade and Economic Development (CTED), to examine design standards and guidelines for Birch Bay.

‘Role models’
Hal Hart, Whatcom County director of planning and development, said when the county designated the greater Birch Bay area as an urban growth area (UGA) in 1997, they were obligated by the Growth Management Act (GMA) to create a sub area plan for that area. Having a dedicated group of citizens willing to communicate their vision to the county made that process easier.

“It’s nice for us because we know where to go to reach a lot of people quickly,” he said. “The steering committee kind of acts like a collective that brings it to the county and then the county staff brings that to the executive. It’s a pretty straight connection from the community through the committee to us at the staff level and we get a much better outcome that way. You can’t just trust the agencies to do everything.”

When asked what he thought about the level of community involvement in Birch Bay, Hart said he thinks Birch Bay citizens have created a role model for other communities in Whatcom County.

“These people are my heroes,” he said. “If you care about community, these are the people that are shaping the world around them. They don’t just want to let things happen. We’d like to replicate this process in other parts of the county but it’s not something the county really created; it comes from the people of Birch Bay.”

Hart said he was impressed most by the fact that when the subarea plan was adopted in 2004 the committees did not disappear. Rather, the seven subgroups transitioned into implementation subcommittees to help the county adopt the plan in a way that remains true to the community vision.

“That was another way that Birch Bay has really encouraged the county,” he said. “The only problem is that everything is happening so fast and we have had so many subdivisions docketed so rapidly. It’s brought a lot of this stuff out faster than anticipated.”
‘A great marriage’

For now, Berg said she is happy with the rapport that has been established between the committee and the county.

“We have earned our credibility with the county and that’s why they’re being responsive, for which we are very thankful,” she said. “We said all along this would not be a plan like previous plans that got put on the shelf and ignored. And we’re getting those results.”

Allan Friedlob, a member of the stormwater management and shellfish protection committee who moved to Birch Bay with his wife Elie in 2002, agreed. Friedlob said finding out about the steering committee convinced him to move to Birch Bay from his former home in Atlanta.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be a great place to live, the people are involved,’” he said. “I call it a model collaboration. The county provides support and we provide expertise. It’s a great marriage. It’s got its moments, but it’s working and it will continue to work and get better.”

How to get involved
The Birch Bay Steering Committee is continually looking for new members and meetings are open to the public.

General meeting: The BBSC meets the fourth Wednesday of the month. The next meeting is 7 p.m. April 26 at the church, with special guest Blaine superintendent Mary Lynne Derrington.

Governance subcommittee: Studies the economic feasibility of incorporating Birch Bay into a city. The group, meets the first Monday of the month at Birch Bay fire station 13, unless otherwise specified.
Shoreline enhancement: Studies the engineering, environmental and economic impact of various shoreline protection strategies. Meets the first Wednesday of the month at Birch Bay Bible Community Church at 7039 Jackson Road.

Design guidelines: Explores design standards and zoning ordinances to maintain a consistent look and feel of the Birch Bay community. The next meeting is Monday, April 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the church. Results from that meeting will be submitted to urban design students at Western Washington University.

Land-use/economic development/infrastructure: Examines ordinances and how to put “legal teeth” or stronger language into the plan. The group meets second Wednesday of the month.

Transportation/public safety: Meets the second Thursday of the month.
Parks, recreation and open space: Meets the third Monday of every other month. Next meeting is Monday, April 17, at 6:30 p.m. at the church.

Stormwater management/ shellfish protection: Meets third Wednesday of every month. Next meeting is April 19 at 7 p.m. at the church.

For more information about BBSC meetings, email Berg at ChairKathy@Birch, or visit