County rules in favor of developers
Whatcom County Hearing Examiner Michael Bobbink has ruled in favor of Birch Point Village developers who contested fees that Whatcom County Fire District 13 sought to impose on their Horizons Village at Semiahmoo development.
Bobbink’s ruling, which was handed down Thursday, June 29, recommends that the “Whatcom County Council approve the Site Specific Rezone and give Planned Unit Development and General Binding Site Plan Approval to the proposal, subject to conditions.”
“I guess I’d have to say that while on the point of law Bobbink may be correct, from an operational standpoint it will have a huge impact on service to Blaine and District 13,” said Tom Fields, who as chief of North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services (NWFRS) also administers District 13.
At issue, said Fields, is the typical one to two-year lag between the need for increased services that new developments require immediately and the one to two-year lag in receiving tax-generated revenue to pay for them. City fire departments are able to assess impact fees to fund increased service but not rural fire districts. This was reaffirmed two years ago by the Washington state legislature when it specifically excluded fire impact fees on new developments as a way for rural districts to raise the money to serve them.
Martin Blackman, the Whatcom County State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) official for this development, included just such a fee in his environmental review of the proposed development. Horizons Village is a 39-acre project at the southwest corner of Shintaffer and Lincoln roads that will ultimately have 200 living units, some of them muttli-family, and 134,000 square feet of commercial space. Another project by the same developer, Horizons at Semiahmoo, sits just to the west and will have 446 houses but was not included in the scope of the ruling.
The developers appealed to the hearing examiner, saying that they didn’t mind paying something but questioned the basis on which they were being charged.
Bobbink agreed, saying that the fire district could not really tell if it was or was not able to meet state and federal requirement for response times until after it finishes its capital facilities plan. Further, Bobbink pointed out, the Birch Bay Community Plan which is now part of the subarea plan states that fire district 13 can meet its needs with taxes on new growth. Fields said he’s not sure what the fire district commissioners will decide to do next. Bobbink’s ruling now goes to the county council this month who may choose to approve the development or not.