Plans for Birch Bay connector road delayed

Published on Thu, Mar 6, 2008 by Tara Nelson

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Plans for Birch Bay connector road delayed

By Tara Nelson

Plans for a mile-long commuter road connecting Birch Point Road to Semiahmoo Parkway will likely be put on hold after a local developer said he was not able to secure financing for the project.

Bellingham developer Fred Bovenkamp said because of a slow winter season for real estate sales along with the subprime mortgage crisis, he has not been able to secure the $5 million in financing needed to build the road, which Whatcom County required before the completion of the first phase of his Horizon at Semiahmoo development.

As a result, he has asked for help from Whatcom County executive Pete Kremen with the initial costs of construction, which would be repaid after some of the homes are constructed, he said.

“We’re certainly not looking for a free lunch,” he said. “We’re looking to get it put in sooner than later. And as we get some of our tracks sold and home sites bought, we will be in a position to further be able to develop and get the financing necessary to repay that section of the road.”

County officials said for at least 20 years, transportation and land use plans have indicated the need for a connector road between Birch Point Road and Semiahmoo Parkway, which connects with Lincoln Road at the base of the hill. Plans for the connector road gained momentum when the Whatcom County Council adopted the Birch Bay Community Plan in 2004, according to a 2006 memo to Birch Bay Village residents from former Whatcom County public works director Jeff Monsen.

Bovenkamp had agreed to build the proposed connector road as part of the mitigation requirements for his Horizon at Semiahmoo project, a 650-home high-end development with approximately 100,000-square feet of commercial space slated just south of Blaine’s Semiahmoo neighborhood.

Bovenkamp has already spent $1.5 million on the construction of the intersection in addition to improvements on Birch Bay Drive and Birch Point Road.

When completed, county officials hope the new road will establish a major arterial for Birch Bay residents to access the freeway via Lincoln Road, which is also slated to be improved and lengthened to connect with Blaine Road, according to the county’s transportation improvement plan.

Officials, along with residents, had discussed connecting Lincoln Road further through to Loomis Trail Road but later decided that was not an option because of the ecological impacts of building a road near California Creek and surrounding wetlands.

Meanwhile, Doralee Booth, co-chair of the Birch Bay Steering Committee’s transportation subcommittee, said while many residents are unhappy about the new intersection, the larger issue at hand is the lack of a commuter road for the nearly 2,500 residents of Birch Bay Village who want quick access to I-5.

But some Birch Bay Village residents aren’t convinced. Last December, an ambulance slid partly off the roadway during a snowstorm with a patient on board, after leaving another accident.
Booth, however, said that’s not exactly a cause for concern. Booth said she had talked with local law enforcement officers who said the day the ambulance slipped off the road, there were 57 other accidents throughout Whatcom County.

Further, she said rumors that the ambulance slid off the road into a nearby pond, a catch basin for water coming from the intersection required by the Department of Ecology, were untrue.

“It was a dangerous day,” she said. “The other thing is that everyone who lives in Birch Bay has to drive down a hill to get to the bay. There’s no way around it.”

Booth acknowledged that part of the problem is the intersection is currently being used in a way that it won’t be used in the future.
“Right now, it’s basically a corner and you can’t turn a corner at 35 miles per hour,” she said.

Whatcom County road engineer Joe Rutan agreed. Rutan said the idea was to connect Birch Point Road to Lincoln to provide an alternate route and improve pedestrian safety along Birch Bay Drive.

“People aren’t perceiving it as an intersection,” he said. “They’re seeing it as a through-road. But when it’s done, I think people will be very pleased.”

Whatcom County public works director Frank Abart said after a barrage of letters and emails from Birch Bay Village residents questioning the safety of the new intersection, the county has hired the Everett-based consulting firm Perteet Engineering to complete a study of the intersection’s safety, the results of which should be available by the end of next month.

Until then, he said he would not comment on the safety of the road but that he was not surprised by the responses of some Birch Bay residents who criticized the intersection.

“It’s tough to have progress without any kind of inconvenience,” he said. “It’s the nature of the beast.”

When asked how many accidents have occurred at that particular intersection since its construction, Abart said there was only one, and that he is unsure if the ambulance incident should even be considered an accident since it was only the vehicle’s tire that left the road.

Joe Bates, a spokesperson for Pete Kremen’s office said while a funding decision is likely months away, officials have been meeting with Bovenkamp and David Syre, president of the Trillium Corporation, who sold Bovenkamp the 200-acre property, and that they plan to explore those options.

Either way, Bates said the road will not be abandoned. “We still intend to have the connector road built one way or another,” he said. “Of course, we would like the developer to build it, but if not we’re trying to develop other options to see that it gets built.”