Impact fees proposed for Birch Bay
By Tara Nelson
As development continues to outpace infrastructure improvements in unincorporated areas such as Birch Bay, the Whatcom County planning and development services department is looking for new ways to assure its transportation systems remain adequate.
In their regular meeting September 11, the county’s planning commission approved a series of amendments to the Whatcom County code that would allow for a fee schedule to charge developers for the increase in traffic their projects would have on county roads and help fund improvements to serve new growth.
If approved by the Whatcom County Council, the new fees would help pay for improvements and expansion to transportation systems and would be part of a multi-tiered approach to accommodate new growth in Whatcom County, said Gary Davis assistant planning and development director.
The 2005 Whatcom County comprehensive plan requires that road improvements are made in concurrence with land-use developments and warns that congestion and inadequate road conditions can have hidden costs to taxpayers both in the form of increased traffic accidents and subsequent emergency services as well as potential lawsuits to the county.
Whatcom County currently requires developers of projects in unincorporated areas such as Birch Bay to help fund transportation improvements using guidelines established in the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Those requirements, however, cover only those impacts that are a direct result of development and do not specifically address the long-term needs resulting from continued growth. Neither do those requirements cover impacts to other public services such as schools, police protection or fire protection.
The county also collects fees through frontage improvements to address on-site issues; SEPA mitigation requirements for environmental, economic or social impacts; and concurrency regulations under the GMA that require infrastructure improvements accommodate growth as it occurs.
However, the county’s current development review process using SEPA can and often results in equity issues. A report commissioned by the county and completed by the Transpo consulting group in May, for example, found that “several developments that impact a roadway or intersection may have been approved with little or no transportation mitigation.”
In addition, most small developments currently pay little or no traffic mitigation under SEPA or through the county’s concurrency system. However, the cumulative impacts of those developments add up over time, placing the full burden on the county, or on larger developments that trigger improvements.
Under the new impact fee schedule, each new development would help pay toward improvements and other transportation-related improvement projects. With the fees in place, even small developments such as a single-family house would help fund key transportation projects.
The amendments are scheduled to be discussed by the Whatcom County Council in November, Davis said. For more information, visit www.whatcomcounty.us.