Disagreements about what kind of speed limits should be applied on which sections of Birch Bay Drive surfaced in a polite but determined debate in front of a Whatcom County Council work session Tuesday afternoon.
Currently, the speed limit along Birch Bay Drive is 35 mph, but because of congestion drops to 20 mph each May before the Victoria Day weekend that sees the first large influx of Canadian summer visitors each year, followed closely by Memorial Day weekend, the traditional beginning of the summer tourist season.
But many find the sudden change confusing, according to Whatcom County deputy sheriff Cliff Langley, especially because the limit on nearby Harborview Road north of its intersection with Birch Bay Drive changes from 45 mph down to 25 mph two weeks earlier. No one seemed to know why the two limits change at different times, he said.
“Having a uniform, year-around speed limit would eliminate any confusion that many people experience when the speed limits are changed,” he said in a prepared statement, noting that most traffic he observes travels well under 35 mph even in winter, “and that means it’s too high and should be lowered.”
Langley is the closest thing unincorporated Birch Bay has to a town cop, having been appointed neighborhood deputy nearly two years ago by sheriff Bill Elfo. He advocated a uniform 25 mph speed limit that would “include all the area residential and side streets.”
That agrees with a plan put forward by an ad hoc group called the Birch Bay speed limit task force led by Doralee Booth. Her Cottonwood Beach neighborhood stretches a mile along Birch Bay Drive from Harborview to Shintaffer roads. “The basic issue is one of safety,” she said. “It’s a highly conflicted traffic situation with many different kinds of users all year, not just in the summer.”
But some residents of Birch Bay Village, with the area’s highest concentration of people and commuters wanting quick access to I-5, do not want the limit lowered, especially in Booth’s neighborhood, because that’s their primary access to I-5. Carol Choulochas spoke for many in Birch Bay Village when she said, “I don’t care what [the speed limit] is on Birch Bay Drive down where most of the people live, just don’t slow me down before I get to Harborview Road.”
That’s where the route to I-5 joins Birch Bay-Lynden Road and the speed limit goes up to 40 mph.
County staff, represented by county engineer Joe Rutan, agreed with Choulochas, saying that the limit should remain at 35 in winter in the Cottonwood Beach section at least until a promised by-pass route using a new northeast connector through Semiahmoo highlands and along an extended Lincoln road to another new connector with Birch Bay-Lynden Road is built. That project has been delayed by lack of funds and is now scheduled for 2014.
Booth said that the plan she presented to council is a compromise between those who wanted a limit as high as 35 mph all year and others who would reduce it to 10 mph, especially in summer when the road sees heavy pedestrian and bicycle traffic. “Our task force has been working on this for over a year,” she said.
Al Stoutimore of Birch Bay Village said the present arrangement should be continued. The 35 mph limit makes sense “because at 7 a.m. there’s nothing but commuters out here then.”
But Langley said that he’s found few opposed to a lower speed limit. “The people who live, work and play [here] want to be safe in particular, the safety of those not in motor vehicles is a major concern to everyone.”
Pat Alesse, owner of the C Shop on Alderson Road, is one of those who wants things to stay the way they are. In what he called a “pen and paper survey” taken last summer, almost 90 percent of the 144 responding favored keeping the speed limit the same. The remainder were evenly split between those wanting a lower limit and others who want to go faster.
Four years ago a similar survey found that by a 66-56 majority, most favored keeping the limits the same as they are now. “It isn’t broken and doesn’t need fixing,” Alesse said.
The Birch Bay speed limit task force recommended a 25 mph limit on Birch Bay Drive from Birch Bay State Park on the south through to Shintaffer Road, a 30 mph limit from there a quarter mile to the new intersection with the as yet unbuilt diagonal access road through Semiahmoo highlands and then 35 mph west to Birch Bay Village. The task force also named several side streets that ought to be included near where they intersect with Birch Bay Drive, including Anderson, Alderson, Jackson and Harborview roads.
“The last revision to speed limits took effect in May of 1978. Birch Bay has grown since then,” Booth said. The committe agreed to continue studying the matter for another two weeks.