County executive candidates weigh in on Birch Bay issues at public forum

Published on Wed, Aug 3, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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The four candidates for county executive answer questions at a July 28 public forum in Birch Bay. Photo by Jeremy Schwartz.

All four candidates for Whatcom County executive promised to work with the Birch Bay community to streamline permanent public restrooms and help the residents through the incorporation process, if that’s what the community wants.

Approximately 50 people attended the county executive forum at the Birch Bay Bible Community Church on Thursday, July 28. Each candidate fielded questions sent in to Birch Bay Steering Committee co-chair Kathy Berg, one of the organizers, and questions from the audience toward the end of the roughly two-hour forum.

The main topic of the night was Birch Bay’s involvement in countywide affairs and the county government’s commitment to improve the community. Berg said she has always considered the county executive the mayor of Birch Bay because of the position’s influence on the unincorporated community.

Many of the candidates’ answers centered around improving Birch Bay’s autonomy and local control as a distinct community in the county. These points were most evident in the discussion of permanent public restrooms for Birch Bay.

Tom Anderson, former general manager of Whatcom County public utility district 1, said he doesn’t understand why the county has not yet provided public restrooms for Birch Bay. He said he would work with the county parks and recreation department to find a solution that would improve both residents’ and tourists’ experiences in the community.

“I’m appalled it hasn’t been solved,” Anderson said.

State  senator Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) said he would provide a solution that combines the public and private sectors. This method, he said, is the best way to ensure the restrooms are built and maintained economically and efficiently.

Former Lynden mayor and current Birch Bay resident Jack Louws said he would use his experience in securing public restrooms for downtown Lynden to aid in the cause for Birch Bay. The county’s economic development funds, which were used to build public restrooms in Glacier, should serve the same purpose in Birch Bay.

When Birch Bay does eventually get restrooms, thought must also be given to how much it would cost to maintain them, former county planning director David Stalheim said. He said it’s embarrassing that tourists in Birch Bay have to use portable restrooms.

“It’s a public health and tourism issue,” Stalheim said.

When it came to the issue of Birch Bay’s incorporation, all candidates said they would aid the community along the way but that the impetus must come from within.

Anderson said the community’s local control would only increase as a town, while Ericksen said Birch Bay, if incorporated, should consider contracting with the county sheriff’s office instead of the more expensive option of establishing its own police force.

If incorporated, Birch Bay would need a strong tax base to cover the cost of bringing the area’s roads up to urban standards, Louws said. Stalheim suggested forming an elected community council first that would help the community decide its own future.

The berm project, proposed to increase space for pedestrians and improve the beach along Birch Bay Drive, also found unanimous support among the candidates. Ericksen said he has had experience finding money for such projects as a state congressperson, while Stalheim touted his experience building an $8 million pedestrian bridge over railroad tracks in Wenatchee.

“The fact that [the berm project] combines tourism and environmental restoration is fantastic,” Stalheim said.

While all candidates generally agreed on these issues, their views on the Gateway Pacific Terminal project differed sharply. The terminal, proposed for the Cherry Point area near the BP Cherry Point Refinery, would handle 54 million tons of dry-bulk commodities delivered by rail per year if county and state regulators give it the go-ahead.

Anderson said he supports increased shipping capacity at Cherry Point because of the jobs it will most likely bring, but cautioned against the use of coal, which would be one of the terminal’s main commodities. He said a terminal that handles enclosed shipping containers, rather than dry bulk commodities, should be taken into consideration.
“We ought to leave the coal in the ground,” Anderson said.

Ericksen, however, gave his outright support to the terminal, despite the fact that if elected county executive he would be involved in the permit approval process for the project. He said he thought any county executive candidate should take a position on the project and stand up for the jobs the terminal’s proponents claim it will bring.

Any jobs the terminal would bring need to meet the county’s standards for quality, Louws said. He said the terminal needs to go through an extensive environmental review that covers a wide range of possible impacts.   
“I just hope this doesn’t tear [the county] apart,” Louws said.

Stalheim too avoided taking a firm position on the project, citing the county executive’s role in the permitting process. He said SSA Marine, the company proposing the project, needs to be held accountable for the environmental impacts the terminal will have and for the jobs they say the project will create. He added he supports a terminal of some type at Cherry Point, but has concerns about any terminal that will handle coal.