Birch Bay low-impact development plan moves on to county council

Published on Wed, Feb 8, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Whatcom County Council will soon decide the fate of a plan designed to encourage environmentally friendly development in the Birch Bay area, in the face of continuing opposition from local environmental groups.

After months of discussion and hundreds of public comments, county planning commissioners voted 5-2 at their January 26 meeting to recommend the voluntary low-impact development program to the county council. Planning commissioners John Lesow and David Onkels opposed the recommendation.

Senior county planner Peter Gill said while the program has undergone several changes since being first presented, but he told commissioners he believed it will protect wetlands in the Birch Bay area. One of the plan’s aims is repairing wetlands while still encouraging community development, and Gill said the current plan would achieve that goal.

“It’s still true to its original intent,” he said.

The voluntary program would provide incentives to developers who choose low-impact development practices, such as tree and forest preservation and the protection of wetlands and streams. The incentives would include an accelerated permitting process and the option to pay a fee instead of improving wetlands on-site.

In response to public criticism, Gill included language specifically preventing any development in the Cherry Point industrial area, which would include the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, from using any aspect of the program.

Despite the changes, representatives from local environmental groups are concerned the program does not go far enough to protect existing wetlands and may even encourage development that would endanger the Birch Bay watershed ecosystem.

In a January 12 letter to county planning staff, Wendy Steffensen, lead scientist with Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, wrote that the program needs to spell out which sites require wetland reparations. The program only suggests what areas could benefit from mitigation but does not specifically mark them for future repair.

Wendy Harris, a member of the land-use advocacy group Futurewise Whatcom, said the language in the program only encourages developers to start mitigation as soon as possible but does not require it.

In addition to the lack of specificity in wetland priorities, Steffensen wrote that the program allows too much time to pass between the start of a construction project and the beginning of wetlands mitigation associated with that development. Under the program, developers would have three years from the time they pay mitigation fees into the fund to when they would be required to start mitigation work. Steffensen encouraged this gap be narrowed to one year.

Harris said a potential three-year loss of fish and wildlife habitat while a development project is progressing is not in the best interests of the Birch Bay watershed as a whole.

“I don’t know what people think the fish and wildlife are going to do,” she said. “[Wildlife] can’t go check into a hotel for three years.”

If county council approves the program, it will automatically be evaluated at the beginning of 2017, Gill said. If feedback about the program is positive, similar plans could be implanted in other communities across the county.