Birch Bay pedestrian facility moves forward

Published on Wed, Apr 25, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce members received a nice surprise at their monthly meeting last week. Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws told them that county public works staff have started seeking funding sources for long-awaited pedestrian and shoreline improvements along Birch Bay Drive.

Long called the berm project, Louws unveiled its new name: The Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility. Louws said the name change was necessary to open up as many grant-funding opportunities as possible.

“We have the technical ability and the internal capital to get this project completed,” Louws said at the April 17 meeting.

The project will add a pedestrian and bicycle path to the water side of Birch Bay Drive stretching from Shintaffer Road south to the mouth of Terrell Creek. The initial phases will focus on the path and shoreline strengthening, including a raised berm on the west side of the road, while later phases will involve improvements to Birch Bay Drive and placing the overhead power lines underground.

“It will be a major environmental, social and economic boost for the Birch Bay community,” Louws said.

County public works director Frank Abart said the project will be completed in four phases over four to five years and gave $10 million as a preliminary estimate for the total cost. Abart cautioned the figure was a rough estimate based on construction prices and did not necessarily account for permitting costs.

“As you start getting into the permitting process, you never know what’s going to happen,” Abart said.

A 2007 report prepared for the public works department by three private engineering firms listed seven different permits and authorizations needed for the project. Approvals will need to come from Whatcom County and both state and federal agencies.
The report estimated permitting and environmental compliance costs at approximately $111,000. This included costs estimates for preliminary environmental studies, permit applications and construction monitoring.

Several meeting attendees wanted to know if permanent bathrooms would be included in the project. While he couldn’t guarantee that the project will include money for restrooms, Louws said he would “work toward” finding the necessary funds.

Another study prepared by the same firms in October 2006 reported that restrooms and washrooms were a low priority among Birch Bay residents. Out of the 31 residents who attended a design and informational meeting, only one person assigned a high priority to washrooms. The report showed the issues attendees most wanted addressed were relocating power lines and utilities, minimizing berm height to maintain views and minimizing encroachment onto private property.

Abart said he and other public work staff are currently discussing applying for a $7 million state Public Works Trust Fund loan with Whatcom County Council members. He cautioned that while county council has historically spoken in favor of the project, council members raising cost concerns will not be unexpected.

“No project is perfect, so I’m sure there will be dissent, and that’s OK,” Abart said.

The project was included in the top four projects in the county’s 2012 road construction program.