After initial protests, Whatcom County officials have decided to bite the bullet and forgo appealing the decision to include Birch Bay in the county’s national stormwater permit.
Last month, the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) issued a preliminary decision to include the Birch Bay urban growth area (UGA) in Whatcom County’s national stormwater permit. The permit dictates how stormwater is managed in three other county UGAs and would do the same for Birch Bay once it goes into effect next August. The decision was a result of Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities submitting a petition to the DOE in April requesting Birch Bay be added.
Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws said he made his case directly to DOE director Ted Sturdevant protesting Birch Bay’s inclusion, but to no avail. Louws said he cited the voter-initiated Birch Bay Watershed and Aquatic Resource Management (BBWARM) district as proof Birch Bay residents care about the stormwater issues in their community and told Sturdevant Birch Bay’s inclusion in the county’s broader stormwater permit sends the wrong message.
“To be told that [BBWARM’s efforts are] not good enough just didn’t seem right,” Louws said.
The six main requirements of the national stormwater permit are public education, seeking out illegal connections to stormwater drainage, construction and post construction stormwater management, pollution prevention and operations and maintenance. County stormwater staff makes sure these requirements are met for the UGAs and would do the same for Birch Bay after it joins the permit.
Louws estimated the inclusion of Birch Bay in the permit will cost the county between $15,000 and $25,000 in additional staff time. He said the funds would come from a larger pool that supports stormwater permit compliance in the Bellingham, Ferndale and Lake Whatcom UGAs. Additionally, DOE officials have said the agency regularly makes grant funds available to help pay the cost of national stormwater permit compliance.
Despite little to no cost to appeal, which needed to be submitted by August 31, Louws said his discussions with county staff led him to believe staff time would be better spent preparing to comply with the permit. The Birch Bay community would eventually have to be included in the county’s national stormwater permit anyway, based on its population growth, Louws explained. The trigger population figure for inclusion in the permit is 10,000, and Birch Bay’s population as of the 2010 census is just over 8,000.
Additionally, Louws took into account maintaining the county’s relationship with the DOE when deciding not to appeal the decision. The DOE had granted Whatcom County an exemption to allow public works officials to seek state funding for the Birch Bay Berm and Pedestrian Facility. The county would not have normally been eligible for this funding because its growth management practices are out of compliance.
“There’s some give and take that goes along with [the decision]” Louws said. “I just don’t think it would be worth the practical or political action to get [the appeal] to happen.”
Louws said his decision could be changed, however, if Whatcom County Council members determine the county should pursue an appeal, an eventuality that seems unlikely given that council’s next meeting isn’t until September 11, more than a week after the appeal period ends.
County council member Barbara Brenner, who represents the Birch Bay area, said she could not speak for the whole council but she personally supported an appeal. She said she thought it’s improper for the DOE to include Birch Bay in the county’s broader stormwater permit since BBWARM’s solutions are already underway.
“There’s no reason to do it,” Brenner said. It’s just going to add another layer.”
Brenner said Birch Bay is unique in that the community recognized the area’s stormwater issues and supported the creation of the BBWARM district to address them. Brenner said she generally supports RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, but said the organization’s petition to include Birch Bay in the county’s permit is insulting to the efforts BBWARM has undertaken.
“I’m very disappointed that it came from RE Sources,” Brenner said. “They’ve seen [BBWARM], they know how well this works.”
County council member Carl Weimer, however, supported Louws’ decision not to appeal, saying in an email to The Northern Light that county staff efforts would be better expended elsewhere. Weimer echoed Louws’ sentiment that there’s no sense fighting something Birch Bay will be forced to be a part of eventually.
Weimer praised BBWARM’s efforts so far, but said additional overview through inclusion in the county’s broader permit could help ensure taxpayer money is being spent effectively on stormwater improvements. He said Birch Bay residents clearly cherish their bay, adding that inclusion in the permit will only help protect it.
Brenner said the county council as a whole has so far not been briefed on the national stormwater permit issue and how it will affect Birch Bay. The next Whatcom County Council meeting is Tuesday, September 11.