A simmering dispute over the location of a new park in Birch Bay has been resolved by a decision of the county parks board. Commissioners recommended that the county should move ahead with appraising and purchasing the Vogt property for development as a beachside park. The 4-acre property is located in the middle of Birch Bay and was recommended instead of an alternative site at the south end of the bay.
Birch Bay residents packed the meeting room at Tennant Lake Interpretive Center in Ferndale May 15, lining up outside both exits to have their say about which of the two properties should be chosen as the site of a future beach park in Birch Bay. They lingered after the public hearing to hear the commission’s final decision on the issue, which had been tabled since their last meeting in April.
The Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Commission, a citizen’s board tasked with submitting a recommendation to
Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, listened to dozens of speakers during the public hearing before unanimously endorsing a 4-acre property next to the Birch Bay Visitors Center on Birch Bay Drive, a property referred to as the Vogt property because the Vogt family owns it. All seven board members said the decision wasn’t easy.
“We’ve heard a lot of information from the community, but I wanted to go to both properties at low tide and base my decision on my own observations and facts,” said parks commissioner Richard Sturgill. “The southern property has a rocky beach at low tide. Birch Bay is all about the water, so it makes sense to get the best sandy beach.”
Commissioner Janet Boyhan said the central location of the Vogt property played into her decision.
“This central location can be a focal point for the community, which is very exciting,” Boyhan said.
Commissioner Jeff Margolis said he saw the merits of the southern property, which is more forested and includes wetland habitat, but cited the Vogt property’s ease of access, open landscape and sandy beach as his reasons for choosing it. Personal experience swayed his decision as well; when working as a lifeguard years ago, he rescued a swimmer at a rocky beach, cut his feet in the process and contracted blood poisoning.
“You have shells and barnacles at that beach near Terrell Creek, and if people go there barefoot they’re going to get cut up,” Margolis said.
A majority of the speakers at the meeting supported the Vogt property. “I see it as an ideal place,” Rhyan Lopez said. “It could be the epicenter of Birch Bay.”
“It’s wide open and right there on the main part of the beach,” Karen Winborn said.
Kelly Hong-Williams, who moved to Birch Bay from Canada, said visitors from Canada expect amenities such as restrooms and parking to be centrally located.
“If they see those amenities they’ll be more likely to stick around,” she said.
However, several people spoke up in favor of the southern property. “It’s bigger, it has a great beach and it costs less,” Patrick Alesse told commissioners.
The southern property is listed for sale at $3.5 million and the northern property is listed at $3.75 million. The county will conduct an independent appraisal of the northern property.
Some speakers said the beach park project would distract funding and focus from the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility Project, a larger county project in the works to restore the beach and add pedestrian walkways along Birch Bay Drive.
In a phone interview, executive Louws said the beach park and the pedestrian facility won’t conflict in terms of funding, because the pedestrian facility will be paid for with money from the county road fund and the park will be funded mostly by real estate excise taxes and the rest from the dining and lodging tax.
“Regardless of how the beach project moves forward, I don’t think there is any motivation for the [Whatcom County] council to stop moving ahead with the pedestrian facility project,” Louws said.
Kathy Berg said a park at the Vogt property would integrate well with the pedestrian facility project, which is slated to begin in 2016.
“The Vogt property is about midway between the ends of this mile-and-a-half-long pedestrian facility, and the park will be a perfect place to rest,” she said.
After the public hearing, representatives for each property presented their case. Harry Skinner supported the southern property, and showed that its faults were overblown.
Some speakers said water quality at the mouth of Terrell Creek where the southern property is located was a concern, but Skinner said contamination happens all along the beach. He added that an injunction on the property would be lifted upon receipt of the purchase price. Public parking is a need of the project, and Skinner pointed out there is already public parking near the Vogt property and none near the southern property. Some speakers said wetlands on the southern property would inhibit development.
“The wetland area is not a defect; rather it’s a unique asset,” Skinner said. “The inspirations behind this site are an opportunity not to be missed.”
Realtor Billy Brown presented in favor of the Vogt property, pointing out its central, open location, sandy beach and easy access.
Commissioner Theresa Sygitowicz suggested those in favor of the southern property approach the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Huxley College of the Environment and get them to build an environmental education center there.