Public hearing planned on amendments to Birch Bay low-impact development code

Published on Tue, Dec 6, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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The Whatcom County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing this Thursday on Birch Bay development county code amendments that have drawn the ire of some opponents of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal.

The planning commission, at its Thursday, December 8, meeting will discuss amendments to Whatcom County code that will add an optional incentive-based approach to low-impact development in the Birch Bay watershed, senior county planner Peter Gill said. The incentives will be available to developers who utilize low-impact development practices, such as preserving trees and forestland and protecting wetlands and streams. The incentives would include an accelerated permitting process and the option to pay a fee instead of improving wetland and stream buffer areas onsite.

The fee would go into a proposed habitat mitigation fund, which would pay for wetland buffer mitigation in other parts of the Birch Bay watershed, Gill explained. A developer who pays into this fund, which would cost $125,000 per mitigated acre at the lowest rate, would be absolved of any liability for mitigation related to his or her project and would not have to complete the other requirements that go along with onsite mitigation. These requirements include hiring a biologist to create a mitigation plan, maintaining the site for three to five years and sending monitoring reports to the county.

Soon after this meeting was announced and the agenda made public, opponents of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal took issue with one section of the amendment describing the habitat mitigation fund. Allow me to quote this section here:

“The [habitat mitigation fund] applies to the unincorporated areas of the Birch Bay watershed. Projects within the Cherry Point Industrial District that impact stream and/or wetland buffers may utilize the [habitat mitigation fund] for off-site buffer habitat mitigation with approval of the Director of Planning Development Services.”

The industrial district mentioned above is where the proponents of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, Seattle-based shipping terminal company SSA Marine, want to build the terminal.

Opponents of the terminal, namely Bellingham-based Salish Law Policy Solutions and Communitywise Bellingham, took the above-quoted text to mean that SSA Marine could avoid any and all wetland or stream buffer mitigation efforts on the site of the proposed terminal. The two groups claimed SSA Marine had a hand in writing this specific portion of the habitat mitigation fund description. To quote from Communitywise’s blog post on the topic:

“These new regulations would theoretically allow the applicant to reduce the buffers of streams and wetlands onsite to ZERO, and pay into fund to provide mitigation elsewhere in the watershed.”

After this post went up on Communitywise’s website, Gill submitted a memo to the Whatcom County Planning Director requesting the text Communitywise and Salish Law took issue with be removed from the amendment. He said public concern influenced his request to remove the language, despite the fact that the Gateway Pacific Terminal proponents could not have taken advantage of the habitat mitigation fund because the terminal project would  not be considered “low-impact,” which is a requirement to use the fund.

Gill said talk of the amendments goes back to 2006, when county public works commenced a Birch Bay pilot study to identify wetland areas in the Birch Bay watershed that could potentially be enhanced using money from the proposed habitat mitigation fund. Numerous public and informational meetings have been held on this topic, including the most recent public hearing before the planning commission on May 12.

Craig Cole, spokesman for SSA Marine, has also made clear that the terminal company knew nothing about nor promoted in any way the proposed amendments with which Salish Law Policy Solutions and Communitywise Bellingham took issue.

Thursday’s public hearing will start at 6:30 p.m. on December 8 at the Whatcom County Council chambers in Bellingham. Click here for the planning commission’s agenda, which includes links to a number of documents having to do with the proposed amendments.



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