Whatcom County Council did not make any changes to its law establishing two stop signs at the intersection of Birch Bay Drive and Birch Point Road during its March 7 meeting. Councilmembers and public works staff agreed to further research the topic, visit the intersection and discuss possible alternatives during a future council meeting.
After two hours of public testimony from about 40 Birch Bay residents, councilmember Ben Elenbaas, who represents Blaine, Birch Bay and Custer, said he wanted to propose a motion to repeal the stop sign ordinance that council unanimously approved during its February 21 meeting and reopen the public hearing. However, both county and staff determined it was best to do more research before repealing the ordinance.
County council unanimously approved the stop signs, just north of Birch Bay Village and south of the Horizon at Semiahmoo development, during its February 21 meeting. The stop signs were approved for southbound traffic on Birch Point Road, traveling out of the gated Horizon subdivision, and westbound traffic on Birch Bay Drive, at the top of the curve. Eastbound traffic on Birch Bay Drive would have the right-of-way.
During its February 7 meeting, council approved a public hearing on the stop signs to be set for its February 21 meeting. The agenda item was titled as “ordinance regarding installation of stop signs on certain county roads” on both meeting agendas. Notice of the February 21 meeting was published in the Bellingham Herald.
Councilmember Carol Frazey voiced concern February 21 when no community members sent feedback to public works or councilmembers before the public hearing. One Birch Bay Village resident, who was against the stop signs, was the only person to speak during public comment. County council unanimously approved the stop signs after the public hearing, citing support of Whatcom County Public Works Department’s recommendation.
Public works traffic engineer Doug Ranney had told council the stop signs were needed as Horizon at Semiahmoo develops. Horizon is building 540 units on its 149-acre property between Birch Bay Drive and Semiahmoo Parkway. The county has already issued 30 building permits to the developers, requiring a second emergency access road open in Horizon.
Elenbaas said in a phone interview he approved the stop signs per public works’ recommendation – but then his email started flooding with concerns.
“At first, I was like, ‘We addressed this. It passed,’” Elenbaas said. “But then the emails started adding up to the hundreds.”
Elenbaas scheduled a public meeting at Tony’s Tavern in Custer on March 2, thinking only a few people would attend. Instead, over 50 people gathered under brightly lit Coors Light and Budweiser signs and scanned county documents laid out on a pool table. Public works engineer Jim Karcher and public works special programs manager Roland Middleton were in attendance.
“While I’m convinced that what public works presented would be feasible, I’m also convinced there’s probably a better solution,” Elenbaas said.
Public works staff approved the design and construction of the Birch Point Road and Birch Bay Drive intersection from 2003 to 2007, Karcher wrote in a statement to The Northern Light that was prepared in collaboration with public works staff. David Evans and Associates was the engineer for Horizon’s first phase and performed necessary traffic analyses. Earlier this year, public works reevaluated intersection traffic on things such as vehicle volume, site distance and turn movements. Staff recommended the two stop signs in anticipation of vehicles traveling through Horizon.
“In the engineering judgment of public works, the stop sign layout as approved by council via an ordinance on February 21, 2023, is the safest and most appropriate traffic control for the existing intersection at this time,” Karcher wrote. “Public works makes these types of decisions based on sound engineering judgment and must do so even when the outcome may be unpopular.”
Birch Bay residents have been upset that a connector road from Birch Bay Drive to Semiahmoo Parkway/Lincoln Road isn’t being planned as was agreed upon with the previous Horizon developer when the intersection was designed. According to county documents, the connector road, which would divert traffic from Birch Bay, was included in the original Horizon planned unit development (PUD) that expired. The new Horizon developer, Harbor Custom Development, is creating a new subdivision that is not bound by previous agreements.
March 7 council meeting
Nearly 40 Birch Bay residents spoke in opposition of the stop signs for two hours during the public comment portion of the March 7 council meeting. No one showed support for the signs.
Many residents supported the connector road and were worried about speeding on Birch Bay Drive as well as crashes that could occur at the intersection, especially during inclement weather.
“Creating the dangerous ‘S’ curve makes it clear the county was confident the connector road was necessary, so confident they created the dangerous ‘S’ curve before the connector road was complete,” Birch Bay resident Eydie Berry said during the meeting. “If the connector road was a good idea in 2004, it is a great idea now. If the connector were finished, the stop signs would be unnecessary. It would decrease traffic on Birch Bay Drive, give those who want to go faster a quicker route, and provide a safer route in case of emergency evacuations or for emergency vehicles where time is of the essence.”
Birch Bay resident Gary Mitchell said he raced to the meeting at Tony’s Tavern right after having surgery in Seattle. Birch Bay Village resident Laurie Kritz said she made sure to attend the county council meeting remotely while on a trip in California. Her biggest concern, she said, was stopping at the top of a blind curve and being blinded by headlights.
“I agree you have to have safety in an intersection, but that’s not the point,” Birch Bay Village resident Al Hawks said. “The point is you have a blind spot and a hill.”
After public comment, Elenbaas told councilmembers he would like to repeal the previous ordinance establishing the Birch Bay stop signs.
Councilmember Kathy Kershner, who is chair of the public works and health committee, said she and interim public works director Elizabeth Kosa were setting a date to visit the intersection and discuss options.
“I think it would be best to take what we’ve heard from the public today, go out and review it, work with public works and the public works committee to work on alternative measures to the stop sign and see where we go from there, rather than council try to draft an ordinance,” Kershner said.
Elenbaas said his goal was to let the community know that council was pausing the stop signs.
“I’ve driven this road numerous times and there are valid concerns,” he said. “I think some of the history here is very important.”
Council and public works staff discussed the procedure for moving forward since the stop signs were now required by the county.
“Once an ordinance is passed, it’s law and we need to follow that,” Middleton told council. “There is a certain expectation of performance. We can’t just hold it off because a group of people very reasonably said, ‘You should reconsider this.’ It’s not up to public works to reconsider an ordinance that you passed and that you signed.”
Whatcom County chief civil deputy prosecutor Karen Frakes, who advises council, said the only way to repeal the law would be with another ordinance.
Kershner said she wanted to take time to look through information presented during public comment and learn from the other side of the argument.
“We need to pay attention to why this stop sign was put in place in the first place and make sure there aren’t extenuating circumstances that require this,” she said.
Elenbaas said he still wanted to prevent the stop signs from being installed and reopen a public hearing now that more of the Birch Bay community was aware of the issue.
“I think we would cause a lot more pain and heartache if we let the stop signs go up and then revisit it,” he said.
Council and staff ultimately agreed to not change the law, for now, while council researches the issue and Kershner and Kosa visit the intersection.
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