Richard Nelson remembered for Birch Bay development


Former Birch Bay developer Richard Nelson, 88, died on March 8. Nelson was known for developing Birch Bay Leisure Park in the 1970s and having a hand in bringing the sewer system to the community, which inevitably changed the area’s landscape. 

Nelson was born in southern California and moved to Washington when his dad retired to a dairy farm north of Marysville. He was involved in real estate projects in eastern Washington before stumbling upon Birch Bay in 1970. Looking for a new real estate project to do at that time, Nelson purchased an 83-acre site where he built 790 RV units and called it Birch Bay Leisure Park. 

“The timeframe coincided with few land-use regulations and significant demand from the Canadian consumer,” said Stephen Nelson, Richard’s brother. “This project charged right ahead.”

The project’s success drew other investors to Birch Bay, Stephen said. Richard organized partnerships with other investors to gain control of about 900 acres in the area – 83 acres at Birch Bay Leisure Park, 260 acres around Beachwood and BP Cherry Point Refinery, 100 acres by Birch Bay Water and Sewer District facility, 60 acres by Sea Links Golf Course, 40 acres near Alderson and Blaine roads, 225 acres on Kickerville Road and about 100 acres at I-5 and Birch Bay-Lynden Road.

At the time, Birch Bay Village developer Keith Coleman was confronted with the issue of how to develop all of the village without a sewer system. The community began to recognize septic tanks wouldn’t be viable in the long-term as stricter land-use rules were adopted in the ’70s. Using his land as collateral, Richard was a driving force among a group of developers and heritage families who pushed to finance and expand the Birch Bay sewer system, Stephen said.

The Gischer family’s private water association serviced Birch Bay until Birch Bay Water and Sewer District was created in 1968. The district opened the wastewater treatment plant in 1976.

Birch Bay’s economy had been exploding. Thousands of Canadians were packing the Sea Links golf course, the roller rink, drinking at the taverns, and attending the carnival during tourist season. But as older resort owners sold their properties, the new owners were able to switch the septic tanks to sewer systems, allowing them to replace the vacation cabins with condominiums and RV parks. Birch Bay being connected to a sewer system meant fewer seasonal tourists supporting summer activity and more retired residents, Stephen said.

“Within two years you found this environment change dramatically,” he said. “In 1978, you no longer had the traffic.”

Stephen said the sewer system’s impact on Birch Bay wasn’t as his brother originally intended.

“It didn’t work out as we envisioned,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean Birch Bay didn’t dramatically benefit from those efforts.”

Longtime Birch Bay resident and former water and sewer district commissioner Patrick Alesse said he plans on planting a white birch tree in honor of Richard’s legacy.

“A lot of developers come to Birch Bay and they leave a scar and cash in their pocket. I feel like Nelson really developed the place better,” Alesse said. “That’s probably the highest compliment I can give him.”

Richard left Birch Bay in the early ’80s and established a real estate office in Bellevue that had up to 300 agents. He died in Everett.

“If it weren’t for his efforts, you would have a different Birch Bay, good or bad, depending on how you look at it,” Stephen said. “He was a key catalyst in having those properties assemble and use them as collateral for the construction of the sewer system.”


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  • EverettLink

    Services St.Mary Magdalen Parish April 1 2022

    8615 7th Ave SE Everett WA 98208 @ 11am

    The link for the live-stream for Richard April 1 is!

    Link from St Mary Magdalene Parish.

    Friday- 10:30am Rosary

    11am Mass - Richard Nelson.

    Solis Funeral 3301 Colby Ave Everett 98201

    Thank you

    Monday, March 28 Report this