BIRCH BAY - Stakes were recently planted to mark the boundaries of a $10 million flood protection project along Birch Bay Drive. At this very early stage in the work, some residents already don't like what they see.
Whatcom County's executive had a simple response: If the community doesn't want the improvements, which have been planned for the past 30 years, the county can spend the money somewhere else.
Dozens of residents, many of them with homes along Birch Bay Drive, attended the Tuesday, March 26, meeting of the county council Public Works, Health and Safety Committee to make their objections known.
Barney Yorkston, who lives at the north end of the project site, near Birch Point Road, was concerned the county's assertion of ownership of a 60-foot right of way on Birch Bay Drive will cause him to lose some of his property.
County staff put in stakes along the project site to mark the right of way. The road itself is only 30 feet wide; the county claims it owns twice that width - a claim several residents dispute.
"There are some inconsistencies with staff's findings on that right-of-way issue," Yorkston said. He suggested extending the project no farther north than Harborview Road, roughly cutting the project's extent in half.
"It would be a great thing for the commercial area," Yorkston said.
The project, from Alderson Road to Birch Point Road, aims to reduce flooding and erosion along Birch Bay Drive by removing a sea wall and replacing it with a more natural berm. A berm installed along a portion of the shoreline in the 1980s has proven effective, said Joe Rutan, a county engineer.
A storm that coincided with high tide on Dec. 17, 2012, flooded homes and businesses along the drive, but the road along the restored section of shoreline was protected.
"That has always been true in my experience. It works," said Kathy Berg, a longtime resident and chairwoman of the Birch Bay Steering Committee, which set the plan in motion in a 2004 county document.
The project also includes installing a walkway on top of the newly built berm, so pedestrians can avoid walking on Birch Bay Drive. The road would be widened, to 35 or 40 feet, with bicycle lanes added.
Construction is scheduled to begin in 2014. Rutan said some land along Birch Bay Drive will need to be acquired from private property owners so work can be done on the berms and drainage improvements.
If the property owners aren't willing to sell, the county can condemn the land for the project and pay the owners fair market value. The council said Tuesday it would not condemn any properties.
Executive Jack Louws said that rather than fighting to complete the project as planned, the county would back off.
"My recommendation would be to say, 'Hey, we'll move on to something else,'" Louws said Tuesday.
In an interview on Wednesday, Louws elaborated.
"We have a lot of needs in Whatcom County. We have a lot of areas where we can utilize $10 million, and we're going to need some community support to do this," he said.
"It's not a threat. It's just a reality."
The county might be willing to reduce the scope of the project and avoid the more natural beach at the north end of the drive, Louws said.
Louws and Berg both said the next step is to resolve any legal disputes over the right of way.
"I think that's where we're at. This has been in the works for a long time. (Residents have) talked about it on and off for years," Berg said. "Something had to be done, frankly, to get their serious attention."