Whatcom council changes course on project to save field from encroaching river

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 11, 2014 

EVERSON - In a 180-degree shift, Whatcom County will not shell out roughly $760,000 to try to stop erosion of a riverbank along a privately owned berry field north of Nugents Corner.

Acting as the Flood Control Zone District Board of Supervisors, the Whatcom County Council voted in May to proceed with a plan to stop the Nooksack River from tearing away a strawberry field on Lawrence Road (Highway 9) that is farmed by the Maberry family and owned by David Syre.

But following a very short public hearing on the Syre property project during the council's Tuesday, July 8, meeting - only one person got up to speak - council member Ken Mann moved to not consider adding the Syre project to the county's six-year water resources plan.

Council members Barbara Brenner and Sam Crawford voted against taking the project out of consideration. But Barry Buchanan and Pete Kremen, both of whom voted for public works to move forward with the project in May, had changed their minds by Tuesday's meeting. Carl Weimer was absent from the May 20 meeting and vote.

The amendment to remove the Syre project from the resolution passed, 5-2, with Crawford and Brenner opposed. The council, acting as the flood control board, then unanimously approved another part of the resolution to provide additional funding for emergency repair work at Swift Creek.

"This completely caught us off-guard," Marty Maberry said in a Thursday, July 10, interview. Maberry leases the land from Syre. "We're just disappointed. The flood tax, which we pay a lot for, is supposed to go for projects like this."

Maberry said he can understand the frustration or concern about using public money to protect private land, but because the property is close to Highway 9, there is potential for the erosion to eventually reach public property.

"It's not necessarily what's there now, it's what's going to happen in the future," Maberry said. "It's got massive devastation potential."

The work plan for the farm likely would have involved placing 20 or 25 anchored log piles along the bank to contain the river, which naturally changes course and has torn several acres from the farm in recent years.

The project was originally ranked a low priority for the county, at 149th place on a list of 212 projects.

Brenner said she felt the project had important potential for public impact.

"It's getting pretty close to the highway," Brenner said. "I'm sure it's the state's job to take care of it ... but we have an obligation to people who live out that highway, too. It's about public benefit to me. It's a big part about salmon habitat to me."

In a Thursday interview, Kremen said he had pondered the issue since first voting to support it and had decided that it was not cost effective.

"I just found it very difficult to justify the expenditure of approximately three-quarters of a million dollars when you consider that we have so many other projects that also warrant attention," Kremen said. "Had the Department of Fish and Wildlife six or seven years ago provided approval for a permit to rectify this erosion problem, then it would have cost somewhere in the vicinity of $6,000 to $8,000."

Maberry, who is in the middle of the busy raspberry harvest season, said he would have to wait until fall to decide what, if anything, could be done without the county's project.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or Samantha.Wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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