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Birch Bay group eyes incorporation

City would be fourth largest in Whatcom County

Matt Berry, right, helps his son Charlie, 4, jump down from a stump on Feb. 21, in Birch Bay. Berry, a real estate agent, was raised in Birch Bay and moved back to raise his own family. He is part of the effort to incorporate the community as a city. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Julia Tellman CDN Contributor

Birch Bay is not a city. 

While nearly 9,000 people live in the 5-square-mile crescent of coastline south of Blaine, Birch Bay doesn’t have a mayor, a council, city ordinances or a police force. Kids travel 10 miles to Blaine every day to attend school. There’s no post office, nor is there even a U.S. Postal Service mail drop box anywhere in the area. 

To some residents, those are all problems. And they’re launching a revival of the notion of Birch Bay’s incorporation as a partial solution. 

Some residents of Birch Bay are pushing to incorporate into a town. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Matt Berry is a local real estate agent who grew up in Birch Bay and, after a few years away, moved back with his young family. He describes it as a “very free area,” a slow-paced and neighborly community less than 10 miles from the Canadian border, where golf carts are allowed on public streets, Independence Day revelers still shoot off fireworks with abandon, and during crab season everyone harvests enough to share.

Berry doesn’t want the community to lose its friendly character, but he is interested in seeing more local representation in government and better public amenities. That’s why he is helping to lead the Birch Bay Incorporation Association (BBIA), a new group investigating the possibility that Birch Bay could one day become a city.  

The community’s property and sales taxes flow into the coffers of Whatcom County and other taxing districts like the Blaine School District, and in exchange, Birch Bay receives the same services as other census-designated areas such as Maple Falls and Custer. 

But according to the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan, Birch Bay qualifies as an “urban growth area,” destined for denser development than the rural unincorporated county. As of 2023, 8,900 residents lived in the Birch Bay urban growth area; as a city, Birch Bay would be the fourth most populous in the county after Bellingham, Lynden and Ferndale. 

The proposed preliminary boundaries of Birch Bay, if it were to be incorporated. (Map courtesy of Birch Bay Incorporation Association)

Everson was the last city in Whatcom County to incorporate — nearly a century ago. Incorporation was put to Birch Bay voters in 1992, but the initiative failed by a 3 to 1 margin. In the 2000s, considerable work was devoted to another attempt, resulting in the 400-page Birch Bay Community Plan adopted by the Whatcom County Council in 2004 and an incorporation feasibility study performed in 2008. 

Lisa Guthrie, who visited Birch Bay every summer as a kid and eventually made it her permanent home, was one of the many stakeholders involved in drafting the community plan a decade ago. She presented at those meetings as a representative of a development group and then as a full-time resident. 


Lisa Guthrie stands on the beach at Birch Bay State Park on Tuesday, Feb. 27. Guthrie is a resident of Birch Bay and part of the Birch Bay Incorporation Association. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

“People didn’t necessarily understand or recognize that, with Birch Bay being an urban growth area, there was always the idea that it would be incorporated either as an addition to Blaine or as its own city. This isn’t a new concept,” Guthrie said.  

However, before the issue was brought to another vote, the Great Recession took the wind out of those sails, as property values the incorporation’s feasibility study was predicated on tanked.

Not so sleepy anymore

Birch Bay once had a reputation of being a sleepy beachside retreat for retirees and Canadian second homeowners, but now the area is changing.

The demographics are skewing younger and more full time thanks to the ubiquity of remote work, housing prices that are driving families to settle in more rural areas, and the Canadian border closure that prompted many northern neighbors to sell the Birch Bay properties they weren’t able to visit. 

“Historically Birch Bay has been a resort community, but we’re seeing more of a trend toward permanent residential development,” Whatcom County planning director Mark Personius said. In the last couple of years, his office has seen an increase in applications for multi-family residential projects and redevelopment proposals for under-utilized property. 

New homes are being built at the Horizon at Semiahmoo in Birch Bay — a new development filled with two- and three-story homes. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Meanwhile, tourism is booming. The community, which had a relatively small commercial tax base and a population of around 5,900 when the 2008 feasibility study was published, is now home to almost 300 short-term rentals. Those rentals brought in more than $7 million in the last 12 months, and the resulting lodging taxes were collected by Whatcom County. 

“It feels like every year, there’s 30 percent more people coming to trick-or-treat on the Berm, 30 percent more people doing the Polar Bear Plunge, and we can’t buy enough flares for Ring of Fire on New Year’s Eve,” said Berry, who is also on the board of the Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce. “There are new businesses, we have a new express library coming — it feels like everything is building on each other.”

Despite the flood of summer visitors and the growth in the year-round population, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office has one neighborhood deputy who patrols Birch Bay full time; other law enforcement services are on-demand as needed. 

After hearing anecdotes about slow officer response times to car crashes, reckless driving and break-ins, Berry started researching incorporation and in summer 2023, helped assemble the Birch Bay Incorporation Association to further explore the idea. In November, the BBIA membership body, which is open to anyone who lives, runs a business, or owns property in Birch Bay, ratified its bylaws and chose its leaders. Berry and Guthrie were among the members elected to the executive committee.      

Homes line Terrell Creek in Birch Bay. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Besides public safety, Berry and the other BBIA members are interested in access to community development grants and local control over land-use planning, infrastructure and other amenities. 

“There are so many smart people that have such amazing knowledge and skills in Birch Bay,” Guthrie said. “I tend to think that we can do at least as well for ourselves as the county is doing, if not better.”

But does it pencil out? 

In 1992, a group called the Birch Bay Rural Preservation Forum fought incorporation and helped vote down the proposition. This time around, there hasn’t yet been organized opposition, but residents who don’t want incorporation or are on the fence about it have cited concerns about higher taxation in BBIA surveys and meetings. 

According to the 2008 feasibility study, a future City of Birch Bay could potentially enjoy a “slightly higher level of services” with the same level of taxation. Birch Bay could slowly wean itself off some county services like administration, contract out other services such as enhanced law enforcement, and make decisions about staffing and facilities, like a city hall, depending on its budget priorities. 

Berry pointed out that if Birch Bay were a city, those choices would be left up to the local voters, rather than carried out by the county council which “doesn’t necessarily have the same understanding of Birch Bay or have the historic knowledge,” he said. “If my city council person lives down the road from me and I can go complain to them, I feel better represented.” 

Jed Holmes, the Whatcom County community outreach facilitator, said that the county is open to whatever solution “makes sense for Birch Bay.” 

“The county is not pro or against incorporation — our stance is that, from an objective perspective, it needs to be studied. There are people willing to do that legwork and we’re supportive of that,” he said. “It sounds exciting to do the community-building part of it but there’s a lot of responsibility that comes along with that.” 

Birch Bay has long been viewed as a vacation beach town, but recently, more and more residents are sticking around all year. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

County Executive Satpal Sidhu is tentatively scheduled to speak at the BBIA’s next general meeting in May. The county footed the $100,000 bill for the 2008 feasibility study; while Sidhu has expressed a willingness to fund an updated study, the county council will need to approve the expenditure. Meanwhile, county planner Personius said he has had a few conversations recently about revisiting Birch Bay’s decade-old community plan, since that document helps guide long-range planning for the area.   

If incorporation still appears feasible based on new data and the community decides to make a go of it, then the work begins in earnest. The BBIA will need a petition signed by 10% of Birch Bay voters, after which the Whatcom County Boundary Review Board will hold hearings on the proposal. If the proposal is approved, only then will the matter be taken to the ballot. 

“Do we know yet if it’s feasible? No, we’re here to find out,” Guthrie said. “If the numbers are there, I’m for it. But even if not, at minimum we can take this platform we’ve created and use it to better represent ourselves at the county level.”

A misconception Berry sometimes hears is that the leadership of the BBIA intends to run the future city government. If Birch Bay incorporates, it’s up to the voters to decide who will take the reins and shape local policy.  

From left, Carrie, Teddy, Charlie and Matt Berry walk on the beach at Birch Bay. They said they visit the beach almost daily with their two kids, a habit reminiscent of their own childhoods. Matt grew up in Birch Bay and Carrie in White Rock. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

“It all hinges on whether the community is supportive of it,” Berry said. “We’re not going to try and push this through if they don’t want it. I think the more information we produce, the more we can help people understand that we could be getting a better return on our tax dollars. We want people to attend the meetings, bring their concerns and questions, and get involved.” 

The next BBIA meeting is on Thursday, May 16 at CTK North Bay, 4895 Birch Bay Lynden Road. Meeting documents and historical resources can be found at incorporatebirchbay.com

Regular news contributor Julia Tellman recently moved to Bellingham to spend as much time as possible on two wheels or two planks in a recreational wonderland. Reach her at juliatellman@cascadiadaily.com.

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