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The puzzle of Birch Bay has a few missing pieces

Incorporation is an evolution toward community

Birch Bay waterfront as seen in late February. A vibrant community in a spectacular coastal landscape, the area is a year-round magnet for visitors, an attractive haven for retirees and an affordable place to house young families, guest writer Joan Connell says. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Joan Connell Guest Writer

Birch Bay in 2024 looks something like one of those panoramic jigsaw puzzles, its pieces scattered across a tabletop, still in the process of being solved.

The outlines of the picture are clear: A vibrant community in a spectacular coastal landscape. A stellar state park and wildlife refuge that is an ecological treasure, drawing visitors from all over. A local economy focused on recreation. A diverse residential enclave that’s getting bigger every day. 

What began as a summertime town with many absentee owners has evolved into something quite different: a year-round magnet for visitors, an attractive haven for retirees, affordable neighborhoods to house young families and a close-to-nature playground for folks of all ages and walks of life. 

Birch Bay, Joan Connell says, is a diverse residential enclave that’s getting bigger every day. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

But the puzzle of Birch Bay has a few key pieces missing.

We are Birch Bay, but the mail we receive is postmarked “Blaine.” There’s no post office here or postal code that identifies this place by name.  No city hall, no city manager, no elected representatives. No full-time police presence. No full-scale grocery store. No public school. No public washrooms on the commercial waterfront for the crowds that throng our beaches. There are at least three homeless encampments in and around this thriving community, but aside from a few stalwart churchgoers, there are no social services to help those on the margins survive.

Because Birch Bay lacks the legal standing to claim a legitimate municipal identity, it’s hard to act nimbly or speak with one voice about the challenges and opportunities residents face. Bottom line: We are Birch Bay, but people who don’t live here make most of the decisions about how this community will function and grow.

The Birch Bay Incorporation Association (BBIA) is a diverse group of local residents from all walks of life trying to piece together the puzzle of Birch Bay: What would it take to evolve into a community more meaningful to the people who actually live here? 

BBIA’s goal is to work with the community and the Whatcom County government to examine the costs and benefits of establishing Birch Bay as a city with its own elected leaders, governing structure and decision-making authority. The group aims to be inclusive and transparent: Public meetings are open to all, in person and via Zoom.

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

One of the most compelling arguments for incorporation is taking control of the millions of property tax dollars that Birch Bay residents pay each year into Whatcom County coffers and redirecting those dollars to meet the specific needs of a coastal community. It’s also an opportunity to identify the values that bind a community together and guide choices in the future. 

Becoming a city does not mean seceding from Whatcom County. In fact, incorporation has been a topic of discussion and planning efforts with county officials for decades. The last time Birch Bay and Whatcom County pursued incorporation occurred in 2008, resulting in a feasibility study that mapped out parameters of the proposed city. But then the recession hit, and the incorporation effort lost momentum. As the question of incorporation arises again, that collegial and collaborative relationship continues.

In the coming year, BBIA plans to conduct what it says will be a thorough and fair examination of the incorporation issue, consulting with residents, Whatcom County government and elected officials. Expect a lively and hopefully civil conversation among those who support the idea, those content with the status quo, those wary of government in any form and those who want to withhold judgment until all the facts are examined. 

If a consensus emerges that incorporation is in the community’s best interest, the question will be put on an upcoming ballot. The voters of Birch Bay will have the final word. 

The incorporation question is an experiment in democracy itself at a time when some folks’ faith in government is shaky. Are the 9,000-plus residents of Birch Bay capable of evolving from self-interest to civic engagement? Are they willing to think beyond the very legitimate issues of taxation and property values to larger issues like climate change and unrestrained growth? Will they be able to filter out the noise on social media and engage in fact-based civil discourse? If incorporation is put on the ballot, will they pay attention? Will they take the time to cast their votes? 

A crowd mills around Sharon and Mark Butler's cat sand sculpture.
People crowd around Sharon and Mark Butler’s cat sand sculpture July 29, 2023, at the Birch Bay Sand Sculpture Competition. (Sophia Nunn/Cascadia Daily News)

As people here ponder the future of Birch Bay, keep in mind these interlocking pieces of our community that have already contributed greatly to the collective quality of life:

  •  Birch Bay Water & Sewer District has provided critical infrastructure for more than 50 years. Utilities are a key function of local government — and an award-winning system is already in place.
  • BBWARM, the Birch Bay Watershed and Aquatic Resources Management District, was established by Whatcom County and is funded by annual resident fees, in response to local concerns about water quality, flooding and loss of habitat in the Birch Bay watershed.
  • Friends of Birch Bay Library pivoted after a heartbreaking defeat of the 2023 bond issue. Since then, FBBL secured funding for a scaled-down library in the historic Vogt residence. It’s far less than what was originally hoped for, but Friends of the Library saved a valuable piece of waterfront property from development that will be a cultural resource for years to come. 
  • District 2 Parks and Recreation District commissioners work hard to develop programs and fund a variety of community activities for local residents. 
  • After years of delay, Whatcom County Parks will finally break ground in 2026 on the $5.68 million Birch Bay Beach Park, providing much-needed public restrooms, showers and event spaces. That means porta-potties, a major eyesore on the prime portions of our local waterfront, may finally disappear. 
  • The $8.7 million Birch Bay Berm project is the largest public works project in Whatcom County history. Completed in 2021, it is a great example of how the community and Whatcom County government worked together to offset flooding and add beauty to the coastal landscape. It took almost 50 years for famed hydrologist Wolf Bauer’s solution to repair Birch Bay’s damaged northern shoreline to become a reality. Let’s hope such projects can move more swiftly in the future.

The current incorporation effort is one more milestone in the ongoing effort to make Birch Bay a more coherent community, more responsive to the needs of its residents and more responsible to its spectacular natural setting. When you think of all the good work that has been done so far, the future of Birch Bay looks a lot less like an unsolved puzzle and more like the beginnings of a plan. 

Joan Connell is a journalist, author and emerita faculty at Western Washington University. She lives in Birch Bay.

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