By Meg Olson
Addressing the Point Roberts community for likely the last time before he leaves his position as county executive after eight years on the job, Jack Louws kept coming back to the same message: It’s up to you.
“Be vocal and come together with a collaborative vision of what you would like for your home, your area of the county,” Louws told those attending the April 4 meeting of the Point Roberts Registered Voters Association. Whether the topic was economic development planning, zoning changes, bike paths, planting trees or how gas tax dollars should be spent: “It’s a community decision.”
However, when it came to the primary topic on the minds of many who attended the meeting – Lighthouse Marine Park maintenance and the recent decision to eliminate the dock on the heels of the elimination of a large portion of the boardwalk – Louws was not talking about community vision anymore. It was about dollars and Louws is conservative when it comes to spending. When he took office, he said, the general fund ending fund balance was $9 million while today it stands at $17 million.
“The dock situation was a difficult decision to make,” Louws said, but the $50,000 the state and the county were ready to commit to repairing the thrice failed “new” dock was not going to be sufficient to build a dock suited to the conditions.
County parks director Michael McFarlane also attended the meeting and highlighted the investments the county was making in Lighthouse Marine Park: a new playground and $18,000 to replace grills in the picnic areas. McFarlane said the county had worked with the available budget to try and design a dock that met current environmental standards. “Only a small portion could touch the bottom when the tide was out and that portion would have to support the whole structure,” he said. Early plans to have a pile pier or a second row of piles to help support the dock fell by the wayside “for whatever reason,” he said. “There was a lot for us to juggle including a limited budget.”
While Louws later said the decision to permanently eliminate a dock at the park was primarily guided by financial feasibility and not by usage numbers, he did mention that the Lighthouse Marine Park boat launch averaged 280 launches per season, low compared to other boat launches in the county. “For that many launches it doesn’t make sense,” he said. Audience members pointed out the dock had uses beyond launching boats, from fishing to sightseeing, and that a portion of launches went unrecorded as payment was on the honor system.
McFarlane pointed to other ways the county had invested in local parks in the last 12 years, from $6 million for property acquisition at Lily Point to $1.4 million on park improvements, primarily at Lily Point but also for the Monument Park Trail and Lighthouse Marine Park.
As the audience brought the topic back around to the county’s commitment to maintain Lighthouse Marine Park – citing everything from ongoing erosion and elimination of amenities to inadequate vegetation control – Louws said “obviously we have a difference of opinion when it comes to what’s acceptable and what’s appropriate out there. I go out to the park and it looks fine to me. The dollars everybody wants for everything in Whatcom County are not there.”
Economic Development Planning?
Stating he represented a newly formed independent business council, Tom O’Brien suggested current work by the Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC) to revise the Point’s zoning amounted to “putting the cart before the horse.” What was needed first, he said, was a comprehensive economic development plan that wasn’t 20 years old. The Point Roberts strategic economic plan, which involved lengthy community consultation, was completed by the Port of Bellingham in 1999.
The Whatcom County comprehensive economic development strategy was last updated in 2015 and is due for its next revision in 2020. The plan’s project checklist – which covers county, port and municipality economic priorities – is updated annually. Point Roberts is not mentioned in the 2018 checklist, in which the county’s top five priorities are the county courthouse facade, three Bellingham streets and a new jail.
Louws said he has spoken with community members about renewed economic development planning in Point Roberts and had “encouraged them to be self-starting, self-motivated and be leaders in making that happen.” He said the community needed to get the process rolling and “come back to Whatcom County with more of a self-governance plan. We’re ready to start building that. We have the people and we have a council that would be very interested in making that happen.”
Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety?
Asked if the county could roll widened shoulders or bike paths into this summer’s planned resurfacing of the 36 miles of county road in Point Roberts, county engineer Joe Rutan said it wasn’t a simple process. “It’s not a maintenance project, it’s a capital project,” and an expensive one. “I can build anything if you bring me the money.”
County general funds aren’t going to pay for it, but the growing Point Roberts Transportation Benefit District (TBD) fund could. According to state auditor files between 2010 and 2018 there have been no expenditures in the fund except for $20,623 in 2013. The fund, filled through a one-cent per gallon local gasoline tax and earmarked for transportation projects, topped a million dollars last year and continues to grow.
The Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC) is tasked with bringing the county the community’s highest priorities, and Louws said that’s where any project like bike lanes needed to start. “I’d like to start at Lighthouse Marine Park and go until we run out of money,” Rutan said, but the direction needs to come from the community.
Community members are invited to send PRCAC their transportation project priorities and ideas to email@example.com.