County executive Sidhu goes 2 for 4

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At a special outdoor town hall meeting the Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC) considered four proposed requests for county action. County executive Satpal Sidhu attended the meeting and gave his enthusiastic support for two out of four.

The June 8 meeting was held at the Reef Tavern with a good-sized group in attendance.

First on the list was funding for a bus service that the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce had taken to the executive who had forwarded it to PRCAC to gather public input and make a recommendation.

“We have received lots of comments and emails,” said PRCAC president Allison Calder, with only one in support of the proposal. “The others were all asking questions.” Calder said the chamber requested $30,000-$40,000 for emergency funding to rent the Breakwaters van and hire a driver to operate a bus service on the Point seven days a week for 7-10 hours a day to meet the ferry and allow mobility for tourists who can’t come to the Point with a vehicle.

Comments from the public questioned the frequency and duration of service hours being proposed, given that the ferry only runs twice a week, and the cost of funding the proposed four-month program.

“What I am hearing is, this seems excessive,” said at-large member Katherine Smith. She suggested it would be nice to have a bus to meet the ferry, but it could be pared down to days of ferry operation and that a bike program could give mobility to visitors at other times.

John Upston, the lone Uber driver on the Point, said that the ferry was the bulk of his business and he averaged seven calls a week. “It would put me out of business,” he said of the bus proposal.

At-large member Grant Heitman said there was no need to spend public funds when a private commercial solution was available. “I don’t believe I see a business case here,” he said.

Louise Mugar with the chamber of commerce and Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism (BWCT) said their proposal was intended to serve a larger audience than ferry travelers and to show the maximum possible usage. “We have a thousand-slip marina here and 800 spaces are available,” she said. BWCT was marketing several north county marinas, including Point Roberts, to boaters who would usually be vacationing in B.C. waters. “You can’t invite them here and not have a way for them to get around.” The funds being targeted, she specified, were not county transportation dollars but federal funds channeled through the county to alleviate Covid-related transportation challenges – a perfect match for the project.

Calder said those details had not been included in the proposal summary they had been asked to review by the executive’s office. “We are lacking information we would need to make a recommendation to the county,” she said. Her fellow committee members agreed and the matter was tabled for the committee’s regular meeting on June 24 pending more information from the chamber and the executive’s office.

The committee next discussed requesting county funding to provide increased high-speed internet service. “A large number of people in our community work remotely and they need those speeds,” Calder said. The committee agreed to draft a letter to the executive asking how to tap into federal funds for communications infrastructure.

A solution to flooding woes at Maple Beach was the next funding priority. “We want to see a complete redesign and the construction of something that mitigates flooding while protecting the road and the environment,” said Annelle Norman who represents the local taxpayers’ association on PRCAC. She suggested the project be modeled on the Birch Bay berm project, which replaced the old sea wall with a more natural berm.

Calder added that the Point pays into the county flood control district and “we’d like to see those funds being used here.” The committee gave unanimous support for Calder to write a letter to the county executive asking for county staff to begin reviewing potential solutions and funding sources.

A request for funding and technical assistance for the creation of a wetland mitigation bank that would ease development restrictions in the commercial core also received full committee support. The idea, Calder explained, was to designate a wetland property as the “bank” that would be upgraded with funds from property owners who would pay for credits in exchange for lessened restrictions developing their properties, which contain wetlands.

“The concept is a really sound one for Point Roberts,” said Smith, a wildlife biologist. She explained while all wetlands have value, some are more productive than others and could be much more valuable with funds for improvement through such a program. “There are economic benefits for wetland owners who want to get into conservation,” she said, and a mechanism for Gulf Road property owners to develop properties that would be unfeasible to develop otherwise with the current code restrictions dealing with wetlands and buffers.

“Point Roberts is a unique place and we want to keep it that way,” Sidhu said when it was his turn at the microphone. “If we wanted to make it Hong Kong in three or four years it could be Honk Kong, but we don’t want that.”

Sidhu was lukewarm about the chamber of commerce bus proposal, echoing the sentiment that the program proposed was oversized for what Point Roberts needed. “I will support whatever you guys decide, but I think if you scale it down, it will be more political,” he said. He added that he supported the idea of a commercial venture with the potential for subsidy from public funds if needed.

By contrast, he was bullish about the need for high speed internet. “This has become as necessary as running water,” he said.

The county has received $45 million in federal funding to be allocated over the next three years and Sidhu said he was committed to using the funds for legacy projects. “We should do something with this money that keeps us seeing benefits for 10, 20, 30 years,” he said, and extending broadband services in the county’s rural areas fit the bill.

“Point Roberts kind of rises to the top” as a place to start, the executive said, with the county providing capital funds for major infrastructure and Whidbey Telecom acting as the “last mile person” to get it to Point Roberts homes.

Sidhu was less ready to commit funds for a project the magnitude of the Birch Bay berm, which cost over $15 million, in Point Roberts. “It’s a good project and we will have an engineer from the county come up and do a preliminary study.”

Wetland mitigation banking elicited more enthusiasm. The county had already committed $100,000 to hire a consultant to build more wetland mitigation banking potential, Sidhu said, and “we will include Point Roberts in that study.” He suggested that a “simple option was to reduce the buffer to half,” rather than filling in wetlands, which would allow the county to work directly with the state department of ecology rather than involving the Army Corps of Engineers. “That option is more complicated.” Locally, he said, the challenge would be to find a suitable wetland property whose owner would agree to designate it as the wetland mitigation bank and use funds from credits to improve it.

These four proposals were on the agenda again at the June 24 PRCAC meeting, as well as several new community priorities identified by committee members.

The taxpayers’ association has put forward the idea of a county-funded free community-wide large item and green waste pickup soon after border reopening to help clean up the Point as cottage owners return. The association is also proposing the creation of an off-leash area for dogs at Lighthouse Marine Park, which it is asking PRCAC to bring to the county

PRCAC is also establishing sub committees to address facilities at Lighthouse Marine Park, the Maple Beach seawall, and overall visioning for Point Roberts. Anyone interested in participating in those committees is encouraged to attend.

Finally, Sheena Durflinger, will make a presentation in support of requesting county funds to support Family Days in Point Roberts, an event to be held on Saturday, August 14 and Saturday, August 21 at Baker Community Field on Benson Road behind the fire hall.

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