Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rural Moratorium -- Too Little and Too Late?

Last night, the Whatcom County surprisingly passed an emergency ordinance that prohibits land divisions less than 10 acres in size in those rural areas proposed by the Planning Commission to be downzoned in October last year.  Good job, Whatcom County Council!

Now, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the question is whether this is too little and/or too late?  Let's start with the Too Late question first. 

As documented in the Review of Growth, 3,666 new housing units were approved in rural areas from 2000 - 2008 (Table 2).  1,109 of those housing units were within the Lake Whatcom watershed!  Ouch!  (Now I know why water quality and the traffic on Lakeway has declined over the years.) This was 26% of the county's residential growth during that time period. 

Now, the worst part is that Whatcom County's inaction to comply with the Growth Management Act has created a ticking time bomb for rural development potential.  In that same report, Table 9 shows that there were 14,561 legal lots already created in rural areas and another 3,928 lots in resource lands (mostly agriculture).  These are legal lots that are sitting vacant, waiting for that new McMansion.  The legal lots already created in rural and resource lands of Whatcom County could accommodate 41,230 people!  This is 74% of the growth anticipated in Whatcom County in the next 20 years!

Now, hang with me for a second, because it gets worse.  The paragraph above were just the existing vacant, legal lots that were already created by filing of a short plat or plat at the county auditor.  Now, what is the potential for new growth?  Good question!

Another 6,974 lots were estimated to be able to be created in rural areas, and another 1,256 lots in resource lands.  So, add existing lots plus new potential together, and the Whatcom County rural and resource lands could accommodate 73,954 new people.  Only 18,352 people MORE than what the entire county is expected to grow to in the next 20 years.  No need for urban growth areas after all! 

This ordinance is simply window dressing.  It affects very few people.  Developments like Governor's Point already have 25 year vesting agreements approved by the county, so they aren't affected.  Since 2005 when the Growth Management Hearings Board found Whatcom County out of compliance with the amount of rural development allowed in rural areas (validated by the Supreme Court in 2009), there has not been any discernable slow down in rural permit activity

This emergency ordinance was an attempt by the County Council to "save face" with the Growth Management Hearings Board that provided them with six months to complete the rural element.  During this time period, the County Council has shown no interest in really limiting rural development as required by the Growth Management Act. 

Council member Knutzen says he "doesn't know if it (one acre lots) will pass the laugh test before the Hearings Board."  Council members continuously state their views contrary to Growth Management:

·          "...this concept of the built environment on July 1, 1990 is a flawed way to do this."  (7-13-10)
·          "...harm as few people as possible..." (7-13-10)
·          "'s important to draw a line in the sand...recommending the one-acre option, and not have it as a LAMIRD."  (7-13-10)
·          "...a majority that says they are okay with two-acre zoning as being rural."  (7-13-10) 
·          "Traditional Rural densities have ranged from three residences per acre up to one residence per ten acres."  (10-26-10)

Too late?  You be the judge.   Too little is another conversation.  Stay tuned.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Caitac Application

For years, Caitac USA has been fighting to have their property at the intersection of Smith and Guide Meridian added to the Urban Growth Area.  Time and time again, the County Council rejected those requests.  Caitac, plus their allies in Jack Petree and Bob Wiesen, challenged those decisions to the Growth Management Hearings Board -- and lost.  For a copy of the Board decision, click here. 

Caitac is now wanting to stop the fighting, and move forward with their development plans.  Nice trick, but time to raise the shades on this maneuver. 

Caitac has agreed to settle their latest challenge to the UGA decision last fall (Ord. 2009-071) if the County would do just three things:
  • Tell the County Planning Commission to have a hearing on a rezone request that doubles the density of their property from one home per ten acres to one home per five acres.  Click here for a copy of that application.
  • Tell the County Planning Commission to have a hearing on a rezone request that puts a Tourist Commercial designation on their property.  Click here for a copy of that application. 
  • Agree to docket their UGA amendment for consideration in 2011.
One of my biggest concerns with the Caitac proposal is the question about urban growth:  when will it end, and when will rural areas and resource lands begin?  Why can't there be a line drawn that says "no more."  Maybe Caitac should be within the UGA, using Smith and Guide as the northerly entrance to Bellingham.

Look at the land use map for the Guide when you formulate that answer in your own mind.  If Caitac comes in, why not the other three corners of the Smith and Guide?  There already is development on two of those corners (gas station and tavern).  Then, look north, and see that the commercial and industrial zoning is almost continous all the way to Wiser Lake.

For those that think Growth Management is just about aesthetics, think again.  If not for all the rural development that Whatcom County allowed in the past twenty years, the taxpayers would not have had to put up $175 million for widening of the Guide.  Sure, some improvements were needed for safety purposes.  But, widening to five lanes was only needed because of the sprawl that the County allowed during this time.

Caitac's current proposal to do Tourist Commercial is suspect.  The Growth Management Act (36.70A.070(5)(d)) requires the following regarding tourist commercial designations:
The intensification of development on lots containing, or new development of, small-scale recreational or tourist uses, including commercial facilities to serve those recreational or tourist uses, that rely on a rural location and setting, but that do not include new residential development. A small-scale recreation or tourist use is not required to be principally designed to serve the existing and projected rural population. Public services and public facilities shall be limited to those necessary to serve the recreation or tourist use and shall be provided in a manner that does not permit low-density sprawl.
Exactly how does the Caitac proposal intend to fulfill this requirement when they have a) simultaneously submitted a proposal for a residential rezone in order to cluster homes into dense urban pattern and b) have proposed an agreement that will consider their proposal for a UGA amendment? 

Whatcom County has not completed the process of adopting criteria for designation of these rural areas of more intense rural development (LAMIRD) as ordered by the Supreme Court.  Until they do so, Caitac is basing an application on a comprehensive plan found out of compliance by the Supreme Court. 

WCC 20.90.064(2) requires that these rezone requests include a way to transfer desnity from a sending area to this proposal.  There is no proposal as part of the development application. 
(2) Rezone requests to increase residential density that have been submitted pursuant to this chapter shall be required to transfer development from a designated TDR sending area to obtain the requested density as a condition of approval.
(a) In order to obtain the requested density, one development right shall be transferred for every three additional dwelling units obtained through rezones within a designated urban growth area. The county council may modify this requirement if a development agreement has been entered into that specifies the elements of development within the rezone area. The development agreement should include, but not be limited to, affordable housing, density, allowed uses, bulk and setback standards, open space, parks, landscaping, buffers, critical areas, transportation and circulation, streetscapes, design standards and mitigation measures.
Exactly how is this proposal considered "small scale", and how does it rely on a rural location, and how will public facilities and services for this development not permit low-density sprawl.  I think that Caitac, even with their new path, will have a long and bumpy road ahead of them.

It is time that they work through a public process to address these issues.  Then, Caitac USA might have a development plan that the community will accept.

UPDATE:  The County posted a development agreement proposal on the web site today (10-19).  View it here.  My favorite line:  "Caitac shall not be required to pay any mitigation fees or impact fees beyond what Whatcom County requires upon the effective date of this Agreement."  Guess what?  Whatcom County has no fees.  No promise for transfer of development rights for the rezone. No agreement that they pay mitigation fees -- fire, schools, parks, transportation.  What do you think of that proposal?  Contact the County Council, County Executive and PDS with your comments.  

Saturday, October 16, 2010


This blog will focus primarily on regional planning issues related to growth management in Whatcom County.  My intention for this blog will be to inform, educate and provide you, the reader, with my perspective as a professional planner living here.  I will keep you informed on upcoming issues and events, how to participate, and encourage substantive discussion about issues important to the quality of life in our community.

Anyone that wishes to comment on topics is welcome, but at this time I intend to review comments before they are posted to remove the absurd. 

To be clear, since I currently work for the city of Bellingham, I will not comment on any issues affecting the city directly as it would be a conflict of interest for me.