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.