Saturday, December 4, 2010

Here we go again

Here we go again.  It was a comment often heard at County Council meetings from Bob Wiesen, who tragically died this past week.  Bob's voice and passion will be missed.  This blog is dedicated to "Here we go again."

This coming Tuesday, the County Council is scheduled to provide special privileges to development interests, failing to negotiate on the public's behalf.  Here we go again.

The agreements that Whatcom County negotiates rarely provide any benefit and interest to Whatcom County.  The interest is always to the benefit of development.  In 1992, the County negotiated away for 25 years development interests for Governor's Point, allowing a development to be considered in a rural area at three homes per acre! 

Tuesday, the Council will be considering in "executive session", an agreement with Trillium and the City of Blaine to dismiss the petition regarding the West Blaine UGA (Semiahmoo).  The primary purpose of the Agreement appears to be to provide Trillium with benefits that it could not obtain by pursuing its action before the Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) because these benefits are outside the scope of the GMHB’s jurisdiction.

One of the benefits to Trillium in the proposed agreement is that it would contractually relieve the development from complying with the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) provision of the County Zoning Code (WCC 20.89.050(3)). 

Trillium submitted a planned unit development and subdivision application prior to the effective date of the urban growth area removing their property from the Blaine UGA.  It has now been one year since that application was filed.  Despite this fact, no progress has been made on completing the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the development.  Whatcom County and Trillium went through a process last winter to select a consultant firm to do the EIS, but Trillium has failed to sign the agreements to pay for the study.

One of the more significant issues in this Trillium agreement is that the County is conceding that the developer doesn't have to get development rights from agricultural lands or the Lake Whatcom Watershed in exchange for this "deal".  I think this move is illegal because the County is negotiating a land use action (zoning code) without public input and SEPA review.  This action can be appealed.  But, more importantly, it is bad public policy. 

In light of the County’s efforts to establish a viable TDR program for Lake Whatcom,  Council members Brenner and Mann have committed to developing such a program, and every individual land use decision that eliminates receiving areas reduces the likelihood that their efforts will be successful.  Furthermore, this is not relief to which the parties would be entitled if Trillium and Blaine were successful before the GMHB.  It appears instead to be inappropriate spot zoning, which provides preferential treatment to an individual landowner rather than providing for the uniform application of countywide land use policies.

The County should insist that Trillium proceed in a timely manner to pay for the EIS.  Instead, the agreement allows the permit application to sit and languish for as long as Trillium wants, making this yet another Governor's Point application.  There are not any provisions in this agreement that require timely completion of the EIS.  The only obligation "negotiated" is a requirement for the County to timely process the application, presumably when Trillium is ready. 

Twenty years from now, when there still isn't an EIS on the project, the public might wander who those negotiators were for the County? 

The second item on the agenda that provides an unfair advantage to development interests is the extension of development permits that are set to expire.  (The Council link to the agenda item is broken.)  It is one thing to consider permit extensions due to the current economic conditions.  But, the people that wrote this ordinance (development attorneys) used the current economic situation to roll back the application of new development regulations, particularly critical areas, to their development applications. 

This action comes at a significant cost to the public interest because the Council is sanctioning even more nonconforming developments that fail to protect water quality, public health and safety.  For example, under this ordinance, a development application first filed in 2004 in the Lake Whatcom Watershed, will now be able to continue to rely on less restrictive wetland buffers than under new standards adopted in 2005.  While vesting provides a recognition to developers' needs for certainty and fairness in planning their developments, similarly, the public need for certainty and fairness expects that when development applications expire that they only be resurrected if they meet the development regulations in effect at the time of a new, complete application.

Here we go again. 

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