Saturday, January 29, 2011

Good Development

I had a flashback this morning to an event that I attended when I was running for County Council: the Northwest Business Club candidates’ lunch. I had been warned about the hostility and partisanship, but I can’t say that I was prepared for the rancor in the room.

One question, in particular, stood out. A woman asked me, “Has the Whatcom County Council done anything that is good for business?” When I hesitated for a moment, she said, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, “Now, that was a tough one, wasn’t it?” The point that I was trying to make was drowned out by laughter (and believe me, they weren’t laughing with me).

I know what she was getting at, of course. She was talking about the California developer who bought up two five-acre lots and told his rural neighbor, “It’s great up here! It’s like the 1950s – they let you do anything you want!” She’s talking about the development community – the big developers – one of whom told me why developers support the current Council: “Sam Crawford doesn’t care if it’s good development or bad development. If it’s development, he wants it.”

We don’t talk about good and bad development in this county, in those words, and I think that we should. Otherwise, our thinking is fuzzy. During the campaign, my opponents called me both “anti-development” and a “city girl.” How can both be true? Someone who likes cities is, by definition, pro-development.

The “city-girl” jibe was intended to convey that I couldn’t appreciate the rural “county lifestyle,” the focus of which was made out to be. . . more development. Scratch your head over that one – I did. I grew up on a hundred-acre farm, and apparently that “rural lifestyle” isn’t what my opponents had in mind in relation to Whatcom County’s “rural” areas. “Rural” here apparently means “increasingly crowded.”

I like interesting, exciting cities because I like good development. I try to avoid the Guide Meridian because I don’t like bad development. I’m not unique in these preferences. Good development, as it turns out, is pretty much what the Growth Management Act thought that it was back in 1990. And that’s according to the market, not according to me.

There’s been a spate of articles recently, ranging from the Washington Monthly to the Wall Street Journal, reporting that the two major demographic groups affecting the housing market – “millennials” and retiring baby boomers – don’t want what the County is so determined to provide: more suburban-style housing spreading out away from urban areas. The Wall Street Journal article points out that 88% of the millennial “Generation Y” wants to live in urban areas. The Washington Monthly article emphasizes that “the Great Recession has highlighted a fundamental change in what consumers do want: homes in central cities and closer-in suburbs where one can walk to stores and mass transit. Such ‘walkable urban’ real estate has experienced less than half the average decline in price from the housing peak.”

Whatcom County, and Washington state in general, should have a competitive advantage. We should be poised to take advantage of these market trends because they align so neatly with the goals of the Growth Management Act: to create great, vital urban spaces, provide affordable infrastructure, and prevent the “inappropriate conversion of undeveloped land into sprawling, low-density development.”

When Whatcom County stops fighting these goals tooth and nail and starts promoting good development, it will be good for business. Good development is good for the public at large, and good for our children. Good development provides jobs, opportunities, and attracts businesses and tourists. Good development doesn’t threaten our important agricultural industry, and it doesn’t require the enormous taxpayer-provided subsidies for new roads, police, and fire services that we’ve been paying over the past couple of decades. Good development complies with the law, and good developers work within the law.

And if you know how to make the Northwest Business Club listen to that perspective, much less agree with it, please – run for County Council!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hammer or pen? Which impacts rural areas most?

What do you think causes more impact:  lines on paper or a new bottling plant in a rural area?

The ordinance passed by the Council last week is simply window dressing and it affects very few people.  The ordinance affected only land divisions, or the creation of lots.  It didn't stop, say Gold Star, from filing applications on their 77 acres along I-5 and Birch Bay-Lynden Road for buildings that could include manufacturing, fabrication, warehouses, wrecking yards, wholesale trade, retail building yards, professional offices, bottling plants, retail shops, banks, hotels, restaurants, and secure community transition facilities for sex offenders.

This development potential is what really interferes with the goals of the Growth Management Act, because it is the act of development (i.e. constructing buildings, demanding services and generating traffic) that causes the interference, not the division of land.

Another big loophole that the County left open is an alternative form of land division for commercial, industrial and condominium projects called "binding site plans."  There are 1,500 acres of land zoned for commercial and industrial uses in "rural" areas of Whatcom County.  This loophole is big enough to run a semi-truck through, which by the way, is a one of the many uses permitted on property like Gold Star's:  freight terminals, along with retail, offices, etc.

Consider the fact that it has been 20 years since Growth Management passed, and 14 years since the LAMIRD provisions were adopted into law that ALLOWED "limited areas of more intensive rural development".  Do you honestly think that there is any land left to divide that hasn't already been divided or an application filed to "vest" them?    

Consider projects like Governor's Point that already have 25 year vesting agreements approved by the county.  Our County has even made regional news.  Robert McClure, a writer with InvestigateWest reported about Whatcom County's vesting and sprawl in his January 13, 2011 article in Crosscut online news.
In order to begin discussion as to whether or not development allowed in Whatcom County rural areas would substantially interfere with the goals of the Growth Management Act, I would point you to the proposed amendments to the Whatcom County Zoning Code submitted by County staff on September 7, 2010, or the recommendations of the County Planning Commission on October 8, 2009.

The rural land division moratorium does nothing more than what the Order of Invalidity already provides.  What is needed in order to lift the Order of Invalidity is for Whatcom County to pass a Rural Element that is compliant with the Growth Management Act.

Meanwhile, Whatcom County has filed motions to rescind the Order of Invalidity, and have filed motions to stop my voice from being heard in these proceedings.  It is important to get informed on these rural issues.  Support the efforts of Futurewise because they have a seat at the table, trying to make sure that we Get Whatcom Planning again.

For a previous post on the history of why it may be "too late" in rural areas, see my October blog post.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Control Over the Instrument We Have Created

On paper, Washington state is a bastion of open government. State law proclaims:

“The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” RCW 42.30.010.

It’s not always clear, though, that the spirit of this law has penetrated as far as the top left corner of the state.

For example, let’s look at how our County Council is dealing with the Order of Invalidity that the Growth Management Hearings Board imposed in December. This is a particularly appropriate topic because the Order of Invalidity is the state’s way of reminding Whatcom County that it is, in fact, subject to another state law that hasn’t found a firm footing this far northwest: the Growth Management Act.

In a nutshell, the Order of Invalidity tells Whatcom County that part of its Comprehensive Plan relating to rural areas is so egregiously out of compliance with the GMA that the County can’t allow property owners to vest development rights in the areas covered by that part of the plan. It also requires the County to show that its revised rural plan will not “substantially interfere” with the Growth Management Act’s goal of reducing sprawl. The County doesn’t have to show that its plan will eliminate sprawl – just that it won’t “substantially interfere” with the goal of “reducing” sprawl.

How is the County Council responding?

Not by informing the people of Whatcom County about how it intends to comply with state law.

Instead, the Council held a secret meeting – an emergency “executive session” – on January 4. Then it adopted an “emergency ordinance,” placed on the agenda and available to the public only a few hours before its January 11th meeting. The point of an “emergency” ordinance is that it requires no public notice or public hearing.

The Council majority apparently hasn’t read the part of the law that says that they don’t have “the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.” And because we are not informed, we have no input into the Council’s actions. On January 14, in a move that had never been the subject of any public discussion or public vote of the Council, the County filed a motion to “rescind” the Order of Invalidity.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

The Council is supposed to adopt a new rural plan that complies with state law by the end of March. When it does that, the Order of Invalidity will be lifted.

Now let’s think about the timeline for the motion that the County just filed. By the time all of the legal process that surrounds the County’s motion is completed and the Board has ruled on it, we’ll be pretty close to the end of March.

So, although the County Council isn’t talking to us about it, it seems pretty clear that the Council’s closed door meetings have led to a decision – or two. The Council can’t be planning to complete its rural plan in time to meet the March deadline. If it were, there would be no need to file that motion.

Or perhaps the Council wants to be able to adopt a plan that “substantially interferes” with the goal of reducing sprawl.

Or maybe it has both goals in mind – further delay and a sprawl-inducing rural plan.

Here’s an interesting question. When did the County Council decide to spend County resources to try to get rid of the Order of Invalidity, rather than deciding to focus on fixing its rural plan? It’s expensive to use County legal staff to appeal the Order, and the County will still have to revise its rural plan anyway

The Council has never discussed this issue in public, and it never took any vote in public. Will we ever find out what’s really going on?

Only if we “insist on remaining informed.”

Thanks to David Stalheim for letting me blog on his site. I asked him if he wanted to read my entries before I post them or if he’d rather be surprised. He responded: “Nothing would surprise me.”

So anything that I post will represent my views, and when my views diverge from the views of the Outside Man, I’m sure that he’ll let us know.

Jean Melious

Link to my comment letter to the County Council for its January 25 hearing on moratorium ordinances.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Did Whatcom County Designate Agricultural Lands?

As the Whatcom County Council acts to undo Urban Growth Area decisions this past year (see Herald story here), a group has raised the question whether expansion of Urban Growth Areas can take place when Whatcom County didn't properly designate and protect agricultural lands of long-term commercial significance. 

The fact is that you can look, and look, and look again at the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan, and never find the criteria for what lands should be designated as agricultural.  Under the Growth Management Act, you are required to "designate" agricultural lands and then adopt development regulations to protect those lands that were designated.   The process of designation required compliance with the guidelines adopted by Washington State and incorporated into the comprehensive plan.  Whatcom County simply used old zoning and failed to designate at least 100,000 acres of land necessary to keep a viable industry happening in Whatcom County.

Since there isn't any criteria in the plan for what should be agricultural, it raises the question as to whether expansion of the UGA wouldn't conflict with the goals to conserve agricultural land.  (In fact, the expansion of the UGA Reserve is into lands, or immediately adjacent to lands, identified in the 2007 study on expansion of agricultural land protection.) 

This past Friday, the Growth Management Hearings Board denied the County's motion to strike the question whether this issue can be addressed at this time.  "The Board does not have a sufficient record before it to determine if the County has completed its (agricultural) designation process under RCW 36.70A.170 and therefore will not dismiss ... Issues 1 and 2....the issue to be addressed is whether or not the County has previously met the requirements set forth in RCW 36.70A.170."

The light continues to shine on failed planning efforts in Whatcom County.  Just before Christmas, the Hearings Board ruled thousands of acres of rural land didn't have the protections in place and issued an Order of Invalidity (see previous post).  Now, Whatcom County will have to defend why UGA expansions should take place into areas that might be designated agricultural had they actually done their work back in the mid-90s when required. 

And, rather than focus on the basics of growth management, Whatcom County continues to work on things that it doesn't have to work on, like the Yew Street UGA redo.  And now, Sam Crawford wants to bring up the County's Agricultural Protection Overlay regulations. 

It would be nice if they stopped wasting time and resources, but that would mean that they would have to Get Whatcom Planning again.