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.


  1. David,
    Thank you for your as-usual insightful reporting.

    Question: Are there actually opportunity costs that Whatcom County has incurred by its ongoing noncompliance with GMA? Are you able to give a rough, ballpark estimate of state monies that we would likely have gained if we were in compliance, but which, being out of compliance, are off the table? I have heard some rumor that noncompliance has costs, but I'm not exactly sure what they really are.

    Thank you.
    Abe Jacobson

  2. Abe, the county is not eligible for Public Works Trust Fund and Centennial Clean Water grants or loans. They are also placed at a disadvantage for any other state grants that are competitive. They almost lost $1 million for the Lily Point acquisition because points were deducted for being out of compliance with GMA. They also cannot collect development impact fees (schools, transportation, parks, fire).

    The County will say that thus far, they haven't lost out on any state monies. That may be true, but they also haven't applied because they were either not eligible or not competitive.

    But, this does point out the problems with GMA. The enforcement tools are really weak. Here is a document that provides the links to the statutes on this subject: