There’s an interesting item on the County Council agenda for Tuesday night, and it seems to be flying under the radar. The County is proposing to approve a Settlement Agreement with Caitac, which owns property north of Bellingham. Here's the link.
How much property? Well, I don’t know. A whole bunch. The Settlement Agreement doesn’t say. Apparently there are some exhibits to the Development Agreement that might explain how much, but the public doesn’t get to see those exhibits. They’re not included in the Council packet (at least, not in the packet made available to the public).
From the way this matter is being handled, you would think that the public had no interest at all in the project. The Settlement Agreement came out on Thursday. It will be discussed in a secret Executive Session on Tuesday, then voted on – with no public input at all – on Tuesday evening at the Council meeting.
Here’s my favorite part of the Settlement Agreement. By April 26 -- yes, two months from now -- the County Council will be contractually obligated to make its "final decision" on the comprehensive plan amendments, zoning amendments, and development agreements that Caitac wants in order to develop its property. But there are no applications for any of these provided with the settlement agreement. And when you go to the Planning and Development Services web site (click here), you will see that Caitac hasn’t even applied for any comprehensive plan amendments. Or if it has, they’re secret! The date for a SEPA determination (that’s environmental review) is left blank in the Settlement Agreement (paragraph 3.1), so who knows when that might happen? Not the public, that’s for sure.
The Settlement Agreement doesn’t require Caitac to submit any missing applications or information by any particular date. Now, here’s the kicker. What if Caitac doesn’t get around to submitting its comprehensive plan amendment application until, say, April 25? Too bad, the County still has an obligation to reach a final decision by April 26. And if it doesn’t, Caitac can sue the County. And if Caitac wins, We the Taxpayers get to pay Caitac’s attorneys’ fees. That’s in paragraph 6.2.
There’s more. The Settlement Agreement doesn’t actually “settle” a thing. Settlement Agreements usually “settle” litigation, but this one doesn’t. It does absolutely nothing for the County unless the County Council decides to approve all of Caitac’s applications, on terms favorable to Caitac. Yes, seriously. The County is putting itself under a contractual obligation that could cost us all money, but Caitac won’t even withdraw its litigation petition unless it gets everything that it wants, on the terms that it wants. That’s in paragraph 4.1.
This may be the most one-sided contract I’ve ever seen.
So why have a “Settlement” Agreement? Here’s my guess. Without a “Settlement” Agreement, Caitac would have to wait until the Rural Element was done to apply for its development. The Planning Commission would hold at least one hearing, maybe two, and maybe a work session as well, for a project of this magnitude. It might seem odd if the Council didn’t hold a public hearing, too. In other words, the County’s normal public process would apply to Caitac.
But this way, the County can help Caitac out by truncating the public process and making everything seem terribly, terribly urgent. The Planning Commission will have to hold a hearing and vote in one night. The County Council might not even have time to hold a hearing – it might just approve whatever the Planning Commission sends to it. Caitac gets moved up in line against other projects and gets expedited hearings; it’s the citizens of Whatcom County who get shortchanged.
There are plenty more strange issues about this “Settlement” Agreement. Caitac is asking for a “LAMIRD” (Limited Area of More Intense Rural Development) designation, but the County’s Comprehensive Plan doesn’t even contain LAMIRDs right now – that’s why the state Supreme Court told the County to revise its Plan in 2009, and the County hasn’t finished. So how will that work? How can the County Council guarantee that both the Planning Commission and the Hearing Examiner will complete their required reviews in time for the Council to act by April 26? And so forth.
But here’s what might be the strangest thing of all. Look at the Settlement Agreement. Look through the applications on the Planning and Development Services web site. If you find any kind of map, or any kind of concrete description of what Caitac is proposing to do, please contact me and I’ll post it right away. Right now, though, the public has no idea what the Council must approve within two months in order to actually “settle” Caitac’s claim against the County.
What’s the secret?