Saturday, February 26, 2011

Rural Element, Part II: Usual and Ordinary Meaning

There is a saying in legal circles that undefined terms are accorded their usual and ordinary meaning.

One would think that the current draft of Whatcom County's Rural Element (link here) was drafted by Committee.  Well, it was.  The County Council Committee of the Whole.  And nothing reads like policy drafted by a Committee.

If you read:  "Existing development is defined as that which existed on July 1, 1990," what would you think it meant?  What the actual state law says is:

RCW 36.70A.070(5)(d)(iv).  Existing areas are those that are clearly identifiable and contained and where there is a logical boundary delineated predominately by the built environment, but that may also include undeveloped lands if limited as provided in this subsection.

(v) For purposes of (d) of this subsection, an existing area or existing use is one that was in existence:

     (A) On July 1, 1990, in a county that was initially required to plan under all of the provisions of this chapter;

If you read that Rural Communities can be designated based on a criterion that says: 

"Existing zoning prior to designation as a Rural Community, except existing zoning may not be a sole criterion for designation,"

would you scratch your head and say, huh?  Since all of Whatcom County was previously zoned, except federal lands, is all of Whatcom County now eligible to be designated as a Rural Community? 

What would you think the ordinary meaning of a policy that says:

"Protect the character of the rural area in terms of natural landscape as well as rural lifestyles and economy...."

If you were on the Council or a Hearing Examiner or a judge, and were faced with a question about extension of public sewer or a large water main into rural areas, how would you judge this policy:

"Public services and public facilities necessary for rural commercial and industrial uses shall be provided in a manner that does not permit low-density sprawl."  (emphasis added)

Would you read this policy as a mandate to provide the services as long as it doesn't permit low-density sprawl?  Or, would you read this as a policy that these services and facilities CAN be provided ONLY IF it doesn't permit low-density sprawl?

If you read that more intensive development should be contained within rural designations, "unless justified by the existing rural character of the area," would you think that the Council believes that intensive rural development doesn't have to be contained?   Would you also expect that a policy document provide the reasons to "justify" this exception?

I would have expected that the policy document that the Council has spent over a year in the making would have clearly defined what sprawl is in rural areas, and what rural character is.  The word "sprawl" is used 8 times in 29 pages -- but never defined.  Whatever sprawl is, we know that it is "discouraged".  Discouraging something that you haven't defined isn't helpful.

We do know that the Council is heavily weighting the document to support commercial and industrial development in rural areas.  The Council minutes are filled with motions to amend current policy to include these uses in rural areas. 

The word industrial is used 19 times in 29 pages.  The word commercial outdoes the industrial land uses by inclusion 26 times.  Perhaps that is why the Council has amended an existing policy regarding commercial or industrial development along the Guide Meridian:

"Locate new commercial or industrial development along Guide Meridian at key intersections within designated urban growth areas, Rural Communities and Rural Business areas in a manner that does not disrupt the Guide's regional transportation function."

Now that policy about the Guide looks like sprawl to me. 

As I review the County Council draft policy on rural development, I'm left scratching my head on the ordinary meaning of the language used in the document, let alone the serious policy issues they have drafted.  But, we will cover the serious policy issues in an upcoming Get Whatcom Planning blog.

1 comment:

  1. "When *I* use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

    "The question is," said Alice, "whether you *can* make words mean so many different things."

    ..."They've a temper, some of them--particularly verbs: they're the proudest--adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs--however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!" Humpty Dumpty cried.