Thursday, March 31, 2011


So we're all outlaws now.

Whatcom County has had 14 years to get its Rural Element in shape, but it can't seem to manage. The Council just blew off its state deadline, which was Tuesday, March 29. It will get around to finishing the job one of these days.

The Herald reported on Tuesday's County Council hearing, and I thought that the article left out a few things. Like the fact that most of the people who spoke were there to testify, eloquently and respectfully, that the Council really needs to consider the cost of sprawl, the effect of sprawl on the environment, and the fact that the County's proposal would hurt agriculture.

That was one of the best moments of the night, by the way. A spokesperson for the Building Industry Association stood up and said that she spoke for farmers. She spoke for farmers, because she spoke for Henry Bierlink (Farm Friends), and Henry speaks for farmers, and all farmers are happy with the County's proposal. That, she said, was why no farmers had shown up.

Then came a farmer. John Steensma, who owns a dairy farm outside Lynden, reminded the Council that his business is to provide food. If -- as currently proposed -- buildings of unlimited size can be built right up to farmers' property line, the farmers' businesses will be hurt.

Very few property owners and property rights advocates testified, because they didn't need to -- they got everything they wanted in the Council's proposal.

But the mere fact that citizens suggested that some factors other than property rights should be considered appeared to upset Council members Tony Larson and Bill Knutzen. Larson went off on an anti-property-rights, anti-government rant that caused the person in front of me to wonder "When did this turn into a Tea Party rally?" Knutzen jumped in to agree wholeheartedly with Larson.

Speaking of outlaws, Tony Larson apparently believes that we should ignore state law. A big part of his speech involved declaring that the Growth Management Hearings Board doesn't need to be taken seriously.

Did more experienced County personnel step in and say "Whoa, buddy, you're way out of line here"? Heck no. Sam Crawford said "Ordinarily we don't allow applause, but that was passionate."


I don't want to live in an anarchist state, so I wrote the Council some letters. One pertains to the Hearings Board (link is here), one follows up on the issue of public comments that I raised in the last post (link is here). I pondered not writing, since the Council undoubtedly sick of me, but silence didn't seem like a good option.

P.S. If the links don't work, try this and this.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Deadlines are for the Little People

Whatcom County's deadline for passing a Rural Element that complies with state law was March 29, 2011. Does that date ring a bell? Why yes, it's today.

Many people busted butt to take the County's massive and ever-changing proposal, try to figure out what it means, absorb the immense amount of documentation posted Friday evening, and submit comments by the deadline. That's how I spent my spring break. All of it. I wrapped up my comments last night at 11:00 (that's p.m.) and submitted them to the County. A day before the hearing. The record was open until the hearing.

What did the County do? It sent the matter back to committee. In short, the County Council decided not to meet its deadline.

And then, to add insult to injury, some members of the Council grandstanded about how the public had "plenty of time" to review this information. And got on their high horses about members of the public who can't get their comments in enough BEFORE the deadline to allow time for review.

Yes, this was the very SAME Council that had just decided to VIOLATE its own deadline.

These Council members, who are PAID to meet, but continuously miss, deadlines had the gall to imply that their constituents are lazy slackers. Let's not forget that the Council's failure to meet its deadline has monetary costs for the rest of us, in the form of grants and impact fees foregone.

I usually have a sense of humor about the Council's dysfunctional moments, and I rarely type in caps.

Tomorrow, maybe I'll think that the irony is funny.

Tonight? I just feel dissed.

If you want to comment on the Rural ELement, the record closes next Tuesday at 5:00. The Council wants a week to review comments. Don't be late. The Council can't be expected to review information at short notice. Citizens can -- a few days is "plenty of time" for the likes of us -- but the Council understands the importance of deadlines.

When they're applied to others, that is.

A Few Words About the Rural Element

All right, about 8,000 words. I had a few legal bones to pick with the current proposal for Whatcom County's rural areas -- for those who need some light reading, click here.

David gets to do the fun part, with pictures; I do words. But here's the link to one picture that I referred to in my letter. It's a sprawl map. The official title is "Residential Growth in Whatcom County, 1995-2010," but you'll see why my title is better. I'm told that City of Bellingham traffic planners use it to explain to the public and to their Council why there is so much traffic coming in from rural areas. Sprawl is not free.

See you at the hearing tonight -- 7:00, County Council chambers.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Unlimited Areas of More Intense Rural Development

Tomorrow night, the County Council's supposed to "limit" growth in the rural areas. What's it really going to do?

It's hard to tell from the information posted on the web site. There are a million documents, they change all the time, and it seems like they keep posting more and more. David Stalheim has prepared some pretty amazing visuals to show what's going on. Here's an example. The link below will take you to his analysis of "Limited Areas of More Intense Rural Development." Development in these areas is supposed to be "limited" to areas where development had already taken place by 1990. Some of the boundaries don't take that limitation too seriously.

Click here for the link, and have patience -- it's a big file.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What's Wrong With This Picture?

1. The houses are not close enough to the farmland.
2. There aren't enough houses in the middle of the farmland.
3. Why is there farmland in this picture -- everybody knows that agriculture has no future in Whatcom County?

If you answered (1), (2), or (3), Whatcom County's proposed Rural Element is for you. It allows commercial and manufacturing uses with no buffers from agricultural land. That's right -- zero. That's in addition to allowing more small-lot residential development. More one and two acre lots next to farmland won't help the long-term survival of the County's agricultural industry.

If that doesn't seem like a good idea, tell the County Council on Tuesday, March 29th at 7:00. Speak now, or forever hold your peace as Whatcom County turns into. . everyplace else.

P.S. The picture shows Lynden's Urban Growth Area. The rural element theoretically doesn't allow "urban" growth -- well, except for those one- and two-acre lots.

Update:  The purpose of Jean's post is to address the conflict between uses adjacent to agricultural land.  The picture is the best quality aerial image that demonstrates the potential conflict.  The picture below is from a rural area, and equally shows the conflict.  But, here is the planning issue:

The Growth Management Act requires that the County (and cities) have regulations to assure that the use of lands adjacent to agricultural, forest or mineral lands does not interfere with the continued use of that land for resource production.  The County Planning Commission's recommendations to the County Council in the fall of 2009 had setbacks of 50 feet for existing lots, and 100 feet for new lots created adjacent to agricultural lands.  (Current County Code requires 100 foot setbacks from Commercial Forest Zones.)

The County Council proposal fails to ensure that there won't be any conflict.  Residential setbacks from Agricultural land can be as little as five feet for side and rear yards (WCC 20.80.210).  While someone could build their house five feet from an agricultural operation, the county code requires that the farmer that wants to build a barn, pen, milking shed, house or feed animals or store manure be 300 feet away. (WCC  20.80.255).

The conflicts between uses is even worse in the commercial and industrial zones proposed by the County Council.  As Jean mentioned above, the setbacks would allow a building on the property line adjacent to an agricultural use.  Outright permitted uses this close to Agriculture include eating and drinking establishments, retail, professional offices, libraries, community centers, and day care centers! 

A farmer recently sent us a comment about this proposal:
"We are the original players in the solar collection business.  Steal my direct sunlight and you steal my livelihood.  My grass and corn need sunshine to photosynthesize.  My bees need sunshine to fly and pollinate.  Buildings throw LONG shadows in the winter and even the summer, northside buildings throw long shadows to the south in the morning and evening.  I will request setbacks to be a minimum 35 feet or 3 times the highest building (whichever is greater) OR the right to chop off any LAMIRD building that shades any ag land."
As the residential areas encroach, the farming operations need to retreat.  As commercial or industrial uses encroach, farming operations retreat.  That is not protecting our agricultural resource land base -- and it is not consistent with the Growth Management Act. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Aurora North?

I'm reminded of a quote I read in a travel magazine about a place where I once lived that said something like:  "Once you get past the mind numbing clutter and sprawl, there is a nice community."

More than fifteen years ago, I recall driving through Bellingham as I was headed north for a river rafting trip.  I drove up the Guide and thought:  "UGH!"  What happened here?  I never thought I'd really want to live here based on that first impression.  And wasn't the Growth Management Act meant to control this sprawl and encourage smart development in our urban areas?

Much as Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, most people would be hard pressed to define urban sprawl, but they know it when they see it.  When it comes to the Guide -- I've seen it.  Textbook sprawl.

Here we are twenty years after Growth Management passed, and the county is proposing to abolish any limits on the extent of building size you can put into commercial and industrial areas up the Guide.  While they say there are limits of 30,000 square feet in the ordinance, all it takes is a separation of a foot to build yet another 30,000 square foot building.

Is this what Jack and Clayton Petree meant when they write about "Preserving Traditional Rural Character in Whatcom County?"  Click here for their letter.

I still recall the conversation that the Planning Commission had regarding the Guide.  The Planning Commission, after great debate, chose to limit development to nodes along the Guide:  Smith, Axton, Laurel, Pole, and Wiser Lake.  These are all areas that had development back in 1990 when the Growth Management Act passed.  There still were open spaces left between these nodes -- which functioned to serve the rural community.

Yet still, the Planning Commission debated whether the Guide was a lost cause.  I think the County Council proposal definitely gives up on the Guide. The commercial and industrial corridor has basically been extended all the way from the Bellingham UGA through Laurel.  Then, there is a small break in the Ten Mile Creek area for some agricultural lands, and then you have more intensive development all the way to the Nooksack floodplain and Lynden. 

Caitac:  I'm not going to detail this issue much, but the public needs to recognize that the County Council proposal doesn't show the Caitac proposal yet.  There is an active application and settlement agreement with Caitac that will go to hearing soon.  Caitac application link here  Meanwhile, the agents for Caitac have been busy with amending the plan and code to smooth the way for their proposal.  You can review their letters on the PDS website from their attorney.  (Comment Tracker)  Some of Caitac's input that the Council has accepted includes eliminating language that requires "isolation" from urban areas for "rural tourist" facilities, stripping the size of cluster development in order to "urbanize" -- oops, that is "protect the rural character" of their intensive housing development planned around their "rural tourist" facility. 

Caitac adds to sprawl up the Guide.  Will it happen some day?  Yea.  But, should it be coordinated with Bellingham and the sprawl up the Guide?  Yea. 

Is it too late for the Guide?  Probably.  But, we certainly shouldn't be encouraging development there before we develop our urban areas.  And, we can certainly work to preserve our open spaces along this corridor through building size limits, design and sign controls, buffers, and other measures to protect our Rural Character.  I'm not willing to give up on it and see this turn into Aurora North.  Are you?

If you are, then please let the Council know that they missed a spot in their designation.  I'm sure he'll be in next year asking for a free upzone.

The hearing is on the 29th.  7 p.m.  Council emailExecutive Kremen emailPDS email

Here is what my map of the Guide is under the County Council proposal. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rural Element, Part III: Any Questions?

I've been thinking about it. Between the two of us, David Stalheim and I have over a half century's experience in planning -- David as a planning director, me as a land use lawyer.

Not only that, but David was the Planning Director through the first two years or so of the Rural Element process, and I chaired the Planning Commission through its whole process of reviewing, considering, and holding public hearings on the Rural Element, which took the better part of a year.

And still, we're scrambling to figure out what, exactly, the County Council is proposing to adopt on Tuesday, March 29. What does it mean, what will it change in the County, what sort of place will Whatcom County be if it's all built out as the Rural Element proposes?

We're struggling, and we spend a lot of time on these issues. So it's hard to see how people with lives and jobs and interests outside this esoteric little slice of policy can have a good sense of this proposal.

To update: the Council was busy, busy, busy on March 14 and 15. Upzones here, protections and restrictions removed there. I couldn't go to the sessions - they hold work sessions during the day, not so good for those of us with day jobs - but I'm told that even the stenographer was laughing because they were making changes so fast that they didn't know where they were or what they had just amended.

One of their more notable changes was to upzone some property in the Lake Whatcom watershed to 2-acre lots. It doesn't take a psychic to see what is going to happen to the moratorium on development on lots that are smaller than 5 acres. And this is happening days after the County Executive committed to taking drastic new measures to protect Lake Whatcom!

Anyway, back to the process. On the evening of March 15, hard on the heels of all this frenetic activity, the Council introduced. . .something. Well, it voted to introduce "an ordinance,' but nobody on the Council had actually seen the ordinance. Watch the video of the Council meeting -- you'll see. Whatever they "introduced" was still being worked on the next day, so it couldn't be posted until the end of the work day on Thursday afternoon.

But now the finished product has been posted. Click here for a web page with links to the latest drafts of the proposed Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Code.

Now what? Well, I think that we have until March 29 to take in all this information and submit comments. There's a public hearing scheduled for March 29, anyway, and the Planning and Development Services web site says that "the written record is open for public comments prior to that hearing." You can submit comments at any time to:

Whatcom County Planning and Development Services
Attention: Gary Davis
Northwest Annex
5280 Northwest Drive
Bellingham, WA 98226-9097


Not sure what to say? Join the crowd. We're in the same boat. But we're clawing through all the information, and if you have any questions, please -- ask away in the "Comments" section at the end of the blog. Agricultural protection (or lack thereof)? Lake Whatcom protections (or lack thereof)? Sprawl -- how much, where? If we know, we'll do our best to answer, and if we don't know, we'll tell you that, too!

UPDATE from David:  Why, oh why did the sun have to shine today while I analyze this proposal?  :( 

While everyone thought that the county was supposed to put "limits" on rural development, they have now been so bold to actually weaken them.  The current code limits how much you can cover your property with buildings and parking lots.  They have taken that restriction out of the rural commercial and industrial zones.  The picture below is an area along the Guide.  The new standards would allow more than 14 acres of additional impervious surfaces in this area alone.  Compound that throughout the rural areas, and guess what you get:  more stormwater runoff and more traffic.  And, development in rural areas rather than in urban areas.

Guide Sprawl:
Emerald or Toad Lake:
The following two images show the last minute addition by the Council to add 120 acres above Emerald Lake (Toad Lake) to a Rural Community designation, which is supposed to be based on the built environment in 1990.  Using new accurate information published by Bellingham GIS staff, the second map shows part of the property to also be in the Lake Whatcom Watershed.  This property also abuts forest lands, and traffic impacts city and state highways.

Spawl up I-5:
People often say that we don't want Whatcom County to become Marysville, or Lynwood.  Why?  Because people see the sprawl that has moved its way north out of the main urban areas of Seattle -- and don't like what they see as impacting their quality of life.  While making maps for our submittal to the County Council, I came across a statewide map on Urban Growth Areas.  It is pretty telling.  The first map is a state perspective, and the second map is focused on Whatcom County.  Notice how there isn't hardly any open spaces left along I-5 in Whatcom County?  That is why growth management is so darn important to quality of life here, folks.  (This map will be updated later to include the CAITAC proposal up the Guide as well.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Plan

In the beginning was the Plan.
And then came the assumptions.
And the Plan was completely without substance.
And the darkness was on the face of the Planners.

And they spoke amongst themselves, saying "It is a crock of shit and it stinketh."

And the Planners went unto their Supervisors, saying "It is a pail of dung, and none can abide the odor thereof."

And the Supervisors went unto the Division Managers and sayeth:  "It is a container of excrement and it is very strong, such that none can abide it."

And the Division Managers went unto the Assistant Directors and sayeth:  "It is a vessel of fertilizer and none can abide its strength."

And the Assistant Directors spoke amongst themselves, saying "It contains that which aids in plant growth and is very strong."

And the Assistant Directors went unto the Director saying:  "It promotes growth and is very powerful."

And the Director went unto the Council saying: "the new Plan will actively promote the controlled growth and efficiency of the county and certain areas in particular."

And the Council looked upon the Plan and saw that it was good.
And the Plan became Policy.
And this is how Shit Happens.

Someone gave this to me a year or so back.  It seems fitting now that the Council has developed a "plan" for rural areas. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Ides of March and the Trojan Coal Horse

Bob Ferris:
Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry "Coal!" Speak, ReSources is turn'd to hear.

Dusty Coal:
Beware the ides of March.

Bob Ferris:
What man is that?

Sam Crawford:
A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2, set in modern times.

An interesting drama played out today, although one not worthy of Shakespeare. Not worthy of Whatcom County, or open government, or discussing important issues like civilized adults, either.

As is too often the case on a Monday afternoon before a Tuesday County Council meeting, my e-mail contained a notice that -- voila! -- a new item had been added to the agenda. Surprises from this Council are rarely happy, so I opened the attached notice with some trepdation.

"Resolution encouraging industrial investment in the region’s economic vitality," it said.

Whew, I thought. Who's not in favor of that?

But then I noticed another attachment. "SSA Support Resolution," it said. And here's what the Council is supposed to do tomorrow: resolve "that SSA Marine is encouraged to make this extraordinary investment in Gateway Pacific Terminal,” and "act in concert" with other agencies to “expedite and facilitate initiation and completion of the Gateway Terminal Project, consistent with sound and practical environmental requirements.”

Before the Council made a commitment to support an enormous project that will determine the character of our County for years to come, it surely would have studied all available information about the project and talked to a wide range of people with knowledge about and interest in this project. Right?

Of course, not right.

Bob Ferris and ReSources have been open and public about questioning this project, and the Council didn't even have the courtesy to tell them that this item was coming up! They got the notice at the same time that I did.

Here's what ReSources' Baykeeper wrote, late this afternoon:

Dear County Council Member,

You have been asked to vote Tuesday, March 15th on a resolution in support of SSA Marine's proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point. Substantial changes to the project since its inception, however, mean that the initial permit will demand Council action to be re-approved. Because of your responsibility to evaluate needed revisions to the relevant Shoreline Substantial Permit issued to SSA Marine in 1997, I respectfully submit that it is inappropriate to vote on this resolution either yes or no until this new version of the project is fully understood in the permitting process.

Changes to the project since the 1997 shoreline development permit include the following:

- Increase from 5.85 acres of destroyed wetlands to 141 acres destroyed with 20 acres degraded temporarily.
- Increased throughput from 8.2 million metric tons to 54 million metric tons of bulk goods; this means proportionately more train and vessel traffic.
- Change from food grains, potash, and other commodities to 88% coal and 12% other (48 million tons of coal, 6 million tons of other in their current proposal as posted to the Office of Regulatory Assistance).
- While not addressed in the 1997 permit, the new proposal anticipates degrading 12,800 lineal feet of streams and ditches.
- High potential for coal dust damage to both nearshore and uplands environments. Coal will be stored in a pile on 80 acres of the property, with 2.75 million tons of storage capacity. Blaine City Councilman Black reports being appalled by a visit to Robert's Bank coal terminal at Tsawwassen, which greatly impacts the surroundings despite tower-mounted dust control systems.

I believe all of us should withhold support for this proposal until the impacts of this new version of their project are understood.


Matt Krogh
Matt Krogh, North Sound Baykeeper
RE Sources for Sustainable Communities

You know, this is just horse manure. If the SSA project is nothing but good, let it stand on its own merits. Don't pull this last-minute, approve-it-before-the-public-notices business on us.

Tomorrow's the Ides of March, and we've been warned to beware. Beware the deal that seems too good to be true, because maybe it is. To mix my classical metaphors, let's at least look inside the Trojan Horse before we let it into our County.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lake Whatcom

Yesterday, the Department of Ecology denied Bellingham's petition to close the Lake Whatcom Watershed to new groundwater withdrawals. According to Ecology's letter (here's the link), Ecology takes the goal of protecting the lake from "further degradation" very seriously. So the petition was denied because Ecology "provide[d] an alternative means to address the concerns raised in the petition."

What aggressive measures will Ecology take to make sure that our drinking water source is protected? It will "develop a strategy." What will this strategy do? "Prevent additional loadings of phosphorus to the lake from new development."

This perhaps is intended to herald the fact that new development right on Lake Whatcom is what the County has in mind for us, and soon.

The County Council is about to adopt a plan that will allow new development on one-acre lots right along the shore of Lake Whatcom. Executive Kremen has said that he will veto some parts of the new Comprehensive Plan, but not the part that will allow new one-acre lots along the shore of Lake Whatcom.

New one-acre lots on the waterfront are certainly a significant shift in development regulations. But that can't be what Ecology had in mind when it said "Resolving the lake’s water quality issues requires a dramatic reduction in pollution from new and existing development, which requires a significant and immediate shift in development regulations." (That's from one of those "tell-the-public-that-everything-is-dandy" colored brochures (here's the link).)

But you might be thinking -- why would new lakefront development matter in light of the Executive's "commitment" that no more phosphorus -- not one bit of phosphorus -- will get into our lake?

Well, one problem is that the County Executive hasn't actually made that commitment. Here's the link to the County Executive's "Commitment Letter."

The letter says: "I understand Ecology's position that changes to the County's code should ensure that new development will result in no additional contributions of phophorus to the lake. That said, my staff remains concerned about how Ecology has defined the standard for those changes. They will continue to work with your staff during the next two weeks to further refine and clarify that standard."

Looks like Ecology accepted a "commitment" to meet a standard that doesn't even exist yet. And even if the amount of phosphorus going into our lake is reduced, I wonder if our problems will be solved. Will our drinking water be tastier with more oil, tire shreds, and fecal coliform?

The firm commitments that the County has made are to (1) propose new development regulations for the Planning Commission to consider in July, and (2) tell Ecology how many building permit applications are filed for the watershed.

Although there isn't any commitment to actually adopt or implement anything, the Executive did commit to "ask[ing] his staff to pay close attention" to the "goal" of achieving development regulations.

Nor is there a commitment to do anything about the number of building permits coming in. But we sure will be counting them.

Time to take two aspirin, washed down with some stormwater runoff.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Are We Nimby's?

The lawyer that represents Governor's Point was quite incredible tonight.  One of her comments that struck out is that "nimbyism" is not a LAMIRD criteria.  She also said:  neither is politics.

Several speakers that live, work and have been raised in the rural areas of our county decried the input that the Council was receiving from "them city folk" in Bellingham.  "Maybe we should put a toll road on the Guide so that all the people from the city can come look at us," said one (or something to that effect).

So, why should people in urban areas care what is happening in the rural areas?  For me, there are three principle reasons: 

(1)  We Pay for Sprawl.  It is hard to argue with the folks that say that those that live in the city really have no reason to have input on what they consider rural character.  I can think of a few reasons, such as  making sure that the development doesn't interfere with our resource based industry.  But, the most compelling issue for me is that us "city folks" pay for that rural sprawl. 
            A farmer spoke tonight about how he remembered how all the roads were dirt when he was growing up. The State just spent $172 million on widening the Guide in order to address safety and congestion issues that was largely caused by sprawl.  As the State says on their web site: when the Guide Meridian was first built, the two-lane road adequately served the needs of drivers.  The 20,000 drivers that now use the road on a daily basis south of Lynden exceeded the limits of the highway. 
            Let's speculate for a minute on what $172 million could have bought us.  We need to recognize that at least some investment was needed for safety improvements.  Let's just say $50 million for safety.  That leaves $122 million after safety.  Let's say we decided to invest $50 million on improving the safety of all our railroad crossings so that freight could safely get to Cherry Point.  Now we have $72 million left. 
            Now, remind me.  What was the price of that new jail you want to build?  Just think what sprawl costs you in real economic development.

(2)  Logical Outer Boundaries.  The county has significantly weakened the policies that designate rural business or limited areas of more intensive rural development.  Please review the comprehensive plan policies for Rural Community.  These are Type I LAMIRDs that are supposed to be based on the built environment when Growth Management passed in 1990. 
            Where the county was allowed to expand boundaries to a "logical outer boundary", such as roads and other natural features, the County Council -- much like a wildfire, leapt across the road and added additional areas into their boundary.  Changes to the logical outer boundary from the Planning Commission recommendation were made in Custer, Glacier, Hinotes Corner, Maple Falls, Nugents Corner, Pole and Guide, Sudden Valley (outside the development), Van Wyck  and last but not least:  the Guide Meridian from Smith up through Laurel. 
            View County Council maps:  click here
            View Planning Commission maps:  click here 

(3)  Rural Businesses.  The Growth Management Act allows nonresidential uses (layman terms:  commercial or industrial development) to intensify if they are "isolated" and allows new development of isolated cottage industries and isolated small-scale business.  By my count, there are seven areas proposed for this designation.  Almost all of them make sense, such as the store at Van Zandt or Welcome.  The one that stands out is Birch Bay-Lynden and I-5. 
            And here come the lawyers.  Property owners are well represented in this area by attorneys Swanson and Wolfe in defending decisions to allow commercial and industrial development in this area since 1990.  The aerial photos clearly show there was no development in this area, and development in this area has to meet these three key terms:  1)  isolated; 2) cottage industry; and 3) small -scale business.
            Now, look at the proposed zoning map for this area (click here).  Do you think that the extent of these zoning designations meet a definition of isolated?  There are two zoning districts proposed in this area:  RIM and RGC.  Now look at the proposed zoning code for these two zones (click here).  The RGC zone starts on page 19 of the proposed zoning amendments.  The RIM zone starts on page 37 of the proposed zoning amendments.

            Now tell me how any of those uses are small scale business or cottage industries?

            Attorneys representing developers have succeeded in even further weakening the provisions of this zoning code by increasing the size of buildings allowed in this zone from 12,000 square foot buildings to 30,000 square foot buildings.  In other words, a place the size of Hardware Sales is to be considered a small scale business in rural areas.  And they have increased the amount of impervious surfaces that are allowed, increasing runoff to the Drayton Harbor watershed, a designated Shellfish Protection District.
            But, what makes this even worse is that this pattern of rural business can be repeated time and time again throughout the county.  This designation isn't limited by the Growth Management Act to the areas that existed since 1990.  This is new development.  
            Policy 2HH-3 (page 14 of Comprehensive Plan policies), indicates that this proposal for this intense rural business can spread every half mile throughout Whatcom County.  And, the half mile can be done away with when separated by a "major road" or "other physical feature." 

If this is the County Council's idea of discouraging low-density sprawl, I would hate to see a proposal that encourages it! 

So, in answer to the question about whether we are Nimby's or if this is politics:  my interest in this issue is not about nimby's and isn't about politics.  Unfortunately, the lawyer is trying to make it about that in trying to defend 1 acre lots on pristine marine shorelines as rural. 

Get real.  Get Whatcom Planning!

Live Blogging the County Council

Allan Marriner from the City of Bellingham stated that the City won't provide water to Governor's Point and is submitting comments on that and some other issues.

Cathy Lehman, on behalf of Futurewise, provided the Council with a petition signed by more than 250 residents, supporting rural character and opposing sprawl.

I spoke, but I do that here all the time. More later.

Wendy Harris observed that the County is not basing its planning on good watershed science.

Sue Brown objected to the concept that all speculative development is subject to protection.

Chet Dow said that we have a high unemployment rate and the Rural Element's "balance" will be important to job creation.

I have to stop here to editorialize. Whatcom County currently allows HUGE amounts of development potential in rural areas. So that must be the CAUSE of our current high unemployment, right? We certainly don't have stringent, growth-restricting planning that we can blame!

Doug Fuller pays taxes for General Commercial zoned property. You can't take that away. The state bought a lot of it for General Commercial. It's a taking away. Some people want to keep other people out of here.

Kane Hall, a downtown property and business owner, is concerned that LAMIRDs will make it difficult for downtown to flourish.

OK, I'm doing this on an IPhone, so it's time for a break.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Special Public Hearing on Wednesday

After over a year of "work sessions," the County is finally holding a public hearing on the Rural Element! But I can't spend a lot of time blogging, because the County just posted the changes in zoning that We the People are supposed to discuss on Wednesday evening. That gives us OVER 48 hours to review and prepare comments. How generous!

I hear that it's been like Christmas in at the County Council's work sessions during the past week or two, with goodies for Gold Star, Caitac, Governor's Pointe and other favorite children piled under the tree. It will be interesting to see what the Council's last-minute gift-giving frenzy has produced.

The hearing is at 6:00 on Wednesday, March 9 in Council chambers, 311 Grand Ave. (For the notice, click here.)

The Council will then officially introduce its ordinances and will hold a second public hearing on March 29. As it happens, March 29 is also the deadline for the County to finish the Rural Element. Undoubtedly, the Council will carefully consider public testimony during the several minutes available to it between the close of the hearing and the expiration of its deadline.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Farms, Public Services, and Sprawl

Who knows what the Growth Management Hearings Board will decide about whether the County was justified when it tried to give Ferndale and Birch Bay more room to sprawl, er, grow last August. The County's decision was appealed, and the Board listened to arguments from both sides for about four hours yesterday. The result may well hinge on legal technicalities.

But maybe not. At the end of the hearing, Board members asked three great questions that showed that they “get” what’s happening in Whatcom County – and what’s wrong with the County Council’s determined course of de-planning.

Question 1: The County’s Comprehensive Plan already provides for enough growth to accommodate projected population for the next 20 years. So why give Ferndale and Birch Bay more room to grow?

Answer: Because they want more room to grow. No, those weren’t the words spoken by the lawyers for the County, Ferndale, or a Birch Bay developer who also participated, but that was the gist of it. The lawyers argued that even if the County’s expansion of Ferndale and Birch Bay can’t be justified, it’s good enough if the County “gave it the old college try” (yes, that was an actual legal argument). They also argued that Ferndale is special and should get more growth than anywhere else.

Question 2: Is it really true that there is no way to tell where the agricultural land that Whatcom County claims to protect is located?

Answer: Yes, it’s true.

Whatcom County says that it protects 88,000 acres of farmland through “Agricultural” zoning and another 22,000 acres through an Agricultural Protection Overlay, or APO. Through determined questioning, the Board learned, though, that the APO doesn’t actually protect specific agricultural land. It’s a floating zone – it applies to any land in the “Rural” area with parcels over 20 acres AND with good soils or a significant amount of open space.

And there’s no way to tell whether "Agricultural Protection Overlay" land is “agricultural” land that should be protected until a developer comes in to subdivide the land.

The Board seemed taken aback by this, as well it should be. How can Whatcom County, with its huge and important agricultural industry, not even know (or show) where agricultural land is located? And if it doesn’t know where agricultural land is, how can it protect farms and farming?

Question 3: Isn’t the County supposed to have a capital facilities plan that shows how services will be provided at the time that it approves urban expansion? (That sounds like a wonky question, but it just means that the law requires the County to know how necessary services like water, sewer, and fire will be provided, and paid for, before it sanctions more urban growth.)

Answer: Um, yes, but it’s “very, very hard” to do that. And yes, that was another actual legal argument. Ferndale argued that neither it nor the County had the necessary plans that provided for services when its urban expansion was approved, but it’s trying hard to figure that out – after the fact.

The problem is that it’s easy to promise property owners that they can develop their land and hard to figure out how to pay for the effects. The Bellingham Herald recently reported on Ferndale’s struggles to pay for a stormwater pond after hoped-for grant funding fell through – and the likelihood that taxes will go up as a result. Not quantifying the costs of growth will only come back to bite local governments, and their taxpayers. That’s why the Growth Management Act requires capital facilities planning. It’s just good government.

All in all, the picture that came through was of a County that doesn’t know where its agricultural land is located, doesn’t know how services will be provided, and doesn’t really care whether growth will be focused in cities or allowed to spread for miles across the County. That’s the essence of de-planning.

Speaking of de-planning, the County announced on Wednesday that the County Council will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, March 9 at 6:00 on its revised Rural Element. That doesn’t give any of us much time to take in and understand the really dramatic, and rural sprawl-promoting, changes that the Council has made to its draft plan recently – and the Council may make even more changes today. Stay tuned for more rural planning talk in the coming days.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sprawl or "Local Circumstances"?

Does Ferndale need even more room to sprawl -- er, grow? The Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board is in town today to hear the appeal of the County Council's decision to expand Ferndale and Birch Bay’s "Urban Growth Areas" (or UGAs) last August.

Arguments against expansion include the following:

• Population projections don’t show a need for more urban expansion, or, in the words of Futurewise’s brief,

Because the record shows that the expanded Birch Bay and Ferndale UGAs are larger than needed to accommodate their adopted population and employment projections even after making deductions for pending projects, critical areas, two deductions for public uses, infrastructure, market factors, and occupancy and density factors, these UGAs are non-compliang with the Growth Management Act;

• The County didn’t show that Ferndale could provide adequate water, wastewater, and fire protection services in the expanded urban areas;

• The County didn’t identify open space corridors between Ferndale and Bellingham, as required by the Growth Management Act (it’s not a joke to say that we have “Bellingdale” or “Ferningham,” since there’s no separation between the two);

• The UGA expansions will not protect waters of the state, including Drayton Harbor and its Shellfish Protection District;

• The County failed to identify and evaluate agricultural lands of long-term commercial significance affected by the expansions; and

• The County did not provide for early and continuous public participation, as required by state law.

The County’s responses state that:

• “Local circumstances” support the County’s decision to approve oversized UGAs;

• The UGAs are oversized by a “de minimis amount,” so it doesn’t matter that they’re too large;

• The County is not required to protect water quality when it expands UGAs because it was only expanding UGAs, not revising other parts of the Comprehensive Plan;

• The County did “designate” agricultural lands, and the fact that it never did the analysis required for designation doesn’t matter;

• Planning for open space between the cities can happen in the future and didn’t have to happen now; and

• There was adequate public participation because the participation that preceded the 2009 adoption of UGAs (by the previous Council) ought to count, because citizens could speak about whatever they wanted during open public session, and because there was one public hearing preceded by notice (the staff report was available to the public only 4 days before the hearing was held).

Ferndale argues:

• The UGA expansion just “gives back” 476 acres that the County took away from Ferndale in 2009;

• Because the County and Ferndale agreed on the expansion of Ferndale’s borders, the County was not required to justify the expansion;

• The previous decision about the appropriate size of Ferndale’s UGA was just “planning by computer” and didn’t factor in “community assumptions, sense of place, or vision for the future”;

• Local circumstances demand a larger UGA (“Ferndale speaks volumes as to what only Ferndale can know about itself”);

• Even though Ferndale didn’t have capital facilities plans in place when the UGA expansion was approved, it is the process of adopting wastewater and fire plans that will provide for service; and

• There is no absolute requirement to adopt open space between cities in order to prevent strip development, so the County was not required to do so.

Should be an interesting day.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Urban Density -- Census 2010

The 2010 U.S. Census shows how many persons per square mile live within Whatcom County.  Using some 3-D modeling software, we were able to develop the following image that graphically displays density within Whatcom County.  The density for each UGA, in rank order, is presented below the image.

Population Density (Persons Per Square Mile)
Whatcom County Foothills (Columbia Valley)
Birch Bay