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!


  1. The hearing tonight was an odd event.

    As a veteran of Rural Element hearings, I'm used to hearing property rights proponents make and applaud angry speeches because they weren't getting what they wanted. Tonight, people were making and applauding angry property rights speeches because. . .they were getting what they wanted, but other people disagreed. They were angry that people with different views even stood up to speak.

    This led to some really mixed messages. A gentleman who makes his living in the building profession, which has certainly profited from in-migration over the past decade, lambasted people (who dared to speak) who have "only" been here "3, 5, 8 years." If we took the time machine back and those people went away, I doubt that all of his buildings would still be standing. Moving forward, if he only caters to fourth generation residents like himself, I'm not sure that he'll be a wealthy man.

    One person complained about the "city people," and then said "We don't want to be 'preserved] in rural areas. Who would live there?" The take-away message, for me, was that rural Whatcom County residents hate people who aren't from rural Whatcom County so much that they want to build lots of houses and live next to more and more and more of them.

    Some comments thinly veiled economic motives, but some comments were based on real emotion. One loyal attendee of public meetings spoke, sincerely, I believe, about how much he would like it if the people who moved here (and spoke) would just go back where they came from.

    The bottom line, I think, is that a lot of people want to go back. Those with economic interests in property would like Whatcom County to go back to what it was like during the bubble years. It's easy to blame the Growth Management Act for the fact that real estate development is in decline, and it's emotionally satisfying to blame the government.

    Others would like to avoid having to deal with people, or a world, unlike the world of rural Whatcom County. I grew up in a similar world. Everybody knew everybody, we all knew each other's grandparents, cousins, and scandals, and everybody -- without question -- voted Republican. It was comfortable.

    The irony is that the very change that threatens rural residents is the change that they are hastening, by demanding to locate growth outside of urban areas.

    Who's "conservative" in this scenario? Is it really the property rights movement, which demands to go back in time by bringing in more outsiders?

    One thing that I do know -- emotional reactions aren't always logical and consistent. "They ["city folks," that is] just want to keep people out" and "new people should all go back to where they came from" were sentiments expressed by people on the same side of the ostensible issue at hand.

  2. You do get to the irony, Jean, of explosive, unplanned growth threatening to unravel everything rural residents value. Still they scream to bring it on.

    Reminds me of the guy who insists that he be struck in the head with a hammer, then dances in pain and rage when it happens.

  3. Thank you for sitting through all this. I appreciate the update and the insight.

  4. Jean,
    The feisty- abusive? -lawyer for the Governors Point developers wasn't in the usual, bland, read-between the lines style that is typical of lawyers. They are usually smart enough to realize that gratuitous insults do not help their client, which is after all what they are paid to do. Did the lawyer's comportment not also strike you as odd for a member of the legal guild?

    I thought that the lawyer for the Friends of Chuckanut was far more effective (though, to be fair, perhaps he has more reason to feel confident in a favorable outcome.)

    Just curious.
    Abe Jacobson
    Bellingham (and therefore unqualified to comment on County matters)

  5. Hi Abe,

    Advocates aim to persuade, which is an art rather than a science -- and who am I to say what would persuade the County Council?


  6. "and who am I to say what would persuade the County Council?"

    I will. Money.

    Except for Ken and Carl of course.

  7. I don't think it's strictly money, Riley. That's an easy answer. These people are doing what they genuinely believe in, based on whom they speak to and are influenced by. In that sense, they are acting according to their ethics.

    The idea that the govt is a bumbling interference in the pursuit of fabulous wealth and prosperity runs deep in this country.

  8. Bob Ferris wants us all to circulate this petition

    Please click above and read about the Cherry Point COAL shipping facility. Then please sign the petition and pass it along. Thanks!

  9. When we talk about what "they're" doing, we have to make clear that we know who "they" are. If we're talking about Council members, and why they do what they do, we probably do have a rich stew. Election considerations, money, beliefs, power, relationships, all jumbled up.

    When we talk about developers' lawyers (Abe's original question), though, the answer is clear and simple. They have an ethical obligation to pursue their client's interest. Not the public interest, not what's "right," but what their client wants as defined by the client.

    I've been there - -I'm not throwing stones. But one of the interesting dynamics of this County is that many decision-makers don't seem to recognize this fact. So we see Jack Swanson and Bob Tull and Dannon Traxler and the other advocates (including paid consultants) being deferred to as if they necessarily represented something bigger than their clients.

    Their clients' interests may further the public interest or they may not. Decisionmakers have an obligation to figure that out. But we should never fool ourselves that an advocate's primary goal is to act for "us," in the broader sense. They act for their clients. We have to be smart enough to evaluate (not blindly accept) the client's interest, to see if it is in the public interest.

  10. The recent arguments before the Growth Management Hearings Board saw the County argue that the County Council WAS the public interest.

    I think the public's interest in Whatcom County has shifted to the right in the past election, but it isn't by any means unanimous. The elected officials need to distinguish betweeen their own interests, the interests of those that primarily elected them, and the interests of the other 40 - 49% of the population -- and come to conclusions somewhere in the middle.

    This goes for all sides of the debate. My position in these arguments on this blog is from a position of advocacy, a very new role for me. Before, I worked for the public's interest by always trying to find a balance or compromise position that may have tilted where the local politics wanted it to tilt. But, it never was one sided like I am now seeing.

    Maybe that is why in 15 years as a planning director in other places I never was once appealed on any growth management issues. Not once. We sought the middle ground where people could live with the results.

    If only...


    Anonymous said...
    Please circulate the link below to your contacts. This Care2 site allows us to collect signatures which we can later send on to elected officials in the area to demonstrate the level and breadth of our concerns over this project.

  12. Hmmm. Not sure that I agree with David's numbers. The only measure that we have of County residents' views of rural planning -- that is, the "public interest" -- is the Values and Beliefs Survey from 2009. The survey showed that more than 2/3 of County residents want to protect agricultural land, open space, and wildlife. By far the majority of County residents want to see development in urban areas, and very few believe that we need to make more "rural" land available for development.

    The theory that last year's election was a referendum on land use is something of a bait and switch. I remember that election. My opponent claimed that land use wasn't the real issue facing the County Council -- the real issue was job creation. Not once did Tony Larson say that he wanted to increase development next to farms, or that he wanted to create dense development in rural areas. What he said was "I am an environmentalist."

    David and I, and Tony's building industry financial supporters, knew that the election was about land use. But the voters? Why would they? It wasn't presented as an election about allowing increased development in rural areas. The present claim that the election was a referendum on planning policies would be honest and credible only if the election had been based on an open and honest debate about those policies.

    It wasn't. And I don't believe that only 49 per cent of Whatcom County residents now agree with the preferences expressed in the 2009 survey.

    Speaking of the public interest -- there's a world of difference between being a hired gun and being an advocate for the public interest, without pay and solely because you believe that the unpaid perspective is underrepresented. That's what David is doing. The attorneys and consultants who do this for a living may or may not believe in what they're doing. They get paychecks -- we get the courage of our convictions.

    That and a plane ticket will buy a vacation in a sunny spot over spring break. Oh well, rain and overcast skies are good for the character!