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.


  1. Thanks for keeping tabs on the twists and turns of the real estate speculators County Council majority.

  2. Just to provide perspective...

    Agriculture, forestry and fishing combined account for about 3.5% of the county's employment...(2005)

    Government on the other hand accounts for 16.6%... Maybe we need a government overlay zone to assure a sufficient land supply for the infrastructure necessary to maintain one of our biggest industries...

    As to the Ag overlay zone... it is a farce, as you point out

    However, since ag cannot be forbidden in the rural areas it is reasonable to expect a portion of the rural lands will be used for ag...

    In fact, the rural lands perform an important function... the U.S. Dept of Ag points to the importance of small scale farming near larger metro areas as a way to preserve farming... (Joe's gardens, for example).

    At any rate we need to get real about ag and how much land we need... we concentrate on how much land we have... we need, instead, to concentrate on how we preserve farming.

  3. I'm going to make a wild guess that one way of preserving farming involves more development.

  4. After imposing an Order of Invalidity, which was rescinded only after a moratorium was enacted, I wonder how the GMHB is going to respond to Whatcom County's new "Faith Based" Planning approach.