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.)


  1. They (Council) have had plenty of time to weigh the issues, we all know they have had plenty of input from their constituents. I wonder what it is they are spending their time doing?

  2. Hey, Michelle! Your blog is always a highlight when it appears -- and someday, I'll make every recipe. The day that we have a compliant Comprehensive Plan.

    What are they spending their time doing? Expanding urban growth areas. Because we need bigger urban growth areas? No, because that's what a few "constituents" want.

    Which brings us to the concept of input from constituents. Some constituents matter more than others, it's clear. As the saying goes, according to Animal House (the George Orwell version): All constituents are equal, but some contituents are more equal than others.

    Settlement agreement for Caitac. Settlement agreement for Trillium/Semiahmoo. Settlement agreement for Ferndale.

    Settlement negotiations for Futurewise or concerned citizens?


  3. Introducing an ordinance that isn't written yet??? The latest drafts is such a pigs breakfast that it's hard to tell what it means, but it sure does look like they are proposing to enshrine sprawl rather than limit it. It seems as though the council's conservative majority has thrown out all the work that was done on updating the rural elements and replaced it with property developers wish lists.

    A few will profit and most will suffer.

  4. Toad Lake Road drains down to Lake Whatcom (via a series of open ditches). Two years ago, run off from the Toad Lake Road and Academy Road flooded a number of homes on North Shore Drive. What are the laws, in regards to protecting homes that already exist from flooding and property damage from clearing and developing above?

  5. Elisabeth,

    Any new development is supposed to comply with the county's stormwater and clearing regulations. These regulations are more restrictive in the Lake Whatcom watershed, such as seasonal clearing dates, than outside.

    If there continues to be runoff that was caused by prior development or new development, then you might have two options: 1) look to the county for any potential enforcement action to make sure the development is meeting standards; or 2) take civil action.

    The county staffing levels are now down for all planning activities. One staff member assigned to watershed inspections has been transferred to reviewing other development permits. The county has limited authority to enforce any development that took place prior to new standards -- which could be the source of the runoff.

    Jean and I drove up Toad Lake Road yesterday, and the other part that was noticable was the fact that the area has only one road in and out up Squalicum Mountain. The road is narrow and is not well suited to 60 or more homes up that road.

  6. Looking at the map of "I5 and Guide Meridian Sprawl," maybe it could also be entitled "Shoreline Sprawl." Looks like we're only missing a few acres -- primarily in flood hazard areas -- to make the development of our marine shoreline complete from the Canadian border to the Skagit County line.