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. 


  1. This is one of those silly sort of things where the pop-enviros want it both ways...

    When the conversation was about the urban areas we were told sternly, "Nothing below 4 units per acre residential is urban."

    Now, we're talking about rural land and we're being told sternly, "One and two acre lots are urban."

    So which is it?

    In fact, one and two acre lots are very much traditional in rural Whatcom County. In the 1940s a high percentage of our working farms were under 3 acres in size and small farmers were being encouraged to raise chickens because they could provide a profit on one or two acre farms.

    This is about agendas, not the traditional rural lifestyle we've enjoyed in Whatcom County for more than a century.

  2. Hi Jack,

    Always nice to hear from you -- and to be called names by you!

    Let's make one thing clear. You're the guy with a dog in the hunt. I'm not making my living as a paid consultant promoting more development wherever my clients happen to want it. You are. That's what I call an agenda.

    Go ahead and make the claim that one- and two-acre lots are rural. I've seen your comments to this effect in the record, and that's your prerogative. But while you're doing it, don't pretend to be all sanctimonious about it.

    The larger point is about the effects of increased rural development on agriculture. The most honest conversation I've heard about that was between two farmers on the Planning Commission. One said "Of course farmers have to be allowed to develop their land." The other said "But it's killing me! I've got houses going up all around my farm and I can't do the farm practices that I need to do because the houses are there." The first farmer said "Well, yeah. Everybody wants to do it, but nobody wants it done to them."

    When the County prefers the rights of the property owners who will put uses right up against farmland, and especially with no buffers, it is doing it TO the farmers who want to farm. It's making a choice between property owners. You might agree with that choice. On the other hand, I figure that farmers have to put in buffers to protect critical areas, so it's only fair that other property owners who don't farm should be asked to help protect the "critical" work that farmers are doing.

  3. Jack Petree

    Two questions.

    Would you answer my question (if 4 per acre and above is urban is not anything less, rural or, if not, what is it?) and, what name did I call you?

    A statement. I do not have any clients in this matter. Do you?

  4. Just wondering why Lynden is always the poster child for these types of discussions, and always in a negative way. There is no question that the community has grown into the surrounding farmlands, we have put more than 6,000 people on the 400 acres that have been converted from agricultural to urban since GMA - what is the ratio for Whatcom County? It would be nice if at some point, it would be recognized that the community has taken some fairly significant steps to both preserve our community's character and history.

  5. Hey Jack,

    Not sure whether I'm silly or pop-enviro, whatever that may be. But it doesn't really matter, I've been called worse than either!

    I'll be submitting comments on rural densities, which have to meet rural character requirements in the Growth Management Act. The sooner you and I stop posting here, the sooner I'll get that done.

    I have no clients in Whatcom County at all at the moment, which is hard on the bottom line but was good for avoiding conflicts of interest while I was on the Planning Commission. I'm sorry if you're in the same boat.

  6. Yikes, Amy, no assault on Lynden was intended! This is a photo that has been used at several County meetings, by several County bodies, to express concern with issues relating to development adjacent to ag land. It's a dramatic image, and it tells a story -- but not the whole story of Lynden. I know that Lynden is the second-densest city in Whatcom County and that you face significant constraints, including the fact that you're surrounded by either ag land or floodplains.

    And still, the issue of the interface between development and agriculture is one that we need to address. If Lynden has constraints that require development adjacent to ag, maybe that's all the more reason that the rural areas of the County need to be planned carefully to reduce such conflicts.

  7. I am wondering what UGA and RESOURCE LAND has to do with the rural element? The answer, of course, is nothing. :(

  8. Anon makes a great point...

    for those who don't know, the illustration above has no rural lands being addressed in the rural element pictured. It has ag lands next to city lands. The city lands, I'm pretty sure, have a statement in their deeds that ag will be taking place next door and if you can't handle that, don't buy the house.

    Jean also knows the Supreme Courts have said it is up to the County to determine what is rural and what is not rural.

    Jean also did not answer the question. If below 4 homes to the acre is not urban and above one home per two acres is not rural, what is the land between?

  9. Hi, Anonymous. I think that you're overlooking the fact that the GMA requires comprehensive planning. Rural lands are frequently adjacent to resource (ag and forest) lands, and the GMA requires the protection of ag and forest lands. Rural lands are not supposed to take the place of Urban Growth Areas, where growth is supposed to be directed. The Comprehensive Plan should be all one package, not just separate islands of land use designations that pretend that the different areas don't have any relationship to each other.

    Jack, the County does have discretion to determine rural character, within the policy goals and definitions set forth in state law.

    As for your "question," you set up the parameters, not me, and then you demand that I answer a question based on your assumptions. As you know, the County's Comprehensive Plan encourages new residential development at densiities starting at 4 units per acre. Of course, that doesn't mean that our existing cities are uniformly developed at 4 units per acre. Most of our existing "urban" areas are at lower densiities. A major point of the GMA is to encourage higher densities to avoid low-level sprawl, which I assume is why the Comp Plan includes those higher densities.

    As for what constitutes a rural density -- there's no bright line, right? So that analysis takes more room than I'm going to take up here. You seem to believe that one and two acre lots embody "rural character." I agree that one and two acre lots have been developed in various parts of the rural area, but the definition of "rural character" is not necessarily synonymous with "what exists in some areas of Whatcom County." I'm sure that we'll be talking more about that.

    I think it's great when deeds include notice of ag uses. Those deed provisions don't stop impacts of residential uses on farming, though (dogs, traffic, runoff -- ). Nor do they provide farmers with a shield against nuisance lawsuits. But notice is better than nothing, and I'm glad that residents are on notice.

  10. Update provided in post. I'm not going to engage in Jack's bait and switch conversations.

    The point in this post is to ensure that the use of lands adjacent to agriculture are not in conflict with agriculture. Zero foot setbacks don't pass the laugh test.

  11. I'm curious about how the photos that you've posted support your arguments.

  12. Sailor, you and Jack Petree have suggested that the Rural Element is entirely unrelated to agriculture. What David's picture shows is a housing development in the "Rural" area surrounded on several sides by land zoned for Ag.

    Maybe the issue is that you're unaware of the ways in which residential development conflicts with agriculture. (I grew up on a farm and someimes forget that not everybody had that experience.) The main issue is complaints from residents - -complaints about noise, smells, spraying, strayed animals, slow farm vehicles. Right to Farm ordinances are better than nothing but do not shield farmers against nuisance lawsuits.

    Residential uses also have impacts on agriculture. People who move out to the country sometimes think that it's now their right to let their dogs run free. And they often don't believe that even sweet, small house pets can kill livestock. Our neighbors lost cattle to dogs, and my husband's family lost sheep to dogs on their farm in Iowa. Other impacts of residential development may include trespass, vandalism, and traffic.