Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Coyote Ugly

The County’s proposed Rural Element is one unsightly critter. Don’t know about you, but I pretty much would gnaw my arm off in order to avoid having to see its homely face tomorrow morning.

But no. We’ll be chained together for another few weeks. The County scheduled a public hearing for tonight. It’s also going to introduce a new ordinance. So the public hearing won’t be on the new ordinance, and there will be another public hearing.

The Planning Commission, during its in-depth several-hour-long review that preceded its public hearing, proposed a few minor changes in the text. The Council is proposing to add those changes – the tiniest dab of lipstick on the coyote.

But it’s still coyote ugly.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Bass Ackwards

The Planning Commission held a "public hearing" on the Rural Element tonight. "Public hearing" means that the public is allowed to be "hearing" about decisions that the Planning Commission already made, right?

Well, wrong, in any jurisdiction I've ever worked in. But Whatcom County is a state of mind (as opposed to being part of the state of, say, Washington.)

Not only did the Planning Commission hold a "work session" before the public hearing, but it went a step further to vote on Rural Element policies and maps before the public hearing. When you know what you want to do before you set foot in the room, why even waste energy pretending that the public hearing matters, right?

Only straw votes, mind you. But after the Planning Commission had already devoted six hours of labor to its votes, the odds that its collective mind was not made up were very, very slim. Slim to none. None.

Of those of us who were dumb enough to speak, on the theory that the purpose of a public hearing is for the Planning Commisison to be "hearing" from the public, one speaker referred to the event as "kabuki theatre" (stylized acting, based on popular legends). Several referred to it as a "rubber stamp."

(What do you think that stamp said? Why yes, "approved"! Good guess!)

In a morbid way, it was kind of fun -- like watching a movie that you've seen over and over again, and you know it's going to end badly, but because you already know how it's going to end, what used to seem tragic just seems sort of -- banal.

For those masochists who are still interested, here's a link to comments submitted to the Planning Commission. There's a Council "hearing" tomorrow.

What do you think will happen?


Left out a few things.

Like the Planning Commission Chair's rousing speech at the end, denigrating citizens who -- after two years, and a confusing, poorly-conceived public process -- still cared enough to e-mail the Planning Commission to express their concern for Whatcom County and its rural character. She dismissed these citizens as nothing more than Futurewise "product."

In the past, Michelle has emphasized including citizens in the process; I was sorry to learn that her interest in citizen input did not extend to citizens who disagree with her.

Also didn't mention that the vote was 7-2. The two remnants of the 2009 Planning Commission, John Belisle and John Lesow, voted no.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Rural hush

Despite the fact that the Whatcom County Planning Commission wants to hear from the public, they are advised that their hearing Monday evening isn't about any zoning amendments for rural areas.  So, if you want to talk about:
  • Setbacks from agricultural lands,
  • Commercial or industrial zoning uses in rural areas,
  • New subdivisions less than 5 acres in size in Lake Whatcom,
  • The new rural residential density overlay zone,
  • Lots less than 5 acres in size being "rural in character",
  • No limits on size of commercial or tourist buildings in new rural business or tourist areas,
  • Removal of any limits on how much of a property can be covered in buildings and structures in rural commercial or industrial areas,
  • New commercial rezones in Hinotes Corner and Wiser Lake, or
  • Caitac,
You can talk about it, and maybe the Planning Commission will listen -- but they can't make a recommendation on it.  None of these topics are subject to the public hearing before the Planning Commission.  Sorry. 

Maybe we'll have to talk about what we can't talk about.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

County Planning Challenges

Writing blogs about your former employer and employee's does come with its consequences. 

Last week I was having lunch with my co-blogger and someone stopped to thank us for the Get Whatcom Planning blog.  This was not an isolated event, as numerous people have stopped both of us on the street, in the grocery store, or in public meetings to say how much they appreciate the blog.  Thanks for the encouragement!

The Planning Commission is scheduled to have a hearing this coming Monday, April 25th at 6:00 p.m.  regarding the Rural Element (aka LAMIRDs).  This hearing is in response to comments I made on March 9th that the Planning Commission had to hold a public hearing on the numerous issues that the County Council has introduced.

The hearing on Monday, however, is only about comprehensive plan amendments -- not about zoning amendments.  In my March 9th letter, I identified the part of the law that requires the Planning Commission to also provide their recommendation on the zoning amendments.

But, what is sad is that the Planning Commission, which includes three farmers, will not be able to legally provide a recommendation on agricultural setbacks because that is a zoning issue.  No notice = no ability for the public to comment = no ability for the Planning Commission to provide a recommendation on agricultural setbacks (legally). 

Back to square 1.

As I was browsing the county web site, I noticed that the "Planning" and Development Services department has redone the "planning" section of the web site.  The following comment about Long Range planning is amusing:

"As their name suggests, Long Range addresses longer term planning issues often of a larger area scope that requires Comprehensive Plan modifications, Rezones, and code text amendments and other items taken to the Planning Commission and County Council."

In Whatcom County, they have redefined "longer term" as an inverse calculation.  After all, the rural element, or LAMIRDs, is based on legislation passed in 1997, a hearings board ruling in 2005, and a Supreme Court decision in 2009.  I guess longer term means looking backwards.

How about UGA revisited?  That worked out well for the County, didn't it?  Ferndale is quoted in the Cascadia Weekly as spending $43,000 on that challenge, which I am sure, was equally matched in staff time at Whatcom County.  Add to that all the time of the Growth Management Hearings Board, and you have probably $150,000 of taxpayer funds spent on the issue that I warned them against in July 2010. 
I'm just not sure how we can Get Whatcom Planning again when we have Planning Commission hearings on limited topics, when long range planning means redoing work from the past, and when our leadership at the county doesn't understand the fundamentals behind state planning laws. 

Oh well.  Back to writing my legal brief to the Hearings Board on how the county is required under the State Environmental POLICY Act to conduct an environmental review for every land use ordinance that they pass.  Oops, they didn't do that when they passed Ordinance 2010-067.  

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Whatcom County's Biggest Problem Is That We're Not Planning For Enough Empty Houses

This one takes the cake.

The happiest face that you could put on real estate in Whatcom County is that it is in the doldrums. What do we see? Empty houses. Few housing starts. Large inventories. "A buyer's market." Bellingham is helping to bring the market up a little bit, looking at County-wide figures, but what about the small cities? Grim, grimmer, grimmest. Ferndale, total homes sold down 33%; Lynden, total homes sold down 37%. Click here for the link.

What does County Council Chair Sam Crawford propose to do about this?

Provide more land for more houses.

That's right. Council Chair Crawford suggests that the fact that the Growth Management Hearings Board decided that Ferndale's boundary extended too far out into the green fields of the County (see previous post) doesn't reflect the fact that Ferndale's boundary takes in too much land. Rather, it's because the County is not planning for enough new residents in new houses. Link is here.

We just don't have enough vacant houses!

Now, someone will jump in to say that current market conditions are not the same as growth projections for the future. I understand that. As far as I can tell, though, what Sam Crawford and Jack Petree are arguing is based on past population growth, not informed future projections. Their argument appears to be that population growth between 2000 and 2010 was higher than projected, leading to a "therefore" that makes no sense to me: therefore, the County needs to put lots more land on the market to accommodate that higher-than-projected growth.

If the County hadn't accommodated sufficient population in Whatcom County over the past ten years, the bottom wouldn't have fallen out of real estate. Isn't that what the free market is telling us?

Clearly, Whatcom County's biggest problem at the moment is not that we don't have enough vacant houses. But it might be Chair Crawford's biggest problem. The County just lost before the Growth Management Hearings Board, and the natural human response is to make that someone else's fault. (Point fingers at population projections! It's their fault!). The size of his client base (he's a development consultant) depends on the availability of developable land. Less development, fewer sources of income. That's an incentive.

Finally, focusing on nonexistent "land grabs" and kvetching about the 20-year-old Growth Management Act during an election year keeps folks riled up -- a tried and true technique in this County.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Growth Management Hearings Board Finds the County Out of Compliance

The Outside Man has too many irons in the fire to blog right now. Rightfully, this blog should be his, becasue this case is named for him.

The Hearings Board just issued a decision concluding that the County Council's decision to expand Ferndale's Urban Growth Area violated state law. The Urban Growth Area is too big, and Ferndale wasn't able to show that it had planned adequately for sewer and fire service.

Here are the first few paragraphs: "In sizing the Ferndale UGA, the County improperly relied both on a market supply factor and 'local circumstances'. As the market supply factor already includes and accounts for 'local circumstances', the County thereby over-estimated its residential lands needs and over-sized the Ferndale UGA.

Approving the Ferndale UGA in the absence of adopted fire and sewer plans demonstrates Whatcom County.s failure to be guided by [the Growth Management Act].

In the absence of capital facilities plans for fire and wastewater, it cannot be said that the Ferndale UGA has 'adequate existing public facility and service capacities to serve such development,' and the Board finds this to be a violation of [the Growth Management Act].

I just read the spin on the decision in the Bellingham Herald. Jori Burnett, Ferndale's Planning Director, is a very nice guy. He's currently helping a class that I teach, with no concern for politics and solely in the interest of the community. But he stated that the decision "isn't a victory for petitioners," and that's just, well, spin. To put it charitably.

Of course, the Hearings Board could have found the County more out of compliance on more issues. But the petitioners won on the big issue -- that is, the oversizing of Ferndale's UGA.

It's too bad that the County and Ferndale followed this path. A lot of time and money were spent on attorneys and hearings, when that time and money are desperately needed for many, many other things.

But I agree with one thing that Jori said, and it gave me hope. He said that the decision is a "victory for good planning." I hope that this decision inspires Ferndale and the County to buckle down and do some good planning.

David Stalheim discussed the issues on the Herald website, in a response to another effort from Ferndale to put a smiley face on the decision (Sam Taylor is Ferndale's City Clerk). The link is here, and it's worth a read.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

What a Tangled Web

Somebody asked me today how long it will be before the County adopts the new Rural Element of its Comprehensive Plan. Simple question, right?


As the Herald reported today, the County has suddenly realized that it needs to send the Rural Element back to the Planning Commission.

(The new Planning Commission. Only 2 out of the 9 Planning Commissioners who originally spent the greater part of 2009 holding work sessions and hearings on the Rural Element are still on the Planning Commission. So this is all new to 7 members.)

Anyway -- although the County has had almost a year and a half to think about it, the fact that County Council revisions have to go back to the Planning Commission apparently slipped the County's collective mind until now. (The first person to raise this issue in public comments, I'm pretty sure, was one of the bloggers on this site, and it wasn't the one who is a lawyer. Thirty years of planning experience mean something, I guess.)

Having "suddenly" realized this fact, which was cleverly hidden in a part of state law that was adopted in 1963, the County is in something of a bind.

You see, on March 29, the County had a deadline to meet. The state Growth Management Hearings Board said that it had to adopt a Rural Element that complies with state law by that date. As previously noted, the Council decided not to adopt anything.

The day after its deadline, the County applied to extend the deadline. That kind of approach doesn't tend to work so well for my college students who try it, but the County must not feel like it has to live under the same harsh rules that we apply to 18 - to 22-year-olds. The County, the Hearings Board, and Futurewise will thrash all of this out on Thursday, April 14.

The County asked for an extension until May 10. Its request, the Board's response, and Futurewise's response are all here, thanks to the Herald (Jared Paben did a great job of getting information out to the public).

That May 10 deadline might have worked except for one thing: that pesky Planning Commission hearing.

Hmmm. Now what? More delay? More extensions? More staff time and effort, paid for by the taxpayers? Or will the Board finally be fed up with Whatcom County's almost comical inability to adopt a plan?

Stay tuned. We should know by Tax Day. Perhaps the Tea Party will protest the waste of County resources represented by this seemingly endless effort not to comply with state law.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Public Records

The Herald's Politics Blog, discussing Council Chair Sam Crawford's use of his home e-mail (link here), reminded me of some earlier discussions of Council Chair Sam Crawford's use of his home e-mail.

Last October, David Stalheim recalled an e-mail that Sam Crawford showed him: link here. The next day, Mr. Crawford announced that he would no longer use his home e-mail, although he had a very good filing system on it. That system only failed him once, in fact. He just couldn't find that one e-mail referred to by David Stalheim.

What a coincidence!

But I suppose that we're making progress. The fact that Mr. Crawford is trying to cover up his personal correspondence shows awareness, at least.