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.  


  1. Zoning is the way that the County's Comprehensive Plan gets implemented on the ground. Many of the key issues relating to the Rural Element -- setbacks from agricultural land, building sizes out in rural areas, increasing housing density on the shore of Lake Whatcom -- appear in the Zoning Code, not in the Comprehensive Plan.

    By cutting the Planning Commission off from these issues, the County couldn't make it any clearer that it views the Planning Commission hearing as a meaningless formality. Or that it begrudges every last bit of public participation and will only provide what it believes that it is absolutely required to do.

    I feel sorry for the Planning Commission. Imagine spending Monday from 1-6:00 in a "work session," and then spending the rest of the evening in a public hearing, when you aren't even allowed to address the most important issues.

    If the Planning Commission recommended changing any Comprehensive Plan policies (which it clearly isn't expected to do), the Zoning Code likely would have to be changed in order to make it consistent. There wouldn't be any Planning Commission recommendation about how to change the Zoning Code. How does that make sense?

  2. These latest twists to what is being called planning by my county is simply stunning. I feel they are trapped in some sort of crazy bubble.

  3. But Jean, shouldn't you be giving the County credit for understanding that SEPA does not any provide environmental protection? In fact, they excel at ensuring that SEPA does not provide environmental protection.

    And they clearly have a policy they rely upon for SEPA review...all development, of any nature, results in "no net loss." Apparently, they can just feel it in their bones. Besides, most County development vests under prior environmental laws.
    If that is good enough for me, my buddy Jack Swanson and the County Hearing Examiner, why isnt it good enough for you?

    Wendy Harris

  4. Dan Mc: They are trapped in a crazy bubble, the burst housing bubble that they're desperately trying to reinflate through force of will. Talk about social engineering and employing government to poor purpose—the very thing these clods ran against.

    At least Tony had the presence of mind to note just how terrible the economic multipliers for home construction truly are. Now if he could only commit that knowledge to action.

  5. Wendy, David's the one with hopes and expectations for SEPA in the County -- this is his blog entry. I have noticed that he has a strange tendency to think that laws ought to be applied in Whatcom County the way they are in other parts of Washington. Or, should I say "in the parts of Washington that acknowledge that they're part of Washington, unlike Whatcom County."