Monday, January 16, 2012

The Growth Management Hearings Board’s Decision on Whatcom County’s Rural Planning, Part 2, The Elements: Earth, Water and Fire.

When you sit in a windowless County Council chamber hour after hour, watching Power Point presentations about the Growth Management Act, perhaps it is easy to forget that planning ultimately is about what happens on earth.  On the ground.  Where critters live and water flows. 

And houses burn down.  (Had to shoehorn that “fire” element in there somehow!).


The Growth Management Hearings Board found that there was “ample evidence” about “risks to water supply, water quality, and water resources for fish from rural development in Whatcom County.” 

The Board noted testimony from the Department of Ecology, stating that our current regulations cannot mitigate the impacts of small lots, increased pavement, and the resultant pollutants that will drain into Lake Whatcom. The Board observed that “the measures necessary to protect surface and groundwater resources in the Lake Whatcom area are clearly identified in the record” and concluded that incorporating them into the Rural Element “should be a straightforward task.” 

The Board noted evidence of saltwater intrusion requiring the closure of wells on the Lummi Peninsula, where houses were built at one unit per acre.

The Board noted that the County had planned for dense residential development in areas of north of Bellingham (“North Bellingham” and “Fort Bellingham/Marietta”), despite the closure of the Nooksack River Basin to surface and groundwater appropriation.

In short, the County’s planning needs to take account the constraints, limitations, and signals from the natural world. 

This is particularly true of areas that the County itself has found to be especially valuable.  Whatcom County has identified one wildlife corridor as a critical area requiring protection:  the Chuckanut Wildlife Corridor, which the County’s critical areas ordinance states is “the last remaining wildlife corridor area in the Puget Trough where natural land cover extends from marine waters to the National Forest Boundary east of Chuckanut Mountain. . .”

The County planned and zoned around 118 acres in the Chuckanut Corridor, from Lake Samish to the Skagit County line, for two-acre residential development.  We pointed out that reducing, degrading, and fragmenting habitat is the key cause of species extinction, inconsistent with the County’s obligation to conserve essential habitat.  As the Board said, “the County's response is silent regarding how its regulations protect the Chuckanut Wildlife Corridor.”

Water and Fire:
Rounding up our review of the elements, with respect to water and fire, the Board found that the County failed to "consult and coordinate with the City and other service providers with respect to water service and fire protection services.”  Why does this matter?

The Board found that “the County's Rural Element named the City and many of the water providers to whom the City supplies water as future sources of public water supply capable of meeting the needs of the proposed rural development.”  The City has adopted a policy stating that it will not supply water and sewer outside its own urban growth boundaries, however, and the Board concluded that the County had not coordinated with water providers to ensure that they would actually supply the water that was assumed to be available in the plan. The County’s own Plan requires such coordination.

Similarly, the Board found that the County’s own plan required coordination to ensure that fire services could be provided in densely populated rural areas outside of the City, and that the County had not coordinated with the service providers.

So, earth, water, and fire – the County needs to take them all into account when it’s planning to protect rural character.

What’s next?

I could go on, and on, and on about additional aspects of the Hearings Board’s decision, but it probably already seems like I’ve gone on, and on, and on.

So the next installment of the Hearings Board Trilogy – don’t all great epics have to be trilogies? – will look at the most important issue of all:  what comes next.


  1. The City's current stated policy is to extend its water & sewer utilities only to areas upon an annexation commitment - something it has been very lax about in the past. As a consequence, there are fairly extensive existing areas where these services have already been granted without requiring annexation, a problem it has been difficult to change.

  2. Is it also true that every new division of land results in more parcels with legal access to 5000 gallons of groundwater per day (under RCW 90.44.050)? If so, an area that changes from 4 forty acre parcels to 32 five acre parcels could result in an eightfold increase in water use associated with development.

    While agriculture is rightly worried about tribal demands that adequate in-stream flows are maintained to ensure continued viability of fish runs, an equal or larger impact on in-stream flows is likely the many, many 'rural straws' each drawing up to 5000 gallons daily and exempt from any water rights permit. Allowing for more 'rural straws' seems to indict the county in pitting agriculture against salmon when we really need to ensure ways both resources are protected.

  3. Senate Bill 6163 introduced by Ericksen, Swecker, Hatfield and Chase is worth a read. There may be more to this than meets the eye.


  4. SB 6163: In 10 months, the department of econoligy must report its findings on water storage in the upper Skagit and water rights from Harrison lake, without additional resources. I'm sure DOE will put their best intern on the job.

    Good ideas need good funding.

    As for rural wells that are exempt, that was the petition the City of Bellingham submitted to Ecology for the Lake Whatcom watershed -- and was turned down on the state level. The more rural development we allow, the more straws that take water out of the rivers. The more water taken out of the rivers through exempt wells, the less water for junior water right holders like agriculture or cities.

    We need to make rural growth accountable for the impacts of rural growth, but we don't have the political will to make the difficult decisions.

  5. This bill is not a good idea. We should not be buying water from Canada. We need to deal with our water problems and not expect to take resources from someone else. I do agree that we need to control our rural development.


  6. Department of econoligy, Citizen Stalheim? Ecology with a little economics thrown in. That coudn't have been a freudian typo, could it?