Sunday, February 26, 2012

Whatcom County’s Rural Element: The Sequel

Apparently the Arab Spring, and every successful uprising since then, was masterminded by people who knew how to make revolt fun.  Get garbage cans, paint faces on them and let people bash them with sledgehammers.  Baffle the CIA by organizing the revolt via Twitter.

What can we bash, to make the rural element fun? Can we paint a face on something?  No scurrilous suggestions here, please. 

Because – let’s face it -- Whatcom County’s fifth or sixth or eight or tenth or twentieth year (who’s counting) of not adopting a legal Comprehensive Plan is not inherently full of fun. 

Last Thursday evening, David and I attended the kick-off for the County’s current effort to try to adopt a Rural Element that complies with the Growth Management Act.  Planning Commissioners, 7 out of 9 of whom were not on the Planning Commission when it last went through this exercise in 2009, listened politely to a PowerPoint presentation.  The event would not, I’m afraid, make much of a splash on YouTube.

But it occurred to me that the Rural Element does have one thing going for it:  It’s a SEQUEL. Americans love sequels!  Most of the top ten grossing films in 2012 were sequels! 

If we don’t want endless sequels, we need to make sure that the County does it right this time.  And there isn’t much time.  Here’s the schedule that the County has proposed:

Feb 28th – Draft published
March 8th – Planning Commission Public Hearing (Note:  this is only 5 work days after the draft is published)
March 22nd – Planning Commission Work Session
April 12th – Planning Commission Work Session
April 26th – Planning Commission Work Session
It sounded like all of the Planning Commission sessions will be held in the County Council chambers.

May 8th – Council Planning & Development Committee

July 10th – Compliance Deadline

Because the only public hearing is proposed at the beginning, presumably planning staff are under the assumption that the Planning Commission will not make any changes to the proposal that is supposed to come out the day after tomorrow.. 

This may make it appear that public testimony is merely window-dressing, but the public needs to participate anyway.  The need to hold additional public hearing(s) was raised at the meeting, and the County needs to hear that this is a good idea.

REMEMBER – the County Council can adopt the Planning Commission’s proposal without any public hearing.  So it’s possible that the March 8th public hearing will be the ONLY public hearing on this issue!  

Now, on this awards day, it also occurs to me that we should give our awards for good actors during our Rural Element sequel.  And by that, I mean people whose actions are good.

I’m going to call this award the Lammie, in honor of everyone’s favorite Growth Management Act acronym:  LAMIRD (limited area of more intense rural development).

(As an aside, when you put the search term “lamb statue” into Google Images, a frightening array of possibilities assaults your screen.  Apparently America is full of lawns graced by life-sized statues of sheep and lambs.)

The Lammie for February 23rd goes to our new County Executive, Jack Louws, who gave a very thoughtful opening speech to the Planning Commission.  He is, as he said, a “cheerleader” for compliance.  Here are the highlights of his speech, as closely as I could get them down – if you want to listen to the original, click here for the online audio.  

I think that it’s a real priority for Whatcom County to get into compliance with the GMA.

This continued noncompliance is definitely putting the County at a disadvantage at the state level when it comes to funding, especially the Public Works Trust Fund money and Centennial Clean Water fund money, both of which we use.  And as an aside to that, the Public Works Trust Fund is going to get expanded, appears that it’s going to get expanded, so that we can borrow money for projects such as JAILS and other infrastructure projects.  That’s half-percent money, but one of the keys for us is to get into compliance with GMA to be eligible for that.

It’s important to get this behind us if we can so that we can take a methodical look at where we’re going for 2016 [when the Comprehensive Plan has to be updated].  What I just, in short, want to say is to encourage you to do everything that you can to take a real hard look at what the ruling was, and maybe swallow twice if you’re not in agreement with it, but look at it from a public servant’s perspective and realize that we need to get into compliance and the ruling gives us a pretty good indication of what we need to do to get there.

There may be some challenges with what the ruling is with respect to your personal views of what land use should be in Whatcom County, but we need to take a good look at what the ruling is and get it solved. . .

I’m an encourager and a cheerleader to ask you to do everything we can to get there. We have some big projects coming up, and it’s imperative that we get the state’s help to get them done.

Of course, David and I have been saying for years, literally, that the County’s continuing noncompliance with the Growth Management Act imposes real costs.  But I suppose that it’s like Nixon in China – a former Mayor of Lynden may be believed by those who habitually scoff at Bellinghamites. 

And of course, the looming omnipresence of the need for a new jail, in conjunction with the County’s complete lack of available funding, adds urgency.

My fear is that the County’s going to use this sudden “discovery” of the fiscal implications of noncompliance to push through yet another noncompliant plan.  But maybe this sequel will break the mold and the County will actually Get Whatcom Planning. 

For that to happen, we need all of you to help.  


  1. Replies
    1. To make it more like an Oscar, should I name it after a person? The Sammy, instead of the Lammie?

  2. I'm guessing if we had elected Doug Ericksen as County Executive, he would be saying something like "validity? We don't need no steenking validity!"

  3. Firts I am worried about you searching yard animals on the internet.
    But, how refreshing to have an Executive show up at a Planning Commission meeting and care about planning and policy.

    1. I think that I'm safe. Facebook believes that I'm over 65, so my online activities must look pretty sedate. "Lamb statue" lead to quite a few religious and tombstone shops, helping to reinforce that impression.

  4. Let's hope that certain members of the Council got the message, and aren't so stubborn as to ignore it. Does Jack have veto power on this issue?

    1. Veto would not help much here. The council needs pass action in order to remedy the situation

  5. As I understand it, the Council makes the final decisions, and the County Prosecuting Attorney works for the Council. There is a sort of system of checks and balances, though, because Planning and Development Services staff work for the Executive. So he can direct staff and provide them with priorities.