Last Wednesday’s City Club meeting provided a forum for Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to discuss the most significant issues faced by Whatcom County.
According to an article in the Bellingham Herald, Executive Louws is concerned about water issues, especially the potential economic effect of water scarcity on speculative land developers. The Herald quoted Executive Louws as stating "People who have invested in the raw property and have made their living doing that are concerned, and we need to find a resolution to it."
'There is no question that people have made money, a lot of money, from the conversion of rural and agricultural land to residential development in Whatcom County. That is why the Building Industry Association and its various alter-egos – the Farm Bureau, the Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights, the Realtors, the Tea Party – are so active here.
And there’s no question that the building industry is one constituent of Whatcom County, with one well-recognized interest.
The question is: is it the only interest? Or does the County also have an interest in making sure that we have water for agriculture, for fish, for tourism, for drinking?
If so, the County has plenty of issues to address, from pollution of the aquifer that provides drinking water to the northern part of the County, to the fact that somewhere around ¾ of the water used for agricultural irrigation is not based on a legal water right, to low stream flows that can jeopardize salmon.
But if those issues don’t matter, and encouraging rural land conversion really is the County’s primary water resource goal, the new Council will soon have the opportunity to make this clear.
The Growth Management Hearings Board recently found that the County has an obligation to connect its land use planning to the availability of water. And please understand: Whatcom County has the obligation to connect its land use planning to water. The Herald article inaccurately stated that the Board “would require Whatcom property owners to prove new wells would not affect the levels of certain streams.”
The Board did no such thing. It told Whatcom County to determine that water is available where development will occur. Now, if the County makes a decision to throw up its hands and tell County property owners that they have to come up with proof of water availability themselves – well, that would be the County’s decision. The Board’s decision addresses the County, as the responsible planning body. The folks trying to scare property owners by telling them that they’ll have to make the water availability decision themselves are assuming that the County won’t do its job. (Of course, given the County’s approach during the past four years, this prediction may carry a grain of salt.)
But back to the case. Rather than trying to bring its land use and water planning into the 21st century, the County appealed the Board’s decision to court, hiring Seattle attorneys to fight against the obligation to plan for water quality and quantity. The amount of money allocated to legal battles emerged as an election issue during last fall’s County Council race.
Apparently the mere possibility that the Council might not continue to fund outside lawyers to fight against better land use and water planning has upset the folks discussed by Executive Louws: the people who make their living by buying raw land to develop. They are so concerned that they have assured the County that they will provide the legal horsepower needed to keep fighting and avoid planning, according to Tea Party activist and KGMI radio personality Kris Halterman,
So the County doesn’t need to pay for outside lawyers, because the lawyers for land development interests are lining up to represent Whatcom County.
In a very stark and real way, this raises the question of who the County Council represents. Is Whatcom County’s interest in water congruent with the interests of “people who have invested in the raw property and have made their living doing that”?
Maybe it is. If so, I sure hope that the County Council will have the guts to say so. If our County’s long-term economy and quality of life is so dependent on rural land conversion that the County Council is content to let these organizations represent the County, the Council ought to make that finding and back it up.
That view would run counter to another perspective:
How does one put a dollar value on being in the presence of crystal clear water coursing down a steep slope through a rock-lined, moss-edged stream bed among evergreen trees, for example? While commercial uses of the state's instream flows might be made--tourism and paid-for recreation, for example--such uses do not entail the total benefits derived from streams and lakes.
Hey, who wrote that environmental hogwash? Some tree-hugging hippy, right?
Wrong. The Washington Supreme Court wrote that, a few months ago, in Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Dep’t of Ecology, 178 Wn.2d 571, 600, n. 15 (2013).
Does the state Supreme Court have a point? Might Whatcom County’s water resources provide “total benefits” that aren’t based solely on the economic value of using water for land conversion? Will the County Council recognize those benefits, and see the opportunity that it has to work for a broader solution, or will it follow the path of least resistance by putting the development industry incharge our future?
The next few months will tell.