Sunday, March 16, 2014

Whatcom County Leadership Needed to Protect Water Resources and Agricultural Land

The League of Women Voters’ March 15th session on water resources focused on “solutions.”

After the four panel members (Jeremy Freimund, Lumm Water Resources Manager; Hanry Bierlink, representing the Whatcom Agricultural District; George Boggs, from Whatcom Conservation District; and Ann Wessel, from the Department of Ecology) finished their remarks,  the League moderator noted that the speakers had used a whole host of words --  “litigate,” “ cooperate,” “be optimistic,” “be holistic” – and so forth.

As she ran through the string of words, I noticed that one word was missing:  “plan.”  Whatcom County has the obligation to plan to protect water resources.  Why didn’t anybody talk about that?

That absence came out in the subsequent conversation.  Henry Bierlink noted that water “is a land use issue, it’s an economic development issue, and everything else.”

Speaking of planning (or the lack thereof), the next question asked how much farm acreage the County is losing to development.  Henry responded that we lost a lot over the past 20 years, but now it’s plateaued and we have the 100,000 acres that the County Council has committed to protect.

I was standing in the back of the room, shaking my head vigorously – not because I doubt Henry’s word that more than 100,000 acres are currently being farmed in Whatcom County, but because the County has NOT protected 100,000 acres of agricultural land.  Only 88,000 acres are zoned for agriculture (don’t take my word for it – click here and see page 3).

On top of that, even the 88,000 acres that are zoned for agriculture are not permanently protected for agricultural use, as George Boggs emphasized.  The issue, he said is “what we can lose” – and this County has 4,000 development rights in prime agricultural land. 

Why does that matter?  As these lots are developed, they will withdraw some water, and in some places, that may be a problem.  But the bigger problem is the potential for incompatibility.

Unlike anywhere else that I know of, Whatcom County’s zoning allows residential buildings to be built right up to a farmer’s property line.  In fact, under some circumstances, a setback applies to farm buildings, which are constrained in their location in order to protect residential uses.  This is a formula for conflict.

As restrictions tighten on the use of pesticides and other chemicals (don’t take my word for it, click here),   the ever-increasing number of residential buildings in Ag areas will increasingly constrain farming.

Whatcom County has a chance to address this issue in its upcoming Comprehensive Plan update.  It could revise its zoning code and provide some protection to Ag uses.  As George Boggs noted, the issue of residential development in agricultural land is an issue of great urgency. And yet the County Council recently voted NOT to docket a measure that would put the County on the road to protecting the additional ag land that everybody agrees that we need. 

Is Whatcom County in the business of planning?  Reacting?  Merely defending the status quo? 

That leads us to the most profound statement on leadership of the session. Jeremy Freimund, the Lummi Nation’s water resource manager, described the “Lessons Learned” from his years of being in the thick of water resource litigation.  The main “lesson learned,” he said, is that politicians want to be able to say “”the judge made me do it.”

True leadership, as he pointed out, would be to stand up and admit that concessions are needed to get to a negotiated agreement.

I think that we elected a new County Council in hopes that there would be a welcome return to leadership. Perhaps this hope only extended as far as the review of the Gateway Pacific coal terminal, and perhaps we are all too jaded or too indifferent even to dream that Whatcom County will ever again engage in the kind of leadership needed to address our other tough problems.

Water problems.  Council Chair Carl Weimer recently proposed, and the Council recently adopted, a Water Action Plan.  This could and should be part of the solution.  Will it have any teeth?  Will the Council have the political will to buck the status quo? 

The protection of agricultural lands.  Will the County do what it takes?  Ken Mann has proposed a Transfer of Development Rights program to remove development rights from agricultural land.  Does the Council have the technical support, the money, and the backbone to make it work?  And if not, what is Plan B?  Is planning any part of Plan B?

As George Boggs put it, “if you want change, you need to clamor.”