The Gristle

12-Step Program
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12-STEP PROGRAM: Once was an easy path to wealth in the latter third of the last century: Acquire resource land at bargain prices. Strip the resource, and use the proceeds to influence government to then upzone the property, creating new development rights and land value. Flip the property to another buyer for enormous profit.

Call it the Strip-&-Flip; and notice the central role government plays in creating wealth for very little investment and low marginal cost to those gaming this out.

It’s not a process that can go on forever, as the conversion of rich farmland in fertile places like the Kent Valley to asphalt jungle can illustrate, and as the slow financial collapse and personal misfortunes of early pioneers of the Strip-&-Flip locally can attest. The boom was mostly over by the mid-1990s, the easy money gone, just about the time our local politics grew increasingly surly as a second tier of “investors” tried to reproduce the easy successes of the first tier.

The grave sin of the Whatcom County Council majority is not merely their inability to understand that era is well and truly over, but their failure to recognize that they are the governing body that will usher in a more modern, profitable, different way of doing things. Instead they huff and they puff, trying to blow new air into an old shredded balloon.

But the game is over; and the State of Washington and 38 of its 39 counties have moved on, leaving Whatcom County increasingly isolated and vulnerable.

A council supermajority last week approved, 5-2, another $40,000 payment to a Seattle law firm to again challenge the findings of a state board that the county insufficiently protects its land and water resources. The Growth Management Hearing Board ruling was issued earlier this month. The county has now spent more than a quarter of a million dollars in direct costs fighting related rulings, and has lost on every substantive issue. The county finds its ass gets kicked harder in each iteration. Each time, their responses grow weaker. Significantly, despite the talents of the $375-per-hour attorney, the county didn’t even bother to defend a number of issues last time around. Why bother; they’re indefensible under state law!

Council is still reeling from an earlier GMHB ruling, issued in January, that invalidated portions of the rural element of the county’s comprehensive plan. There, the board noted the findings of the state Dept. of Ecology requiring a zero-discharge policy for Lake Whatcom to limit phosphorous pollutants from entering the reservoir. Ecology established the requirement to reduce these pollutants by 86.75 percent, approaching a natural forested condition, by any means available; the board ran this much farther down the field, reasoning:

“The 86 percent target already assumes no additional phosphorus run-off (zero discharge) from new lots. Steve Hood [DOE water quality engineer] made it clear that to the extent new development was not required to meet a zero-discharge standard, additional requirements (i.e., beyond 86 percent reduction) would have to be imposed on existing developments in the watershed. Ecology has made it clear that restricting new lot development is only part of the solution; pollutants from existing development and from development of previously-platted parcels must also be brought under control. Thus, the necessary measures to protect water quality must go beyond down-zoning.”

In the opinion of the board, down-zoning in Lake Whatcom is de minimis and an obligatory component of a much more extensive set of actions required from the county. Indeed, only a math illiterate could look at an 86 percent reduction target and see much “wiggle room.”

Ecology has not gone so far as to prescribe specific acts to reach the reduction target, but that forbearance may be changing, council learned with unpleasant surprise last week.

On May 28, Ecology received an admission from County Public Works that ”retrofitting 87 percent of the existing developed area… is infeasible for many reasons,” most having to do with the removal of natural forest canopy and thin soils over impermeable bedrock. If the county has concerns about the ability to meet the target in developed areas, that throws serious doubt on the county’s ability to achieve offsets necessary for new development, Hood told council members last week.

“I no longer believe that is an option we can unequivocally support,” Hood said. “If meeting the 87 percent reduction from existing development is not considered feasible, we really need to look at how much of that excess [development] capacity should be reserved to address some of the existing development.”

Hood said later, “In the past I’d been supportive of the county doing a water quality offset program for dealing with new development. But the county was saying, ‘We’re focused on new development and later we’ll figure out what we’re going to do about existing development.’

“I just felt, based on the comments they provided, their plan would need to have a more holistic view rather than just looking solely at new development,” Hood explained.

Like offering booze to an alcoholic, liberty to consider multiple options in isolation has been unhelpful to County Council as they’ve dallied from solution to solution—stormwater, septic systems, road improvements, new development standards, retrofit of existing development—blaming whatever was not in front of them as the more pressing cause and using inactivity in each as excuse to enact none, but always with the notion that with sufficient offsets they could, red-eyed and staggering, complete the buildout of Lake Whatcom.

Step one of council’s rehab program involves submitting to a higher authority, the State of Washington. Step two, cast aside their compulsive addiction to obsolete land practices. Three, apologize to all they’ve harmed.

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