The Gristle

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DECONSTRUCTION:The Big Lie is the one that explains and gives cover to all the little lies that descend from it, and the Big Lie in Whatcom County for the past 30 years has been “economic development” in the form of the strip-and-flip land grab pyramid scheme: Buy up undervalued resource land in an economic downturn; level, drain and strip the resource for quick cash, then use those proceeds to lobby local government for an upzone; flip that property in a quick sale to some other buyer and waddle off with pants pockets bursting with jack. Note here the central role the public sector plays in creating private wealth for private individuals, and note—too—nothing more was actually created. Successive owners can generally con additional goodies to lard the land for the next flip, which are again granted by gullibly willing public officials again under the canard of “economic development” and, basically, because of their earlier foolish decision, those officials are now in for a penny, in for a pound. Promise a Taj Mahal and put in a trailer park. Eventually, though, some rube gets caught on the wrong side of the Ponzi scheme and has to actually build something in order to recover the investment.

On a beautiful spring day you can drive out into areas northeast of King Mountain and admire their handiwork: Comically sad architectural horrors of a squalid sort of luxury—40-foot columns grace the entrance of a 2,000-square-foot home with a five-car attached garage squatting ramshackle four per acre, a single sad window the size of a pigeon hole cut through a huge blank exterior wall, incomprehensibly off-center—resource land destroyed for a sorry circus of ugly, freakish clowns.

We’ve written recently of the general impoverishment that arises from such “economic development,” with the delivery of municipal services like fire and ambulance to low-density residential development costing up to five times the delivery of similar services to rural farms with their permanent $3,000-per-acre average annual income streams. You get one dose of economic heroin in the construction phase, and you can jones on the occasional hit from real estate excise tax when the residence sells. For counties like Whatcom, which captures most of its operating revenue from property tax valuations, you can glimpse the allure, but in terms of economic development it is a losers’ game.

Still—in for a penny, in for a pound; and over the past 30 years Whatcom County Council has introduced a battery of instruments to keep the Big Lie Ponzi bubble gaseously bloated. They’re called development rights, and there are an enormous number of them created in the county’s rural lands—day care centers and child care facilities; bed and breakfast establishments; rehabilitation and mental health care facilities; retirement and convalescent homes; golf courses and activity centers, etc.—each created to paper over, in the name of “economic development,” the loss of actual economic value from destruction of resource land for its conversion to rural residences. Slaughterhouses were merely one more development right slathered over a ludicrous jumble of other incompatible uses. The recent election appears to have clubbed into a merciful coma perhaps the most egregious of these emergent development rights, the lot line adjustment that would have allowed farmers to reconfigure their properties to allow home construction at their boundaries, thereby ensuring the grinding slow death of their farms via encroachment of uses incompatible with farming.

To unwind the 30-year Ponzi scheme, many of these development rights must be extinguished, and in a manner that does not bankrupt taxpayers.

Council member Ken Mann earlier this month reawoke the challenge of extinguishing development rights by transferring them to other areas (cities) with municipal services appropriate for the development. Mann introduced a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program as council updates population and employment growth allocations as part of the comprehensive planning required by state law. A new local emphasis encourages county and city policymakers to plan for 85 percent of future growth in or near cities. Mann’s proposal requests cities consider the development of receiving areas for TDRs as part of their own comprehensive planning.

Mann likened the problem of coaxing cities into receiving densities as analogous to infill—a great idea in principle, discouraged in its specifics.

“TDRs have been in front of us for six years, and all we’ve had is lip service,” Mann said. “No one has had the courage to say it is time to make this happen. This is a market-based mechanism that we can overlay on our existing processes. This would only require willing participants to enter into an agreement.”

In a more proactive attempt at TDRs, council this week received a presentation on a proposed “reverse auction” that might retire some of these rights.

“The envisioned reverse auction will identify eligible property and authorize the landowner of each eligible property to submit a bid to the county,” council learned in this week’s briefing. “The landowner’s bid would establish the price for which the landowner would sell a conservation easement to the county, which would remove the development rights from the eligible property.”

The county currently holds about $5 million in conservation futures that could be applied to purchasing these easements. Only about 200 development rights might be retired through this means, council learned, and they were encouraged to focus their attention strategically to the agricultural core, where retiring those rights could reduce encroachment of incompatible uses.

It’s going to take a lot of little instruments like this to deconstruct 30 years of destruction.

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