The Gristle

Doubling down on the do-overs
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DOUBLING DOWN ON THE DO-OVERS: Scarecely had the Gristle last week predicted a full calendar of do-overs and re-dos by Whatcom County Council when a long-expected old shoe dropped: The Washington Growth Management Hearings Board issued their order invalidating most of the revisions the council had proposed for the rural element of its Comprehensive Plan.

In a lengthy rebuke of council decisions that reversed the work of earlier councils, the GMHB issued a 179-page opinion finding fault with council’s reasoning on lands from Birch Bay to Kendall to South Bellingham. The board found the county violated state law by failing to adopt adequate measures to protect rural character, the third such strike batted at in a single year.

Ignoring a 2005 warning from the Washington State Supreme Court, Whatcom County Council scrapped earlier plans more protective of rural character in an effort to find terms agreeable to developers. In their attempt, County Council wasted an entire legislative year, hundreds of staff hours and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars—including $40,000 paid to a private practice pro-development attorney to defend the council’s plan in front of the state growth board. Their arguments failed to persuade the board.

The board ordered the county to rewrite its regulations by July 10, 2012, to make them compliant with state law. Council will waste another year fighting to meet that goal.

In their decision, the growth board went to some length to explain that a county’s plan and development regulations are presumed valid. Citizens’ ability to challenge those regulations face a high hurdle, they noted.

“This presumption creates a high threshold for challengers as the burden is on the petitioners to demonstrate that any action taken by the county is not in compliance with the Growth Management Act,” the board explained. GMA is intended to prevent counties from bankrupting themselves with poor planning and unsupported growth.

Despite that intent, the board must rule in favor of the county unless petitioners show that the county’s plan and regulations are “clearly erroneous.” Setting the threshold even higher, the board noted it must have “firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been committed” by county policymakers.

“The board is struck by the absence of measures to ensure continued predominance of the natural landscape over the built environment or visual compatibility with those ‘images of fields and crops, farm buildings, rolling hills… and sense of small town community’ that define Whatcom’s rural integrity,” GMHB reviewers commented. “The measures needed to assure visual compatibility and protect that character should be relatively straightforward” to all but a council criminally intent on full buildout.

Illustrating just how ridiculous the council’s proposal is for rural areas, the plan allows for enough houses to be built outside urban areas to accommodate 49,440 people—nearly a third again the current population of all of Whatcom’s smaller cities combined. The county’s entire projected population growth through 2029 is only 46,615, less than the number council would permit to sprawl into rural greenfields!

“Unrebutted evidence demonstrates that vacant lots in existing rural areas can accommodate 33,696 additional people, where only 2,651 are expected” according to realtime growth projections, the board commented dryly.

The board found the council, in their fever to award everything imaginable to developers, failed to consult with the county’s cities on growth issues. In addition to impoverishing the landscape, development that occurs outside urban areas strips cities of potential sales and property tax revenues.

In particular, the county failed to heed the City of Bellingham on a range of issues, from extensive developments opposed by COB north of the city to Smith Road and south to Governor’s Point, as well as proposals that could increase the buildout of Lake Whatcom.

“The county’s unsupported assertion that its regulations are adequate to provide the needed protection rings hollow,” the board’s ruling states. “The current report on Lake Whatcom water quality demonstrates that the existing regulations have not protected Lake Whatcom and that the problems are actual and proven, not speculative.”

In January, Bellingham water users saw utility charges double in an effort to raise funds to remove land from development in the watershed. In their revisions, County Council proposed doubling rural residential densities in the watershed, a scheme the board found inconsistent with identified policies and regulations to protect the reservoir.

“The board reads the record concerning efforts to reduce phosphorus loading in Lake Whatcom to establish a common understanding that any incremental development in the watershed, without surface water controls, is likely to increase water-qulaity degradation,” GMHB reviewers emphasized. “Therefore, the baseline for ‘minimizing development’ is not the prior zoning but rather is the existing condition.

“The measures necessary to protect surface and groundwater resources in the Lake Whatcom area are clearly identified in the record,” the board found. Incorporating them into the county plans for rural lands “should be a straightforward task,” the board commented.

“Measures to protect the habitat values of the Chuckanut corridor must address habitat fragmentation and degradation. Incorporating these and other measures into the Rural Element,” they added in a now-familiar litany, “should be a straightforward task.”

Time and money wasted by Whatcom County arrives at a grim hour, with county resources stretched thin in hard financial times while the council fiddles and fancies itself acting on conservative principles. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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