The Gristle

Last Battle of the Civil War
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LAST BATTLE OF THE CIVIL WAR: An eddy in the on-going discussion of Whatcom County land-use planning and zoning—and of Lake Whatcom in particular—a state growth board last week dismissed the challenge of foresters opposed to the transfer of 8,844 acres of state forestland on either flank of the reservoir to county management as a low-impact park. The challenge is perhaps the final hurdle facing the Lake Whatcom Reconveyance, an exchange contemplated since at least 2005.

Earlier in July, the state Board of Natural Resources approved the transfer of consolidated state forest trust lands by a vote of 5 to 1. The governing board of the Dept. of Natural Resources responded to the resolution of Whatcom County Council earlier this year, requesting the return of forestland deeded to the state in the early 20th century after the forests had been logged and abandoned by their private owners. State statute allows counties to request a return—a “reconveyance”—of these lands, but only for use as a park. Lands around Lake Whatcom hold mature forests the state was ready to log; the transfer helped consolidate parcels that DNR may now proceed to log, while holding in place timber on steep, unstable slopes in the reservoir.

Foresters challenged the action to the state Growth Management Hearings Board, claiming that the loss of agricultural forestry acres jeopardized their industry and violated state provisions to protect resource lands.

The effect of the county’s resolution is to “prohibit what was once permitted, [which] changes the character of the property in contradiction to its current zoning, and is in direct contradiction with stated planning goals adopted in the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan,” Tom Westergreen, log manager for the Great Western Lumber Company of Everson, argued in a brief to the hearings board.

Yet the GMHB found county zoning clearly allows park uses within its commercial forestry districts. The regulations allow trails and trailheads, as well as (surprise!) watershed management projects and creation of a forest preserves as permitted uses throughout lands zoned CF.

“The fact is that there are uses allowed in the CF zone that allow what is contemplated, just like the other county parks that are in the CF zone. Small parking lots, trails and a forest,” former Whatcom County Planning Director David Stalheim observed. When he was director of Planning and Development Services, Stalheim filed an opinion that a park-like preserve is permitted in commercial forestry districts; by corollary, the lands should permit a preserve-like park.

“A challenge to the land uses allowed in the commercial forestry district would be untimely as the county’s development regulations were adopted and not appealed years ago,” the hearing board agreed. The complaint should have been made then, not years later as park uses proliferated in county forests.

The hearings board also found merit in the county’s argument that the GMHB lacked jurisdiction to hear the argument because “a change in ownership is not a change in land use,” board members noted, and the county had made no amendments to comprehensive plans or development regulations that might trigger review by the GMHB. The board agreed, and dismissed the case.

While the decision appears to resolve the issue of whether trees can remain standing on the shores of a drinking water reservoir for 90,000 people, and is perhaps the last battle of the Reconveyance civil war, the complaint of foresters is essentially the flip-side of complaints about the county’s proposed ordinance to allow slaughterhouses throughout the Ag zone—the slow creep of uses that are not central to, and perhaps in conflict with, the original purpose of the land use protection.

“My complaint was that the county did not go through the process necessary to de-designate and rezone the land from CF to a use that allows park land,” Jack Petree explained. A forestry industry consultant, Petree was one of the petitioners to the failed GMHB challenge. “The county has no intention of a rezone now… it got away with it.”

Through similar sleight-of-hand the county has created dozens of non-farm uses throughout its agricultural zone—everything from “family day care homes,” “adult family homes,” “mental health facilities that provide residential treatment,” and “substance abuse facilities” as permitted uses. Accessory uses include “bed and breakfast establishments” and “mini-day care homes.” The county proposes slaughterhouses as compatible with agriculture, but is silent on whether slaughterhouses are compatible with day care centers, which are also permitted in the Ag zone.

As we’ve noted before, the inability of loggers to get at those final stands around Lake Whatcom is hardly the most fatal ailment of the dying timber industry; likewise, permitting accessory slaughterhouses is likely not the most fatal ailment of a dying farm industry in Whatcom County. Both industries suffer the wounds of a thousand cuts.

What a shame the timber beasts weren’t arguing for resource protection and the merits of GMA at every step as thousands of forested acres were being stripped and converted to other uses. What a shame they’re fighting for 8,000 acres when 100 times that timber acreage was lost statewide between 1978 and 2001, mostly to suburban and rural development, according to DNR. What a shame they’re not standing up as similar conversions threaten to destroy the ag industry.

Ironically, the same county folks snarling about the Reconveyance are cheering for slaughterhouses, so embroiled in a “hippie-punching” culture war they’re unable to see that the issues are of similar currency.

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