The Gristle

Of carts and horses
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OF CARTS AND HORSES: Carl Weimer performed some magnificent policy jiujitsu on Whatcom County Council last week.

But first, some basics: You will not find an example similar to Bellingham’s municipal water supply in the state of Washington. Of the state’s ten Class A cities, of which Bellingham is a member, all others have closed, protected municipal reservoirs. You will not easily find another example of it in the Pacific Northwest or on the West Coast. All cities of size in Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia have similarly protected water supplies. So when local governments propose to set progressive policy on Lake Whatcom, understand: They’re spitballin’.

Two decades ago, Lake Whatcom was listed as an impaired water body under federal clean water statutes. In 2008, after lengthy delay, the state Dept. of Ecology released its preliminary study on pollutants entering the lake, a primary factor in the continued decline of the reservoir’s water quality, a decay known as eutrophication. Ecology’s finding was that the watershed was substantially overbuilt and outlined a number of potential rollback scenarios to reduce the total maximum daily load (TMDL) of pollutants entering the lake through urban runoff.

“A zero percent reduction would represent the [current] scenario,” DOE officials explained, “while a 100 percent reduction would represent a full rollback to natural conditions.”

It perhaps goes without saying that Whatcom County’s policy response to date more resembles the former than the latter. For the past decade, council has imposed a series of temporary bans on additional subdivision of small lots in the watershed, little else. For its part, Ecology set the rollback of paved and impervious surfaces at 86 percent and has remained (unhelpfully, it may turn out) open to any variety of solutions to achieve this goal. To date, the county has proposed several and implemented none.

In 2011, the City of Bellingham filed a petition with DOE, demanding the state close the lake to further withdrawals, claiming its senior rights as a supplier of clean water to municipal customers were being impaired by county development policy in the watershed. As city administrators had not met with county administrators to directly resolve the dispute, Ecology (again, unhelpfully) declined to take regulatory action, calling instead for a county stormwater plan—a plan that has yet to manifest.

It’s worth noting—again—that any remedial plan for restoring Lake Whatcom is, at best, optimistically speculative, as there are no examples or models of this having ever been achieved short of closing the reservoir. On the contrary, hundreds of lakes have been destroyed through approaches similar to the county’s.

Taking a more aggressive stance than Ecology, the Washington Growth Management Hearings Board in December criticized county development policy in the watershed, citing a state Supreme Court ruling that similarly found that counties must consider and address water resource issues in land use planning.

“The 86 percent target already assumes no additional phosphorus runoff (zero discharge) from new lots,” the state board noted, finding Ecology “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.”

Yet rather than respond to this finding, County Council opened their first meeting of 2013 with a discussion of permitting additional development of clustered lots in the watershed. These clustered lots would be exempt from the moratorium on subdivisions.

In their usual method of placing the cart athwart the horse, council proposed the home exemption before they’ve developed the standards under which these exempt homes would be built. As proposed, their exemption contained no standards addressing the TMDL or reducing eutrophication, the idea being they’ll get around to doing that work… someday.

But these subdivisions vest under the development standards in place at the time they’re created!

Weimer proposed amendment language that “all such development on lots created through such divisions and lot line adjustments provide a stormwater plan to be approved by County Planning and Development Services that shows such development will provide no increase in runoff of phosphorus beyond what would be expected from a natural forested condition.”

His amendment is a restatement of what council says they intend to get around to doing someday, achieving Ecology’s target, lord knows how, now inserted as a qualifier in their proposed exemption. Horse and cart disentangled, rehitched.

Weimer’s proposal caught the thunderstruck majority off guard.

“What we are saying is we are going to adopt an ordinance that presumes that that standard is adopted, and I have so much as admitted that that’s probably where we’re headed,” Council member Sam Crawford stammered.

For more than a decade, council has used successive extensions of the county’s moratorium to delay their own stormwater and development policy decisions while stalling final decision to property owners who expect they hold some natural right to subdivide their lots to build additional homes in the watershed. Council’s failure to resolve one served as handy excuse to avoid deciding the other.

Weimer’s amendment binds the two, so that future delays on the subdivision side of the equation are the direct consequence of council’s failure to resolve the enacting policy. In order to pound the drum of development über alles, County Council must first become treehuggers.

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