The Gristle

Red Meat
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RED MEAT: Whatcom County Council listened to public testimony but ultimately postponed their decision to allow slaughterhouses—er, packinghouses in the county’s Agriculture zone, allowing further comment and review by the farming community. Once approved by council (and its approval seems at this point inevitable), the ordinance would invite industrial-scale facilities of up to a quarter-acre in size (with provisions for additional size) for the slaughter, processing and manufacture of products from animal remains as an allowed use throughout all 88,000 acres of the county’s Ag land.

Morphing from a quiet original request for a small-scale exemption that might allow a half-dozen people to pack meat in a strategically sited facility, onward to a robust statement of broad support on behalf of farmers and meat producers, from there to a high-pitched teahadist shriek about existential property rights and personal liberty—each iteration became exponentially less a description of an actual business that might be or could be than a full-throated identity scream in an echo chamber—the issue is a microcosm of the dysfunction of county government.

At each iteration, votes of support were shed on Whatcom County Council. The original request might have passed unanimously. An expanded scope that placed adequate controls on a bloody, polluting business nevertheless essential to an agricultural economy might have garnered a five- or six-vote supermajority. The current ordinance teeters on the brink of failure, due to the rigid inability of its supporters on council to flex from “making a statement” of some kind to instead crafting responsible law concerning a recognizable business. Shouldn’t an issue evolve the other way, picking up votes as reasonable concerns are accommodated through compromise?

In June, for example, Ken Mann—who supported responsible slaughterhouse operations in the agricultural zone from the very beginning—proposed early administrative review of slaughterhouse proposals, both to aid applicants on what is a complex and involved procedure for permitting them under multiple state statutes governing groundwater, waste treatment and health standards, and also to make their ordinance consistent with requirements that already exist in the county’s industrial zones. Bill Knutzen wouldn’t hear of it, as that would “send the wrong message” that Whatcom County is open for business, presumably preferring the total failure of his rockheaded ordinance over minor compromise. Barbara Brenner wouldn’t hear of it, preferring to insert hundreds of pages of arcane technical documents as addenda to the ordinance that might allow an applicant to DIY, as opposed to just having a knowledgeable person on staff help the applicant at the outset (which is what is going to happen anyway). In this manner, the support of Ken Mann and other moderates was eroded.

Tuesday evening, Knutzen was clever enough to acquiesce to packinghouses of a lesser size, 7,000 sq. ft. down from 10,000 sq. ft. The final size hardly matters, ultimately; it thrusts a foot into the door to permit an industrial use upzone in the Ag zone, a fait accompli at whatever the final approved size.

More than anything, the ordinance in front of council fails to do what the council has everywhere failed to do, which is plan for and encourage development in areas best suited for that development, whether that planning considers ag and water resources, energy and transportation resources, or urban resources.

In approving slaughterhouses everywhere throughout the Ag zone, council plans for them nowhere, in an abdication of the very purpose and definition of zoning, which is—textbook—to prevent the impacts of new development from interfering with existing residents or businesses and to preserve the “character” of a community. And few things are as “impactful” as slaughterhouses. The abdication is deliberate.

A question at last week’s Tea Party candidate forum questioned whether Whatcom County has been well served by the Growth Management Act. The question avoids whether the county has ever actually applied GMA, let alone embraced the 20-year-old law and its goals and principles, rather than sullenly surrendering in piecemeal to its court-imposed orders and prohibitions, death by a thousand cuts.

Council’s packinghouse ordinance is riddled with the same sort of moth-eaten equivocations that drew criticism from the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board in January. “Code provisions… contain permissive language, rather than mandatory, which make these measures largely aspirational,” the board found. So here, hosing down firm requirements with spongy phrases like “to the extent feasible” and “where suitable.”

Who determines feasibility and suitability in the absence of administrative review?

All this is of course done as a gesture to the agricultural community, to demonstrate county support for farmers. The idea that the hundred hours council has wasted arguing about slaughterhouses is their best gesture to the farming community is both laughable and sad at the same time, hours that have not been spent trying to quantify and clarify water availability for agricultural use or trying to lift state orders of invalidity that paralyze large sections of the rural county until they’re resolved.

It’s instructive to trawl the work sessions of neighboring agricultural counties—view the painstaking hours spent to preserve farmland for farmers, to reduce the regulatory burdens of farming endeavors, encouraging land use practices that improve crop yield and profitability—and realize that Whatcom County spends most of its time mucking around with the Last Harvest, trying to figure out shortcuts so ruined farmers can parachute out of the business, trading one way of life for another—screwing around with parcel reconfigurations so farmers can get the hell out that way; or proposing new business models or uses in the Ag zone so farmers can get the hell out that way; on and on. It is truly sad; and it is without end, until the last farm is shuttered. Or this council majority is defeated.


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