SCHADENFREUDE: The dark comedy of Whatcom County land use follies continues, full of sound and fury.
The state Growth Management Hearing Board last week rejected the County Council’s decision to expand Ferndale’s urban growth areas on the grounds the decision violated state law. In a separate but entwined communication last week, the GMHB granted the county an extension to (properly) complete the long-delayed Rural Element of the county’s comprehensive plan for growth with a warning not to again miss the new May deadline—like diffident parents scolding a child for each cookie filched, until not a thing remains in the cookie jar but stale crumbs.
“In sizing the Ferndale UGA, the county improperly relied both on a market supply factor and ‘local circumstances,’” GMHB members declared of council’s attempt to have it all ways. “As the market supply factor already includes and accounts for ‘local circumstances’, the county thereby overestimated its residential lands needs and oversized the Ferndale UGA,” the board determined. The board heard legal arguments on the matter back in February.
It’s an old complaint against the county and its cities, which—on the advice of avaricious property speculators—use hyper-inflated population estimates from a period of historically high growth to gin up a land supply crisis, then intensify that crisis by adding in an enormous “safety factor” against market uncertainties, all in an effort to flip large areas of the county to meet that manufactured crisis. In the case of Ferndale, council worsened matters by accepting arguments from city planners that unique local circumstances, such as proximity to the Lummi Reservation and Cherry Point industries, further crimp Ferndale’s land supply.
You cannot do “double counting,” the board noted, by establishing a market safety factor and then arguing the same idiosyncratic market forces demand additional flexibility in local planning.
Importantly, the council (against the strong caution of county planners) also ignored the absence of a capital facilities plan through which Ferndale might show how the city would provide fire and sewer to the area, a requirement for UGA status under state law.
“In the absence of such capital facilities plans, it cannot be said that the Ferndale UGA has adequate existing public facility and service capacities to serve such development,” the board found.
Their ruling was a predictable outcome in a process that demands governments show their work in making assumptions about future growth, not simply striking inconvenient, counterindicative sections of work the council majority finds inconvenient to their ideology.
Indeed, Ferndale’s proposed Vista Malloy addition was originally designated by a wiser council in 2009 as a UGA study area until Ferndale might better, more adequately demonstrate how the city would manage (and pay for) the addition of 476 acres to its plan for growth. The council was then scheduled to move on to complete the Rural Element in 2010, returning to readdress the needs of Ferndale and Whatcom’s other cities later in 2011.
Instead, a cranky new council tipped all that over and wasted 2010 attempting to settle a number of claims that arose from the earlier council’s decisions on Whatcom’s UGAs. Even with a council ready to settle, most parties eventually withdrew or modified their complaints—all except Ferndale and a 17-acre proposed development near Birch Bay. Notably, Sumas and Nooksack withdrew their complaints with the understanding that County Council would return to address their UGA concerns. Incautious by comparison, Ferndale spent in excess of $43,000 pursuing this matter over the past two years, according to city records.
Mayor Gary Jensen was sanguine about the board’s decision, saying the Vista Malloy area will remain central to Ferndale’s planning efforts. Not all the city wished to achieve through review was struck down, he said, and much was clarified.
Other attempts continued around the commentariat to downplay the GMHB decision, arguing the board’s findings were a mixed bag that rejected some criticisms of the county but accepted others. But the board upheld criticism of the county decision in all substantive areas and yielded ground mostly on procedural matters, while board members confessed they “will declare invalid only the most egregious noncompliant provisions which threaten the local government’s future ability to achieve compliance with the [Growth Management] Act.” The county is hardly vindicated when the board declares at the outset it will perform a smell test on only the stinkiest parts of the county’s plan.
The folly was compounded by another communiqué last week, this one from Council Chair Sam Crawford to the administration. Crawford expressed his concerns that—despite all the double counting and numbers fudging, despite a cave-in to developer UGA demands and throwing rural areas wide to all imaginable development, despite record home vacancies and more than 1,000 foreclosures in Whatcom and Skagit counties over the past three years—the county was still under-planning for residential growth.
“In light of the annual growth rate for the previous 20 years being over 2 percent, my concerns regarding under-accommodation of infrastructure, services and facilities were heightened when the U.S. Census recently indicated there are about 6,000 more people today in Whatcom County than we had accounted for in 2009,” Crawford wrote. “That’s equivalent to half the population of Lynden!”
The 20-year window is telling. The area last decade logged one of the most sluggish periods of sustained growth since 1940, slightly above the state average, and Whatcom actually slipped in rank among the state’s fastest growing areas.
Crawford’s concern would be comical if it wasn’t so transparently staged to keep stoking hot growth and “land grab” fires through an election year. Can’t blame him, though, and he needn’t worry: Around here that trick always works.
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