The Gristle

Slaughterhouse Five
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SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE: Like a worn horseshoe returned again and again to the forge, Whatcom County land-use policy is slowly being beaten into a better shape.

Whatcom County Council last week offered to settle with the City of Bellingham over the Caitac property, ending nearly nearly 20 years of turmoil on property north of the city. And a decision is expected within weeks from the state growth board on the Rural Element to the county’s comprehensive plan for growth, a review many observers expect will again go badly for the county, requiring additional work to continue to bring it into compliance with state growth goals, another round to move the ball closer to the goal.

The county and city, together with Caitac USA Corp. and the planning advocacy group Futurewise, appear to have reached a compromise over Caitac’s plans to build a resort hotel and to cluster homes on 12,500-square-foot lots around the North Bellingham Golf Course. The compromise allows for the hotel but, importantly, appears to keep in place current zoning on 552 acres north of the Guide Merdian to one house per 10 acres, consistent with rural development.

As part of the agreement, the city and Futurewise agreed to drop appeals of the rezones they had filed with Skagit County Superior Court and the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board. Caitac had retreated from a plan to build a large-scale housing development—Larabee Springs—north of Bellis Fair Mall but continued to push for double the permitted housing density on a frequently congested strip of the Guide Meridian at Smith Road.

It is difficult in a paragraph to describe the ferocity with which Caitac investment capital hijacked and derailed sensible land-use planning in Bellingham’s north end, a sensitive planning area that rubs against those of Whatcom’s two other larger cities. Money served to seduce public opinion, to force distortions on population growth estimates, on land supply and housing market analyses, that endure to this day in Bellingham’s 2006 Comprehensive Plan—still in place substantially unrevised as the guiding document for the city’s road and water system planning, its foolhardy numbers still exerting influence on city policy. Money likewise polluted the public discussion of development along Guide Meridian that formed a contentious element of the county’s dismal Rural Element under review by the GMHB. And because that money also empowered a vision of economic development and build-out favored by a particular “drill, baby, drill!” worldview, it also spilled into our politics as campaign contributions and outcomes both subtle and gross.

In 2009, that money and energy helped radicalize Whatcom County Council, transforming them from a deliberative body trying to bring county planning into compliance with the state’s Growth Management Act into a group determined to fight GMA down to the county’s last nickel.

Empowered by voters, council immediately performed a remarkable coup d’etat on the Whatcom County Planning Commission, removing circumspect commissioners (with planning backgrounds!) and replacing them with pro-growth zealots of a more fierce ideology. The change created a closed information loop for County Council, where their own assertions about unrestricted growth were amplified and parroted back to them by a new planning commission majority. Commissioners created an aggressive, noxiously abusive environment for public participation at their meetings, narrowing topics and barking down attendance, further sealing the feedback loop.

Which brings us ’round to the topic of slaughterhouses.

They’re needed! Also needed are reasonable rules that might regulate how livestock might be processed in a humane manner that suits and benefits an agricultural community. Encumbering that, of course, is the sort of sprawling rural development favored by council policy that encroaches on farms and limits their operations.

Whatcom County Council asked their angry army on the Planning Commission to study the issue and return with recommendations. All commissioners had to do was take staff recommendations on the size and location of such facilities and craft that into a reasonable recommendation that might be approved by council. Instead, commissioners held a worksession in June without first opening the matter for public opinion and returned with a ridiculously exploded recommendation that transformed small-scale operations into full-scale slaughtering industries with up to 20 full-time employees and zero setbacks from neighboring properties, able to receive animals for slaughtering and rendering imported from any source. Commissioners recommended a “permitted use” for such facilities, free from most regulatory requirements—meaning no planning permit is required for their construction and operation, no environmental review is necessary for individual projects, and limited public process or comment opportunity is provided for neighboring property owners.

Hallelujah, all barriers lifted for a bloody new heavy industry!
Council asked its planning commission for a small change to a map. Commissioners returned with a fierce new model for the shape of the Earth.

“My beef is that there was little real input from Whatcom County farmers on the proposal,” Planning Commissioner John Lesow shrugged. “The final recommendation upped the number of employees to 20 before the conditional use process kicked in and restored some setback provisions. Still not enough meat in the amendment, in my opinion.”

The commission’s reeking pile of offal was slid, by a vote of 5-2, under the nose of council last week. Council members, perhaps sadder and a bit wiser from the bruising they’ve suffered from their policy decisions, felt their gorge rise and pushed the plate back to Oct. 9. No guts, no glory.

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