The Gristle

Twenty Something

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

TWENTY SOMETHING: After 20 years and $20 million wasted on direct, indirect, and lost opportunity costs, Whatcom County still fails to come into compliance with state law. On the anniversary of their last invalidation of the county’s plan for rural growth, the state Growth Management Hearings Board again invalidated the county plan, finding the county was not in compliance with state goals to protect rural lands and natural resources.

While acknowledging the county had made progress in meeting those goals in some areas, the hearings board found the county “still violates GMA requirements by failing provide a variety of rural densities, by lacking permanent provisions for lot clustering, by failing to provide required protection for Lake Whatcom water resources” and by failing to establish logical or internally consistent boundaries for rural neighborhoods.

Throughout, the board notes the contradiction in the county establishing that rural development shall be governed by code while the code itself is riddled with soft equivocations, “permissive with words such as ’should be’ and ’where practicable.’

Twenty million dollars? Over the past two years, the county has authorized $100,000 for expensive private practice attorneys to (unsuccessfully) challenge state growth laws. Planning and legal staff time is perhaps triple that waste. Failure to comply with state growth mandates means the county in ineligible for certain state grants and programs. The non-compliant county is unable to implement development impact fee policies, including the costs of new roads to service sprawl. A county study in 2008 estimated mild transportation impact fees could generate as much as $160 million for identified county road projects, a lost opportunity cost borne instead by county taxpayers. Even our paid County Council squanders their wages submitting the same work over and over, praying for a different result. The state order of invalidity also suspends the county’s ability to issue building permits in all lands under review by the hearings board, an immediate constriction to a building industry still staggered by recession.

The City of Bellingham has spent $25 million, actually closer to $35 million, in expensive land acquisition programs and public works projects in the city’s reservoir as a means to offset damage to an otherwise natural system, damage directly the result of county development policies in the watershed.

Two hundred million dollars. Gee, after a while it starts to add up to real money.

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws drilled the problem into the county’s rock-headed Planning Commission last February:

“This continued noncompliance is definitely putting the county at a disadvantage at the state level when it comes to funding, especially the Public Works Trust Fund money and Centennial Clean Water fund money, both of which we use. And as an aside to that, the Public Works Trust Fund is going to get expanded, appears that it’s going to get expanded, so that we can borrow money for projects such as jails and other infrastructure projects. That’s half-percent money, but one of the keys for us is to get into compliance with GMA to be eligible for that,” Louws said.

“What I just, in short, want to say is to encourage you to do everything that you can to take a real hard look at what the ruling was, and maybe swallow twice if you’re not in agreement with it, but look at it from a public servant’s perspective and realize that we need to get into compliance and the ruling gives us a pretty good indication of what we need to do to get there.”

Wise words. Deaf ears.

The board’s recent 93-page order covers a broad range of topics in lands all over the county. Perhaps most notable is the board’s strong opinion on the continued decay of Lake Whatcom, much stronger than diffident position offered by the state Dept. of Ecology, upon which the GMHB opinion is based.

In January 2011, Ecology found merit in a COB petition that “phosphorus-laden runoff from cleared and developed land is impairing the city’s ability to exercise its municipal water right from Lake Whatcom and supply water to nearly 100,000 people. Elevated levels of phosphorus have resulted in low dissolved oxygen levels and excessive growth of algae blooms in the lake that has slowed operations at the city’s water treatment plant. The algae blooms clog water filters and require the city to use millions of gallons of treated water to flush the filters,” all at public cost.

“Ecology advocated a zero-discharge policy to ensure new development does not discharge any more phosphorus than a forested or native vegetated site,” GMHB members observed. “Zero-discharge requires some combination of limitations on impervious surface, preservation of native vegetation, reforestation, rainwater storage, infiltration, water reuse, and treatment of discharged water.”

The board noted Ecology’s finding that phosphorous loading needs to be reduced by 86 percent in the developed portion of the watershed in order to restore the health of Lake Whatcom, a target they admit cannot be reached solely by restricting new development and “must go beyond down-zoning.” Strongly implied in their discussion is the opinion that down-zoning must be included as part of the overall package.

County Council’s haphazard position on the reservoir is that any net gains in phosphorous management opens new capacity for additional development, like a blood-letting quack seeing some life stirring in a patient believes that creates a new opportunity to open another vein. In a game of rope-a-dope, council declares gains will arrive through stormwater retrofits while simultaneously declaring gains will arrive through new development standards (“it’s a candy mint!; no, it’s a breath mint!”), banging each against the other, each serving as the excuse to do neither. The board found the council’s thinking “clearly erroneous.”

Twenty years on, mischief starts to look like malice.

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