The Gristle

Code Scrub

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

CODE SCRUB: Hard to clean house when the sewer is still backing up.

At the start of this year, the Washington Growth Management Hearings Board issued an order, invalidating the rural element of the county’s comprehensive plan for growth. While the board acknowledged county policymakers have made progress in achieving state goals and coming into compliance with state law, the board continued to find deficiencies in the county plan. Among them, the board found incongruity in the county asserting that rural development shall be governed by county code while the code itself is riddled with soft equivocations, “permissive with words such as ’should be’ and ’where practicable,’” the board noted.

“Permissive language, rather than mandatory,” the board observed dryly, “make these measures largely aspirational.”

The guiding language the board referenced is contained in Title 20 of the Whatcom County Code.

“The purpose and intent of the title,” we’re told in the title’s preamble, “is to further the goals and policies of the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan by providing the authority for and procedures to be followed in regulating the physical development of Whatcom County, through coordinating the execution of both public and private projects with respect to all subject matters utilized for developing and servicing land. The objective of this title is to assure the highest standards of environment for living, and the operation of commerce, industry, agriculture and recreation; and to assure maximum economies in order to conserve the highest degree of public health, safety, morals and welfare.”

Inherent in achieving these objectives is that the explaining language is consistent and clear.

Whatcom County planners have long known that Title 20 is not consistent and clear, and they’ve long advocated for a comprehensive review of the code to achieve that goal. Similarly, Jack Louws underlined it as an administrative objective when he ran for the office of County Executive in 2011.

In December, Louws began the process, sending a letter to a selected ad-hoc advisory committee to review Title 20 and recommend changes that could help clarify the meaning and intent of county code. Louws said there are sections of Title 20 that are clearly, obviously in conflict with one another and predicted the committee might quickly identify those. His goals, he said, were procedural, to make county development codes more clear, consistent and simpler.

The committee will hold its first meeting later this month. Yet the timing of this effort—with sections of existing code found deficient by GMHB, and county policymakers resisting (for years) to make it compliant with state law—and even the make-up of the review committee are cause for concern.

“‘Code scrub’ is something we were talking about while I was working at the county,” said former planner Kate Blystone, now executive director of Whatcom Futurewise. “Generally speaking, it is what it sounds like—code cleanup.

“Every day when county staff is using the code for reference or to review applications they find little inconsistencies that they then have to make an administrative call about. The idea of the code scrub is to get rid of those little inconsistencies. It’s done everywhere, but typically it’s done by staff and brought forward in a single ordinance. I believe that was the original intent when we were talking about it while I was at the county. Staff would just go through the code and clean it up.”

Instead, Louws selected a committee that includes some of the most outspoken and fiercely defiant critics of state growth laws and consultants to development interests. Those voices include the mischief-making Citizens Alliance for Property Rights and two of the hardest heads on the Whatcom County Planning Commission. Perhaps more disturbing is who the committee does not include: legal counsel who might advise on the peculiarities of law. The county Legal department has not been charged with preparing a first draft or with providing oversight of the committee’s proposals.

In brief, it does not sound like a committee destined to guide the county into speedy compliance with state growth goals. As a taste of what may be in store, CAPR representative Roger Almskaar advised a council committee last March that the code scrub process could be used to relax, rather than strengthen, certain development standards.

“Changes in the law may be solely cosmetic—removing duplicate provisions, for example—but most changes in words have results,” land-use attorney and former planning commissioner Jean Melious warned. “In other words, they change the law. If you take out a provision that ‘conflicts’ with another provision, that can have a profound effect on the law. The ‘conflicting’ provision may provide safeguards or modifications that will no longer exist if the ‘conflicting’ regulation is no longer in the law.”

“I feel a little alone in the group as the only nonprofit representative, let alone the only person from the environmental community,” Blystone admitted.

“Staff has talked about wanting to rewrite Title 20 for years, but this process is different, an intermediate step,” she said. “The code scrub is meant to remove tiny inconsistencies in the code and make the code clearer, not do wholesale changes to sections that folks don’t like. I’m a little concerned that without clear direction to the advisory committee, we may have some ‘scope creep.’ I’m steeling myself for spotting changes that are outside of the scope of this group and stopping them before they get traction. I’m hoping that my fellow committee members are as committed to the narrow scope as I am.”

Ticket Cascadia
Past Columns
Civil War

October 26, 2016

Twice Zero

October 19, 2016

Convergent Streams

October 12, 2016


October 5, 2016

A Stitch In Time

September 28, 2016

Closer to home

September 21, 2016

Zombie Stumbles On

September 14, 2016


September 7, 2016

Much ADU about nothing

August 31, 2016

A Matter of Equity

August 24, 2016

A Lock on the Crypt

August 17, 2016

Zombie Terror

August 10, 2016

A Raucous Caucus

August 3, 2016

Lockup Lockstep

July 27, 2016

Polar Wastes

July 20, 2016

Chapter Two

July 13, 2016

Close the Schools!

June 22, 2016

Handling the truth


Creepy Cabaret

6:30pm|Bellingham High School

Costume Party

6:30pm|Blaine Library

Scream Fair Haunted House

6:30pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Berlin is My Paris

7:00pm|Village Books

Arsenic and Old Lace

7:00pm|Lynden Pioneer Museum

MBT Once Andrew Subin
Handling the truth


Scream Fair Haunted House

6:30pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Arsenic and Old Lace

7:00pm|Lynden Pioneer Museum

Wild Things

9:30am|Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Parkinson's Dance Class

10:00am|Ballet Bellingham

Spanish Storytime

10:00am|Lynden Library

Ferndale Farmers Market

1:00pm|Cherry Street

Final Ferndale Market

1:00pm|Cherry Street

Scary Bake Sale

1:30pm|Blaine Library

Gates and Fires

4:00pm|Village Books

Artist Talk

5:30pm|Syre Student Center

Gore and Lore Tours

6:00pm|Historic Fairhaven and downtown Bellingham

Art Party

6:00pm|Tillie Lace Gallery

Hamster Ball

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Panic Squad

7:00pm|Lynden Middle School

Ben Folds and a Piano

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Our Town

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Back to School Catechism

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall


8:00pm|Upfront Theatre


8:00pm|Old Main Theater

Rocky Horror Picture Show

8:00pm|Walton Theatre

Ghosts of Concrete

11:00pm|Skagit County Community Action Center

Artifacts Wine Bar Andrew Subin
Handling the truth


Scream Fair Haunted House

6:30pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Gore and Lore Tours

6:00pm|Historic Fairhaven and downtown Bellingham

Our Town

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Rocky Horror Picture Show

8:00pm|Walton Theatre


8:00pm|Old Main Theater


8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Ghosts of Concrete

11:00pm|Skagit County Community Action Center

Fall Family Fun

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Lynden Community Center

Run Wild Bellingham

9:00am|Whatcom Falls Park

Anacortes Farmers Market

9:00am|Depot Arts Center

Hummingbird Class

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Twin Sisters Farmers Market

9:00am|Nugent's Corner

NSEA Work Party

9:00am|Birch Bay Bible Church

Family Activity Day

10:00am|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Harvest Happens

10:00am|Bellewood Acres

Chuckanut Writers Workshop

10:00am|Village Books

Blaine Gardeners Market

10:00am|Peace Portal Drive

Youth Symphony Fall Concert

1:00pm|McIntyre Hall

Gravestone Primer

1:00pm|Sedro-Woolley Museum

Writing Workshop

2:30pm|Lynden Library

Closing Reception at i.e.

3:00pm|i.e. gallery

Walk the Stars

4:00pm|Village Books

Artist Talk in Edison

4:00pm|Smith & Vallee Gallery

Ghost Stories on Bellingham Bay

4:30pm|T.G. Richards Building

BAAY Haunted House

6:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Irish Concert

7:00pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

Halloween Contra Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Rocky Horror Picture Show

8:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Saturday Night Spookeasy

8:00pm|Secret locale

see our complete calendar »

MBT Once Everybody’s Store MBT Ben Folds Bellingham Farmer’s Market Village Books Andrew Subin Artifacts Wine Bar Swinomish 2016 Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Northwood Steak and Crab Lydia Place