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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.”

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Events
Today
Eat Local Month

4:00pm|Bellingham and Whatcom County

A gold medal standard

4:00pm

Whatcom Water Week

10:00am|Whatcom County

Ensembulele

4:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Final After-Hours Market

4:00pm|Depot Market Square

Autumn Soups

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Tame Your Inner Critic

7:00pm|Village Books

Little Women

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

Looking for Betty MacDonald

7:30pm|Village Books

The Music Man

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

The Miracle Worker

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Swinomish 2016 Zoots Side Bar
Tomorrow
Eat Local Month

4:00pm|Bellingham and Whatcom County

A gold medal standard

4:00pm

Whatcom Water Week

10:00am|Whatcom County

The Music Man

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

The Miracle Worker

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Little Women

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

Wild Things

9:30am|Whatcom Falls Park

Quilt & Fiber Arts Festival

10:00am|La Conner

Parkinson's Dance Class

10:00am|Ballet Bellingham

Spanish Storytime

10:30am|Lynden Library

Ferndale Farmers Market

1:00pm|Cherry Street

Get an edible education

4:00pm

Autumn Celebration Dinner

5:30pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Love, Loss and What I Wore

7:30pm|Heiner Auditorium

Hellingham

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Handling the truth

9:35pm

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Saturday
Whatcom Water Week

10:00am|Whatcom County

The Music Man

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Little Women

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

The Miracle Worker

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Quilt & Fiber Arts Festival

10:00am|La Conner

Get an edible education

4:00pm

Love, Loss and What I Wore

7:30pm|Heiner Auditorium

Hellingham

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Handling the truth

9:35pm

Run Like a Girl

8:00am|Fairhaven Park

Model Train Show

9:00am|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Benefit Garage Sale

9:00am|T.G. Richards Building

Twin Sisters Farmers Market

9:00am|Nugent's Corner

Cabbage Class

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Mount Vernon Farmers Market

9:00am|Riverfront Plaza

Anacortes Farmers Market

9:00am|Depot Arts Center

Healthcare Film

9:30am|Bellingham Public Library

Whatcom Artist Studio Tour

10:00am|Whatcom County

Fermentation Fun

10:00am|Blaine Library

Skagit Valley Festival of Family Farms

10:00am|Skagit County

Fall Fruit Festival

10:00am|Cloud Mountain Farm Center

Film is Truth Anniversary Party

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Fall Family Fun

10:00am|Glen Echo Garden

Birding Walk

10:00am|South Whatcom Library

Porpathon

10:00am|Salish Sea

Blaine Gardeners Market

10:00am|Peace Portal Drive

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Buddy Walk

11:00am|Fairhaven Village Green

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

National Geographic's 50 Greatest Photos Opening

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Banned Books Week Read-In

12:30pm|Village Books

Intro to NaNoWriMo

1:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Artist Lecture

1:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Matched Makers Opening

2:00pm|Museum of Northwest Art

Timber Rose

2:00pm|North Fork Library

Traditional Jazz

2:00pm|VFW Hall

Blessing of the Animals

3:30pm|Cornwall Park

Poetry Palavers

4:00pm|Village Books

Edison Opening

5:00pm|Smith & Vallee Gallery

Matzke Art Auction

5:00pm|Matzke Fine Art Gallery and Sculpture Park

Celebrating Jack Prelutsky

5:30pm|Western Library

Fred Morrison

7:00pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

The Aimees

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

USA Dance

7:00pm|Presence Studio

George Winston

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Folk Dance Party

7:30pm|Fairhaven Library

Tannahill Weavers

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Bellingham Chamber Music Society

7:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

see our complete calendar »

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