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The Gristle

Slaughterhouse Jive

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

SLAUGHTERHOUSE JIVE: Returning from their August recess, Whatcom County Council this week again picked up the broken shards of their slaughterhouse ordinance—reduced in size to 7,000 square feet, with restrictions on livestock sources and waste handling, but still offered as an accessory use throughout all 88,000 acres of the county’s agricultural zone.

Council member Bill Knutzen relented on the smaller introductory size, perhaps dimly realizing the easiest way to smash down a door is by wedging a foot in first. His ordinance would usher in facilities up to 20,000 square feet, the size of a softball field. Council approved the ordinance without substantial amendment, 4-3.

The council majority continues to comically wrestle with the implications of the accessory use provision, at moments fussing and fretting over some kind of process that might notify neighbors near acres where these facilities might be sited. Why bother? Framed as an accessory use with no administrative review, as a militant statement of unrestricted property rights, slaughterhouses are outright permitted. Nothing anyone can do to stop them or alter them.

That point alone underscores the folly of what council proposes to allow.

The sorts of protections council frets about as after­thought should be baked right into the heart of their ordinance. Clearly, all but one of them are troubled at various aspects of their proposed ordinance, sensing its core inadequacy and wrongheadedness, but not enough to constructively do anything about it. Instead, their ordinance is more about declaring jihad than about crafting responsible law.

The best thing to arrive from council’s convoluted discussions are the farmers themselves, who commented on the proposal.

Listening to the testimony of farmers, one learns several important things.

First, a facility with capacity to process and package limited quantities of specialty meats is sorely needed—perhaps even desperately needed—by Whatcom County’s ag community. These specialty meats are not the famous-name steaks and chops that require full USDA certification, but are instead more the interesting byproducts that arrive from the slaughtering process—sweetbreads, head cheeses, tongues and the like—that small farms can uniquely package and sell to select markets. Larger-scale slaughterers consider much of this specialty product scrap and waste; and the costs of shipping this to and from a distant facility cripples the competitive economics for a small farm. Though few may outright admit this, a packinghouse must be small enough that it does not attract the interest of larger-scale livestock agribusiness and competing meat retailers, which—again—would spoil the niche economics for local farms.

Second, a facility of this kind requires prodigious water, wastewater and sophisticated wastehandling capacities that suggest a municipal scale. Not something you’d stick out in rural ag lands, but might site on the outskirts of a town in order to link with appropriate municipal water and wastehandling.

Third, not a single farming family indicated a desire to operate this kind of facility on their own or even have it on farm property. Not one.

These points together describe the stupidity of the county’s slaughterhouse ordinance, which proposes out-of-scale, out-of-place, improperly planned and managed facilities that do not responsibly serve their target users. Preschool children with a county map, a compass and a crayon could do a better job of siting the right kind of facility in a strategic location in order to serve a pressing agricultural need than the council majority’s militant rant against central planning.

Skagit County—always a good place to look when you want to compare sensible, intelligent agricultural policy against Whatcom County—is advancing a farmer’s co-operative near Bow to help with slaughtering operations, in addition to the USDA-inspected mobile processing service the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative (IGFC) provides to member farmers. Meat is cut, wrapped and stored at the IGFC facility in Bow. And, yes, the co-op could and does serve Whatcom County.

Whatcom County does have specified areas where slaughtering facilities are permitted through an administrative process, the so-called Rural Industrial Manufacturing (RIM) zones, which can be served by municipal water and wastewater capacity. But these permitted zones are limited, council learned, and (you can almost hear the groans)  do not readily or easily lend themselves, as currently constructed, to slaughtering uses, planners told council members in July. A little planning-&-permitting policy work is required to smooth and ready these lands for that use.

You’d imagine, in a sane universe, after spending months with planners and planning commissioners, council might have solved those obstacles and streamlined the availability of RIM lands for packinghouses. Or opened their lamentable discussions of Limited Areas of More Intensive Rural Development (LAMIRDs) required under the state’s growth management laws to create more RIM lands. You would be wrong. Instead, the council majority has spent those months fussing with its rockheaded ordinance, ripping open the ag zone for a use many need but few want there, virtually assuring the conversion of dwindling farmland supply to corporate-scale slaughtering operations. Their discussion (if one may call it that) on LAMIRDs has disintegrated into expensive and petty anarchy.

Their ordinance serves one purpose: To bellow at the very concept of central planning while waving the bloody shirt of property rights, all code and camouflage to prop open the gate to the relentless conversion of resource land. By refusing to plan for one kind of future, Whatcom County Council is most certainly planning for a future of a different kind.

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