A tale of two commissions
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
A TALE OF TWO COMMISSIONS: In their last action in their last meeting of the year, Bellingham City Council this week renewed the contract of Hearing Examiner Sharon Rice for another two-year period. The hearing examiner is essentially an administrative judge focused on specific areas of land-use code, reviewing permit applications and appeals of land-use decisions and reporting those findings to planners and policymakers. In renewing Rice’s contract, the City of Bellingham reinvests in the experiment of a circuit-rider model for its hearing examiner.
As Rice herself has explained in regular reports to City Council, land-use codes in Washington don’t vary a whole lot from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, allowing a specialist to provide consultation to multiple cities and counties. Because a contracted examiner is not invested in particular community goals and development outcomes, this allows for some distance and perspective in impartial decision making. And the circuit-rider model also yields the capacity for the HE to observe and comment on clumsy or onerous aspects of local government ordinances as they compare to neighboring jurisdictions.
In her reports to Council, Rice routinely finds some morsel of nuttiness inside Bellingham’s Municipal Code.
It’s a model that would ably serve Whatcom County government, as County Council struggles to make sense of contentious land-use code and permit applications in two areas currently under moratorium and review: Industrial scale projects at Cherry Point; and—along with most other counties in Washington following a sweeping Supreme Court decision—development in the rural county based on wells and restricted availability of water.
The county has employed Michael Bobbink as its hearing examiner for more than 20 years—frankly, for as long as the county has been struggling to come into compliance with the state Growth Management Act—and appears to suffer, rather uniquely among Washington counties, from a sense that a permit application can never die, its vesting is always a permanent condition, and its approval is essentially a guarantee. And while we might expect HEs to routinely agree with other HEs in other jurisdictions, where Bobbink found a determination of non-significance in an application to ship unrefined fossil fuels by rail to Cherry Point refineries, his counterpart in Skagit County passionately called for the opposite, a comprehensive review of the impacts of shipping volatile fuels by rail to a refinery in Anacortes.
Perhaps Whatcom’s land-use code and permit requirements are wacky in comparison to neighboring counties. A circuit-rider might see and comment on material deficiencies. It would be good information to know—whether the county’s land-use code is fatally flawed and non-protective, or is simply interpreted in ways that are considered bizarre elsewhere around the state.
The other instrument on the tool belt of local legislators is the planning commission, a citizen advisory review board authorized under RCW 35.63 to provide policy research and advice to governing councils.
Bellingham City Council earlier this month made a subtle but important change to its planning commission, limiting the number of members who are principally engaged in the buying, selling, developing, construction of, or investment in real estate for profit. The recommended change came at the insistence of neighborhood groups concerned that the composition of the commission heavily favors development interests and those who profit from buildout. For Council, the concern was more one of groupthink, of trying to encourage a wider participation on its planning advisory board. The reality is, the planning commission has always seated concentrations of development interests as vocation, avocation and invocation of a particular expertise and frame of reference.
Yet, as contentious as city planning commission meetings may be among city neighborhood groups, it all pales in comparison to what’s unfolding on the county’s planning commission, as that counterpart attempts to wrestle with those issues cited above—restrictions on certain industrial development, restrictions on certain residential development as new planning policy is crafted; and the strident, vocal hate such restrictions engender among rural residents who attend their meetings.
In particular, the Whatcom County Planning Commission is attempting to work through the so-called Weimer Amendments, passed by a majority of the Council, to the Cherry Point Urban Growth Area section of the county’s Comprehensive Plan. Those amendments were severed from the full Comp Plan document for additional study by the planning commission. The amendments seek neither to ban fossil fuel exports nor destroy the industrial job base at Cherry Point, but are intended to add or strengthen additional considerations to land-use policy in the county’s zone for heavy industry—considerations such as ecological function and historic use of the area. Many of these considerations were not stated or were lightly weighted as criteria in an older, less circumspect chapter of the Comp plan that championed industrial buildout über alles.
Despite the rantings of groups like the Whatcom Business Alliance, the amendments do not ban exports or kill jobs; they do not restrict or discourage improvements to existing facilities or impair their future function; and they serve mostly as additional criteria—assembled and considered by a citizen review panel—that a council or their hearing examiner might rely on in determining appropriate uses for an industrial zone.
The intent of the amendments is to discourage exactly the sort of scattershot approach to the industrial land base that occurred last August, when the Intalco aluminum smelter transferred its dock and their shoreline rights to another entity and use entirely, in a sale that generated a pittance in real estate excise and property taxes for an asset assessed at a fraction of its sale value.
The planning commission resumes its work on Jan. 12. It’s a good opportunity to listen and learn.