The Gristle

‘Alternative Methods’

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

‘ALTERNATIVE METHODS’: After nearly 30 years of intransigence, Whatcom County has finally come into compliance with the Washington State Growth Management Act of 1990—by essentially running out the clock on citizen challenges to the inadequacy of county planning on growth.

In the quiet lull of the holidays, the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board closed the outstanding challenge of the Hirst petition that the county was failing to plan growth in tandem with adequate resources for growth. The essentials of the Hirst complaint remain relevant (and will undoubtedly plague the county for generations); a decision of the Legislature last session simply renders those complaints moot.

In 2016, the Washington State Supreme Court agreed with the findings of the state growth board that “the county’s Comprehensive Plan does not satisfy the GMA requirements to protect water availability or water quality,” noting “it is the local government—and not the state Dept. of Ecology—that is responsible to make the decision on water adequacy as part of its land use decision.” Responsibility for planning, of course, is the flip side of local control and authority over planning.

The assertion, however, held profound consequences for other counties and jurisdictions around the state that had relied on Ecology as their authority in determining adequate water supply to issue building permits, a requirement of GMA. These counties called on their state representatives to issue a “fix” that would bring the state agency back into a partnership role in determining supply.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, the 2018 Legislature adopted ESSB 6091. The law authorizes Ecology to work with specified local jurisdictions, watershed planning units and federally recognized Indian tribes to review and update various watershed plans to identify, among other things, impacts of permit-exempt wells on groundwater supplies.

Importantly, ESSB 6091 does nothing to resolve the actual underlying argument of the Hirst complaint, that using Ecology’s established rules Whatcom County had oversubscribed its water supply in numerous river basins along the northern tier. The Nooksack River drainage encompasses the bulk of Whatcom County and is designated by the state as WRIA-1.

As the hearings board dryly commented, “The amendments included in ESSB 6091 provided alternative methods for achieving compliance with [GMA], the provision which requires counties to adopt comprehensive plan rural element measures to protect surface water and groundwater resources.”

The law does require Whatcom County to adopt an updated watershed plan for WRIA-1 by February of this year.

Whatcom County Council received a status report on the work of the WRIA-1 Planning Unit in a special session this week that reported on the WWGMHB finding of compliance, as revised by the Legislature’s “fix.”

In the report, Council learned the Planning Unit was unlikely to achieve consensus by the deadline imposed by ESSB 6091, and were instead advised to send an index of work that has been completed along with a letter to Ecology explaining the impasse. This is not at all surprising, considering the diverse and often fractious Planning Unit is not a unit, and to a large degree many of its citizen members do not plan and indeed are hostile to planning.

The scope of work required under ESSB 6091 is narrow, and concerns primarily how the county will mitigate or offset the impacts of a projected 2,100 additional wells in those impaired basins over the next 20-year planning window.

Even here, after a year, the Planning Unit was unable to reach consensus—arguing over whether wells should be metered, and if metered whether that should be voluntary; grousing over the fee, if any, to permit new wells; and in particular quarreling over the volume of water each of these wells might draw. These are fairly straightforward questions, once you have acknowledged water supply is oversubscribed. But, of course, there is no agreement on that point, either.

“We’ve had a very challenging process placed in front of us since last February when the state enacted legislation,” County Executive Jack Louws summarized, adding that he was pleased they did it because the decision allowed the county to move forward on a number of permitting issues.

“It’s been very clear from the start that it would be difficult to get the initiating governments—that is, the tribes, the City of Bellingham, Public Utility District, and Whatcom County—and the Planning Unit to come together on a unanimous consensus on a very contentious issue related to water rights.

“My sense is that the initiating governments themselves were not going to come to consensus on all of the issues” by the deadline, he admitted, let alone the Planning Unit.

Of course, all of this comes down to the responsible government under GMA—the county—deferring and delaying the hard decisions about planning, for which the county is held by the state as having ultimate authority.

In their preamble to the 1990 law, the Legislature sketched the challenges of GMA: “Uncoordinated and unplanned growth, together with a lack of common goals expressing the public’s interest in the conservation and the wise use of our lands, pose a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of this state.”

Former County Council member Carl Weimer steadfastly believed years of noncompliance with the spirit of these goals might have been avoided if county planners and policymakers had simply sat down with petitioners and tried to address their finite and reasonable concerns.

“There is a huge difference,” he commented from a distance on the recent order, “between being legally compliant with an Act and embracing the vision and spirit of it.”

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Past Columns
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January 16, 2019

Top Stories, 2018

January 2, 2019

Et Tu, #MeToo

December 26, 2018

Turn That Corner

December 19, 2018

Paradigms in Collision

November 28, 2018

Leftover Turkey

November 21, 2018

The Divisions Between Us

November 14, 2018

The Map is the Territory

November 7, 2018

Climate Kids

October 31, 2018

What The Market Won’t Bear

October 24, 2018

As Above, So Below

October 17, 2018

As Below, So Above

October 10, 2018

A Civil Disagreement

October 3, 2018

Zombie Pipeline

September 26, 2018

Too Little, Too Late

September 19, 2018

Open Secret Disclosed

September 12, 2018

Consent of the Governed

September 5, 2018

Let the People Decide

August 29, 2018

Events
Today
Bellinghamster One-Act Theater Festival (BOAT)

7:00pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Cascadia Weekly's Fiction 101 Contest

10:00am

A Forest of Words Poetry Competition

10:00am|Whatcom County

Call to Artists for Spring Juried Exhibit

10:00am|Jansen Art Center

Literacy Council Seeks Volunteers

10:00am

Wild Things

9:30am|Lake Padden Park

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Books and Bites

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Peace Vigil

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Art Auction Gala

5:30pm|Lightcatcher Building

Photography Exhibit Opening

6:00pm|Fourth Corner Frames and Gallery

Family Story Night

6:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Quieting the Monkey Mind

7:00pm|Village Books

Urinetown

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Space Trek

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Sanford-Hill Piano Series

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Concert Hall

VoicePlay

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Courthouse Vaudeville

7:30pm|Territorial Whatcom County Courthouse

Trove Web
Tomorrow
Bellinghamster One-Act Theater Festival (BOAT)

7:00pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

A Forest of Words Poetry Competition

10:00am|Whatcom County

Cascadia Weekly's Fiction 101 Contest

10:00am

Call to Artists for Spring Juried Exhibit

10:00am|Jansen Art Center

Literacy Council Seeks Volunteers

10:00am

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Urinetown

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Space Trek

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

Martin Luther King, Jr. Conference

9:00am|Whatcom Community College

Larrabee Old Growth Exploration

9:00am|Fairhaven Parkway Park & Ride

Winter Fitness Hike

10:00am|Whistle Lake

Winter Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Plant Classes

10:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am|Rockport, Concrete, Marblemount

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am|Skagit County

The Basics of Sprouting

10:00am|Blaine Library

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Washington Remembers

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

When voices are silenced

12:00pm

MONA Openings

1:00pm|Museum of Northwest Art

Travel to the Philippines

1:30pm|Blaine Library

Rioja Tasting

2:00pm|Siefert & Jones Wine Merchants

Bellingham Roller Betties' Double Header

5:30pm|Lynden Skateway

An Evening with the Artist

6:00pm|Gallery Pegasus

Be IN the Show

6:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Unity Ball

7:00pm|The Majestic

Blue Abode Comedy Show

7:00pm|Blue Adobe Bar

Time Travel Sound Sessions

7:00pm|Anacortes Museum

The Shame of Losing

7:00pm|Village Books

Eagle Talk

7:30pm|Lummi Island Library

Hot House at the Courthouse

7:30pm|Territorial Whatcom County Courthouse

Fire and Grace

7:30pm|First Congregational Church

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Sunday
Cascadia Weekly's Fiction 101 Contest

10:00am

Call to Artists for Spring Juried Exhibit

10:00am|Jansen Art Center

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Urinetown

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am|Skagit County

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Sedro-Woolley Community Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Rabbit Ride

8:30am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Nookachamps Winter Runs

9:00am|Skagit Valley College

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am|Rockport, Concrete, Marblemount

Langar in Lynden

11:00am| Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Sips of the Season

1:00pm|Galloway's Cocktail Bar

Bill Evans

2:00pm|Nancy's Farm

Resolutions with the Bellingham Chamber Music Society

3:00pm|First Congregational Church of Bellingham

Poetry with Douglas Cole

4:00pm|Village Books

Seven Comedians

7:00pm|Upfront Theatre

see our complete calendar »

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