Comp Plan Update

Help plan the county you want to live in



What: Comp Plan Public Hearing
When: 7pm Tues., Jan. 26
Where:  Whatcom County Council Chambers 311 Grand Avenue in Bellingham

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Xwot’qom is a Coast Salish word (translated roughly as “noisy water”) from which Whatcom County takes its name. One perhaps better translated as “turbulent,” or “troubled water,” for it means the same thing but somehow more accurately describes the place we call home. Whatcom County is a place that wrestles with big questions, and we’re at a critical crossroads between vanishing dirty industries and a proving ground for cleaner, more advanced ones that will take their place. We are home to the country’s first environmental college and its largest coal terminal proposal, the state’s largest clean energy employers and its dirtiest carbon polluters, the west coast’s largest tribal fishing fleet and, of course, more than 200,000 people.

Over the next six months, we will be responsible for navigating the troubled waters and charting a course to our future as Whatcom County undergoes the state-mandated review of its comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan is required by a decades-old state law called the Growth Management Act, a law intended to manage land use conflicts and growth proactively by giving members of the public a say in the decisions that affect them. The current comprehensive plan has 11 chapters covering everything from how to manage our breathtaking parks and open spaces to our much-needed housing and public facilities. Because state law requires that local laws and regulations adhere to its principles, the review provides a critical opportunity to look ahead and define what we cherish and want to preserve for our children to enjoy.

State law also requires that public participation be an integral part of the plan’s update process. We are obligated to speak to our elected government about the issues that concern us, the resources we want to protect, and the security we want to build into our future.

Whatcom County’s water resources, for example, need to be addressed in the comprehensive plan review. With snowpack declining and population growing, the challenge of managing our water is more and more daunting. Through this update process we can set policies to ensure enough water is available to rear spawning salmon and grow the crops we need to eat.

This comprehensive plan could also halt the decline of Whatcom’s water quality and ensure that our water resources are clean and plentiful. Water pollution is a persistent and vital issue. One needs look no further than the national emergency that has beset the city of Flint, Michigan—where thousands of people and their children have been poisoned by drinking contaminated water—to understand the value of maintaining water quality. Contamination of our local waterways has degraded Bellingham’s drinking water reservoir, Lake Whatcom, and has closed shellfish beds critical to both tribal and commercial fishing operations. This is a condition we must plan to reverse in this update.

The comprehensive plan update is an opportunity to protect productive farmlands and beautiful forests from the destruction wrought by urban sprawl. Land is finite and we are in a position to use this resource well as long as we plan for the growth we are expecting. While it may not line the pockets of the real estate speculators that brought about America’s housing crisis, restricting the expansion of urban growth areas will serve the interests of the public and future generations.

And then, there are fossil fuels. The fact that Whacom County is the prime location for exporting the continent’s coal and oil reserves has emerged as a central consideration in this year’s update. This process happens only once every eight years, so it is crucial that we get it right.

The Lummi Nation has made what most of our community would now regard as a reasonable request: that we no longer plan to be the keystone waypoint in the arc of dirty energy sources traveling from mines and fracking operations that pollute the water to power plants that poison the air. They have asked that the county’s deep water port, Cherry Point, which is also their ancestral homeland, Xwe’chi’eXen, be removed from consideration as North America’s largest coal and oil port.

Some debate whether our local government is even allowed at this time to take up this question. In reality, the people of this county have not only the right but also the responsibility to speak out about issues of concern to their elected government; and our representatives have the responsibility to listen and to make our voices part of the public record. The notion that the quasi-judicial process somehow puts our decision-makers beyond the reach of the public is both legally absurd and morally irresponsible.

The Council is obligated to accept our input also in part because the permitting process regarding the current coal terminal project is vested under existing development regulations. And while that process will continue to move forward, this comprehensive plan update is our best chance to prevent the fight over the coal terminal and other similarly destructive fossil fuel projects from ever happening again.

Finally, the Growth Management Act itself requires that citizen input be accepted, considered, and used as a basis for planning decisions. The act states that the process “shall provide for broad dissemination of proposals and alternatives, opportunity for written comments, public meetings after effective notice, provision for open discussion, communication programs, information services, and consideration of and response to public comments.”

We have a responsibility to be active in this process to ensure it represents the values of the people who call Whatcom County home. Developers, dirty industry, and property rights extremists have all had their say—both in this plan and those that came before it. Those of us who understand the importance of keeping our air clean and our water healthy must now stand up and make our voices heard. We must seize this responsibility and use what we’ve learned to inform a better plan for tomorrow—one where our community moves toward carbon neutrality and the well-paying, clean energy jobs of the 21st century.

Our community is obligated to participate in this important process. Both our lessons from the past and our hopes for the future demand it.

Matt Petryni is the Clean Energy Program Manager for RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a local conservation non-profit with over 20,000 members, mostly in Whatcom County, that was founded as Bellingham Community Recycling in 1982.

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