An Expanding Agenda
Wednesday, September 15, 2021
AN EXPANDING AGENDA: One of the more satisfying evolutions since the dawn of this new century has been to watch Whatcom County step more fully into her role as a supporter and partner in the policy initiatives of her cities. Where Whatcom County Council once viewed their work as distinct and apart from municipal matters and focused almost exclusively on rural issues like farming and mining, their recent agendas have become much broader, more complex and involved in areas where the county’s greater tax base and access to resources can play a role—disaster preparedness (including a robust public health response to COVID), impacts of increased urbanization and climate change, and a complicated social landscape that recognizes issues affecting both rural and urban residents. The simple reality is that public dollars stretch farther when the county as a whole pulls together.
In their public meeting this week, County Council took up the issue of granting economic development funds to the Bellingham Housing Authority for their housing project on Samish Way. Phase Three of the development of Samish Commons includes the construction of 49 new apartments that will be offered to low-income households and create an opportunity for households to secure stable housing. Council discussed providing $725,000 in financing for this project through the county’s Economic Development Investment (EDI) fund that, yes, her cities pay into. The balance of the project will be funded by the City of Bellingham—a great example of two jurisdictions leveraging their assets for public benefit.
Council this week also took up the topic of interim zoning changes that would permit the siting and operation of temporary homeless facilities—including seasonal shelters. Land supply and use restrictions continue to be among the most vexing issues for addressing homelessness. The changes could make the county’s urban growth areas bordering cities available as potential solutions for the unhoused, and represents a welcome and growing recognition that homelessness is a countywide problem.
On the related topic of food security, in coming weeks Council will hear the 2021 Community Food Assessment, a report based on interviews with local farmers, farmworkers, community health professionals, natural resource experts and others.
The assessment will help form the nucleus of a countywide food system plan, outlining policies and actions for a more sustainable, equitable food system. The draft plan was released last week.
“A food system plan is a long-range planning document that outlines goals and strategies to sustain and improve our local food system,” the citizens’ committee charged with creating the document wrote in their introduction. “In order to create a food system plan, we must know what the current landscape is in our food system. Updating this assessment is the first step in creating a food system plan.
“The food system, like any system, is largely impacted by the strength of relationships and interdependence of each different part within the whole,” committee members wrote.
While the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated grocery supply shortages revealed the weaknesses in the county’s food system with alarming clarity—overwhelming emergency food providers and disrupting farm-to-market operations—the pandemic pales compared to disruptions and potential collapse of the food chain as a consequence of climate change.
As the authors note in their report, rising sea levels may reduce low-lying coastal farmland areas, putting increased development pressure on upland agricultural acreage, exacerbating land affordability and availability of farmable ground. Increased flooding will decrease the amount of usable farmland in the Nooksack floodplain either due to erosion of land along river banks or because the land is too wet too late in the growing season. Increasing drought is likely to cause a decrease in the productivity of farmland.
Addressing these latter concerns from a broader perspective, a second citizens’ committee authorized by Council produced a draft update of the county’s climate action plan. The Climate Impact Advisory Committee was established in 2017 by Council to create recommendations to achieve the goal of 100 percent renewable energy use within the larger Whatcom County community by 2050. But their continuing role in documenting observed trends and projected impacts of climate change on natural resources yields an ever-widening scope for this committee.
“The climate crisis is like a slow-moving pandemic impacting the world’s ecosystems, those systems upon which all life on earth depends to survive and thrive,” committee members noted in their report released in June. “There is no climate vaccine, but we have the tools to control the climate pandemic if we choose to use them.”
Whatcom County Council and the Sheriff’s Office also published their update for emergency management and natural hazards planning earlier this summer, with implicit acknowledgement that extreme weather events associated with climate change—severe storms, wildfire, drought, flooding and landslide events—may become common in coming years.
These are dark topics that warn of a turbulent and costly future—more turbulent if not fully recognized and understood, more costly when communities must go it alone.
Some of these discussions arise from the personal interests of individual Council members, although admittedly a great deal of them are imposed by the long-range regional planning requirements that undergird the state’s Growth Management Act. But County Council does deserve credit for tackling these issues in their agendas, opening their meetings for more cooperative and productive partnerships. It’s about more than farms and flood plains—although those items are on the agenda, too.