Third try at crafting Special Event facility rules January 22

The Planning Commission will hold a work session at its next meeting to try to come up with clear and fair rules that protect neighborhoods from the adverse impacts of big, noisy, crowded special events. Agenda materials HERE. The meeting begins at 6:30 at the County Annex, NW & Smith Roads.

Planning staff has been focusing on making the existing rules clear and easier to work with. There was never any intention in bringing up this issue to substantially change the rules in place.

Commission members are focusing on how to delineate to whom (or what situations) the rules should apply  and not apply. Now that people better understand the rules in place, they don’t like them. So the discussion continues. Here’s some background from previous posts: Sept 10  Sept 24

Two seats on Commission to be appointed January 27;
Deadline to apply Jan. 20

I wasn’t the only one not paying attention to the deadline for applications for the two seats up for appointment to the County Planning Commission. Only three people applied by the January 6 deadline, so the Council extended the application period to January 20, 10 am. HERE’S HOW TO APPLY.

Both seats are for the 1st District. The district boundaries are the same as the County Council. Here’s a map. If you are near the boundary, look yourself up HERE. OK – no excuses for not applying.

Those who read my posts on Planning Commission business regularly should have a good idea of the subject matter we deal with. However, the next two years in particular will be focused almost exclusively on the update to the County Comprehensive Plan. We won’t be dealing with smaller code revisions and zoning change applications. I’d be happy to talk to anyone who is thinking about applying.

Vacation Rental Regulation Rebuffed

After a full evening of testimony from mostly owners/operators of vacation rentals, the Commission voted 8-1 to recommend to the County Council a simple code change defining specifically that vacation rental units are permitted uses in residential zones. They are already allowed in the code, but not identified by name.

I voted with the majority. Here’s why: Only one of the many owners who spoke even mentioned the proposed regulations and the one that did said they would inflict “profound harm” to his business. Upon questioning, it was only one provision of the proposed rules that was a problem for him — the limit of one unit per lot — and it is not clear to me if what he is doing is legal anyway. But I’ll leave that alone. The owners really didn’t make the case that the really basic and reasonable proposed rules would be a burden on them. They mostly talked about how nice it was to have guests from different places, and how nice and responsible they were as owners. And also how much money their business brings to the county. None of which is relevant, in my opinion.

However, there also needed to be a case made for the regulations in the first place. None was made. The owner of the vacation rental that has been the target of the complaints to the County Council that kicked off this whole thing was in attendance. The commissioners questioned him on the complaints lodged by his neighbors. The tipping point for me was learning that the Sheriff had never made a call on him responding to a complaint. In other words, the neighbors didn’t use the rules we already have about noise, etc, to try to get their concerns addressed. Read my discussion of current enforcement options HERE. If real problems do arise in the future surrounding vacation rentals, we can always revisit this issue then.

Hearing on regulation of vacation rentals January 8th

At our only Planning Commission meeting in December, we previewed proposed new zoning rules for properties rented out as short-term vacation rentals. On January 8th, we will hold a public hearing on the proposed rules, starting at 6:30 pm at the County Annex, NW & Smith Roads. I would suspect that it will be standing room only in our little meeting room, so if you want a seat and plan to speak, come early. It’s clear there is a lot of interest in this topic, so I’ll take a bit more time to lay out the choices and concerns.

THE PROBLEM: With the advent of internet listing sites such as AirBnB and VRBO, renting out your home, or a second home, as a vacation rental is easier than ever. Rural neighborhoods that used to be quiet most of the year now have people in those vacation homes much of the summer and beyond. Neighbors are now complaining about the additional noise and traffic.

CURRENT ZONING RULES: Any residence permitted in the zoning code may be rented to another party, regardless of duration. So currently there are no restrictions on where, as in what zone, a vacation rental may be, as long as it is a permitted residence. The zoning code defines and restricts bed & breakfasts, rooming houses, hotels, and motels, mainly to commercial and high density residential areas, except for B&Bs that can be most places with a permit. The Rooming House definition could be interpreted to include vacation rentals, if we were interested in banning them from rural neighborhoods, but I don’t think that’s what anyone is suggesting and not without a huge fight.

CURRENT ENFORCEMENT OPTIONS: If the main problem is noise impacting the neighborhood, the neighbors can call the sheriff who can cite either the renters or the property owner under the “disorderly house” provisions (WCC 9.40). If the property is being rented out as an event venue, such as a wedding, then the Special Event Venue rules come into play, which requires a permit and are currently very restrictive. Complaints for building and zoning violations can also be filed with county code enforcement.

THE PROPOSAL: The proposed amendment is fairly simple. It would explicitly permit vacation rentals in the same residential zones as B&Bs, requiring an Assessory Use Permit, which is approved by planning staff and is the same type of permit needed for any home business enterprise on residentially-zoned property. Proposed operating rules for vacation rentals include: one unit per lot; if an ADU on site, the owner must also reside in it on the house; no more than 2 people per legal bedroom; no outdoor signage; don’t become a nuisance to your neighbors; one extra parking space; post rules of conduct for the renters; pay your taxes and be a legitimate business; have adequate and safe utilities.

IF YOU WANT TO WEIGH IN ON THIS ISSUE: I have at least a couple of criteria I consider when reviewing zoning rules. One is that there has to be a legitimate problem that can be solved best by zoning rules. Another is there has to be a benefit to the property owner who has to comply with the rules, otherwise they will just ignore them and hope they stay under the radar. Sometimes the benefit could just be that they are no longer operating in a legal/zoning gray area, can get a permit to show they have the right to do what they are doing, and ward off complaints. And does the benefit to the property owner and/or the public outweigh the regulatory burden.  Anyone testifying at the hearing would help me out by addressing these two points. Written comments may be emailed to PDS_Planning_Commission@co.whatcom.wa.us

A COUPLE OTHER QUESTIONS:
To vacation rental owners: Specifically how would these proposed rules impact you?
To neighbors: If the 5-bedroom vacation rental home on the lake next door to you were occupied instead year-round by a 7 member family, including teenagers, 4 cars, lots of friends, jet skis and trampolines, would they have a greater or less impact on the neighborhood than a vacation rental?

Looking beyond this immediate proposal, people interested in ensuring adequate and affordable housing for residents of Whatcom County might want to pay attention to the long-term impacts of housing being “converted” to vacation rentals. Whatcom County has some very desirable vacation areas, and homeowners as well as business people may find it profitable to buy properties specifically as vacation rentals. This will reduce the housing stock available for people who live here, and increase the cost of what’s available. We are already struggling with this issue. It will only get worse.
Next County Council meeting January 13
FULL County Council AGENDA
Planning Commission AGENDA
Planning Commission Meeting Schedule

Municipal Stormwater Permit amendments on Agenda

The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on a proposalto adopt minor code amendments to WCC Titles 20 and 16. The purpose of these proposed amendments is to properly designate the Director of Public Works, or his/her designee, as the administrator of the Western Washington Phase II Municipal Stormwater Permit, with the enforcement provisions overseen by the Director of Planning and Development Services, the Director of Health, the County Sheriff, or their respective designees. The hearing will be held at it’s next meeting, Thursday, November 13, 6:30 pm at the County Annex, NW & Smith Roads. AGENDA MATERIALS
These amendments are described as housekeeping, driven by changes in state law. I haven’t read through it yet, but it deletes one paragraph and adopts 12 new ones. If you are familiar with these provisions, I’d appreciate your take on them.

Mineral Resource Lands amendments go to County Council

On October 23rd, we held a hearing on changes to the process to designate Mineral Resource Lands, and permit process for surface mining. Here’s my discussion.
The two competing proposals before the PC are attempts to fix the process so that Whatcom County can actually designate some more MRL for future (sand, gravel, hard rock) needs. Both versions will be considered by the council, but the PC recommended the version developed by the surface Mining Advisory Committee.
I continue to be unconvinced that either will really address the problem we have. We have no Mineral Resource Land in reserve for future needs, and continuing to designate new parcels piecemeal will also continue the situation that focuses the discussion on the appropriateness of mining on that particular parcel. When this happens, we don’t have the big picture where we can say “what other land would be more appropriate for mining?” Whatcom County has done some analysis of mineral resources but have not taken these forward to designate MRLs.
The PC adopted my motion that we strongly recommend that Whatcom County take a lead role in designating mineral resource lands of long-term commercial significance in order to protect them from incompatible uses, as opposed to the present process of landowner initiated amendments.”
This issue is tentatively on the Council agenda for Nov. 25.

Sam Taylor Appointed to District 3 Vacancy

The County Council has appointed Sam Taylor to the Planning Commission. Taylor currently works for the City of Ferndale as City Clerk, whose duties include serving as liaison between the public and City Council. He also worked as Politics reporter for the Bellingham Herald and originated the Politics Blog for the Herald.

My Impressions of Town Hall on Comp Plan Update

Last time I punted on sharing my impression of the Town Hall on the Comp Plan. So here goes: I heard a lot of people talk about how long their family has lived in Whatcom County. Somehow that is seen as a selling point when expressing opinions about Whatcom County planning, and other subjects. The implication is that they were farmers, fishermen, loggers way back when and that gives their descendants “cred” on policy issues.
I have lived in Whatcom County almost 25 years, and my ancestors were farmers, homesteaders, missionaries, too, just not here. In fact almost everyone has a similar family experience of farming the land in past generations, and this history does color on the way we all look at our surroundings.
I am focused on the future of Whatcom County and what we need to do to live here in harmony with the physical environment. When people tell me their great grandpa cleared land and farmed here, I think of all the things that generation did to destroy salmon habitat, pollute streams, cheat the Indians out of their treaty rights, cut down the vast forest. We all have some atoning to do for the sins of our ancestors.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to take a class on Pacific Northwest History, I recommend the book “Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington” by Richard White. Originally published in 1980, I suspect very few old-timers have read it, but as a “newcomer” I have. Sometimes it’s the newcomers who can see what’s really happening, without the narrow view of their own personal experience.
Next time I’ll tackle the issue of children not being able to find jobs in Whatcom County. Personally, I’m glad my son finally moved out and got a real job somewhere else.

Cherry Point Economic Study

The Center for Economic & Business Research (CEBR) at Western Washington University conducted an independent, non-partisan, in-depth study of the impact of the only Whatcom area zoned for heavy industrial use: Cherry Point. Three major corporations operate at Cherry Point – BP Cherry Point Refinery, Phillips 66 Ferndale Refinery, and the Alcoa Intalco Works Smelter.
Read the study HERE.

Some other news

North Whatcom farmers approve districts for securing irrigation water
State’s $260M project would restore Nooksack River delta north of Bellingham
Legislature should back smart growth tools for smaller cities
Dr. Charles F. Wilkinson, three lectures in Bellingham on the Boldt Decision of 1974

Amendments to Surface Mining rules considered

We had a work session on amendments to surface mining permitting processes and mineral resource land designation criteria at a meeting last month. On October 23rd, we will have a hearing on these changes. The Sept 23 agenda materials are HERE

The purpose of designating Mineral Resource land is to let current and future land owners know that there are valuable mineral resources under the surface, and to discourage development of that land that would be incompatible with future mining. However, Whatcom County has defined it’s mineral resource lands by identifying the current, active mining permits only. This means that Whatcom County has no Mineral Resource Land (MRL) in reserve for future mining.

It also means designating a new parcel a MRL has become synonymous with an application to actually mine that parcel. But MRL designation is not a “right to mine”, the way agricultural or forest zoned land is. The owner must always make a separate application to begin mining which most likely requires a public process.

Because of the above-mentioned confusion about what MRL designation is, the only applications in recent decades to designate new MRL became a fight over whether that particular parcel should be mined. And public opposition killed both applications.

The two competing proposals before the PC are attempts to fix the process so that Whatcom County can actually designate some more MRL for future (sand, gravel, hard rock) needs. Exhibit A was written by Carl Weimer and Barbara Brenner, and includes combining some aspects of the MRL designation with the environmental studies that are required for the mining permit itself. Exhibit B is the proposal that emerged from the Surface Mining Advisory Committee (SMAC) after considering the Weimer/Brenner proposal. The differences are detailed in the agenda materials.

I’m not convinced either will really address the problem we have. We have no Mineral Resource Land in reserve for future needs, and continuing to designate new parcels piecemeal will also continue the situation that focuses the discussion on the appropriateness of mining on that particular parcel. When this happens, we don’t have the big picture where we can say “what other land would be more appropriate for mining?” Whatcom County has done some analysis of mineral resources (see links below) but have not taken these forward to designate MRLs.

The Commission asked for more information, and here’s what we got:
Final SMAC Report from 2004
Comparison of Designation of Mineral Resources
Mineral Resources Background Report-Whatcom Co, 1994
 Snohomish Co Comp Plan-Land Use Element  
Skagit Co Comp Plan Land Use Element
Also an Aggregate Resource Inventory Study, 2003, that was too big to upload.

District 3 Position Application Deadline October 21st

We need to find a new Commissioner to represent District 3 (mainly west of the Guide) to help us with the important work of updating the 20-year Comprehensive Plan. For those of you in the 1st District, we have two seats expiring in January.
If you are interested, don’t hesitate to call me at 319-8287 to discuss any questions you have. The application deadline is 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, October 21, 2014. Nomination and appointment are scheduled for Tuesday, October 28 at the regular evening Council meeting. DETAILS

My Impressions of Town Hall on Comp Plan Update

The Whatcom County Planning Commission hosted a town hall meeting to present to the publi an overview of what the Comprehensive Plan update will involved, and get general comments from the public before we start the 2-year process.  Project information is available on the County website. Written comments are HERE. Comments were dominated by the theme of family-wage jobs, protecting and expanding industrial jobs at Cherry Point, how long individual speakers’ families have lived in Whatcom County, and lamenting that children can’t find jobs here in Whatcom County.
I want to get this out to remind you about the deadline for the vacancy, so I’m not gong to elaborate on my thoughts now, but will next time, and at the PC meeting this Thursday.

Next County Council meeting October 28
FULL County Council AGENDA
Planning Commission AGENDA
Planning Commission Meeting Schedule

Town Hall Meeting Oct. 9 Kicks off Comp Plan Update

The Whatcom County Planning Commission will host a town hall meeting regarding the periodic update of the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan and the urban growth area (UGA) review, which are both required by the Growth Management Act.  The update must be completed by June 2016.  The purpose of the town hall meeting is to discuss issues, and obtain public input, related to the Comprehensive Plan update and UGA review. Project information is available on the County website.

The town hall meeting will be held Thursday, October 9, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. at the Whatcom County Council Chambers, 311 Grand Avenue, Bellingham.  The public is invited to submit written comments and/or attend this meeting to provide oral comments.

Commissioner Haugen Resigns; Deadline for Application October 21st

District 3 Commissioner Walter Haugen resigned after our last meeting, after declining to attend the last two meetings over a dispute regarding the Commission’s attendance rules. The Bellingham Herald story covers most of this controversy.

I’m not going to defend or refute Mr. Haugen’s concerns or issues; he’s more than capable of speaking for himself. I would say, however, that Commission meetings are run well and respectfully of all present. I would not sit there and allow others, whatever their politics, to be bullied or harassed. Sometimes Commissioners say really odd or outrageous things that I do not agree with, but they are never personal attacks. Accepting differences of opinion and looking beyond those differences is what it means to work on a public board.

My concern now is to find a new Commissioner to represent District 3 (mainly west of the Guide) to help us with the important work of updating the 20-year Comprehensive Plan. For those of you in the 1st District, we have two seats expiring in January.

If you are interested, don’t hesitate to call me at 319-8287 to discuss any questions you have. The application deadline is 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, October 21, 2014. Nomination and appointment are scheduled for Tuesday, October 28 at the regular evening Council meeting.

People Get Excited About Changes to Parks and Trails Level-of-Service

The Planning Commission held a public hearing on the draft Six-Year Capital Improvement Program (CIP) for Whatcom County Facilities 2015-2020 at our last meeting. The Six-Year CIP includes plans for County parks, trails, activity centers, maintenance and operations, general government buildings and sites, Sheriff’s Office facilities, emergency management, correction facilities, stormwater facilities and transportation.

The agitation was about the proposed new way of defining level of service (LOS) standards for parks and trails in the Capital Facilities chapter of the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan. More than one person suggested this was a bait and switch after promising a developed park and trails with the acceptance of the Reconveyance of land on the North Shore of Lake Whatcom last year. Even a left-leaning commissioner had a problem with the way the new LOS was defined for parks.Toward the end of the over three hour meeting, I believe I used the word “overwrought” to describe the concerns I was repeatedly hearing.

Here’s what I understand after much questioning of Parks Director McFarland and about three hours of testimony and discussion:

  • The LOS standards in the Comprehensive Plan are benchmarks that must be met for the approval of any new development (and actionable if not met, before the Growth Management Hearings Board). In the case of parks and trails, a much finer description of level of service is defined in the Comprehensive Parks, Recreation and Open Space Plan, also adopted by the County Council.
  • The conservative PC asked for changes to the Parks LOS two years ago
  • The current Parks LOS is based of surveys of the public about what they think we need, and then adjusted to what is realistic financially. It has not been based on any empirical analysis of how many acres of parkland are needed for a certain number of people since the 1970s.
  • The proposed Parks LOS is based on the same surveys of the public, but is described in number of developed parks, rather than total park acres.
  • The Trails LOS has been at an unachievable level for some years. The proposed new LOS is more realistic.
  • The proposed change in LOS for trails describes multi-purpose trails only. A finer LOS, including single-use trails like mountain bike and equestrian, is described in the Comprehensive Parks, Recreation and Open Space Plan.

I was a minority of one in supporting the proposal as is. The majority recommended maintaining the current Parks LOS definition, and to add back in the single-use trails in the Trails LOS. This will be discussed in the Public Works Committee of the Council on Oct 14, and scheduled for consideration by the Council on Oct 28. Read the Project information and draft proposal HERE.

Amendments to Surface Mining rules

We had a work session on amendments to surface mining permitting processes and mineral resource land designation criteria at a meeting last month. On October 23rd, we will have a hearing on these changes. The Sept 11 agenda materials are HERE

The purpose of designating Mineral Resource land is to let current and future land owners know that there are valuable mineral resources under the surface, and to discourage development of that land that would be incompatible with future mining.

Probably the most revealing thing to come out of the work session was that Whatcom County defined it’s mineral resource lands by identifying the current, active mining permits.This means that Whatcom County has no mineral resource land in reserve for future mining.

Skagit and Snohomish Counties both took a decade or more assessing all the land in their county before they finished designating mineral resource lands. I received an email during the meeting from one of you, suggesting I ask what Skagit and Snohomish’s criteria was for their designation.

The Commission asked for more information, and here’s what we got:
Final SMAC Report from 2004
Comparison of Designation of Mineral Resources
Mineral Resources Background Report-Whatcom Co, 1994
 Snohomish Co Comp Plan-Land Use Element  
Skagit Co Comp Plan Land Use Element
Also an Aggregate Resource Inventory Study, 2003, that was too big to upload.

Next County Council meeting October 14
FULL County Council AGENDA
Planning Commission AGENDA
Planning Commission Meeting Schedule

–Natalie
360-319-8287

Hearing on Six-Year Capital Improvement Program September 25

The Whatcom County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the draft Six-Year Capital Improvement Program (CIP) for Whatcom County Facilities 2015-2020 (Appendix F of the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan) that would replace the existing Six-Year CIP for 2013-2018. The Six-Year CIP includes plans for County parks, trails, activity centers, maintenance and operations, general government buildings and sites, Sheriff’s Office facilities, emergency management, correction facilities, stormwater facilities and transportation.

The proposed amendments also include modifying the level of service (LOS) standards for parks and trails and eliminating the LOS standard for activity centers in the Capital Facilities chapter of the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan.  File #PLN2014-00007. These amendments have already garnered a couple of written comments, objecting to the changes.

Read the Project information and draft proposal HERE. Hearing starts at 6:30 pm, at Northwest Annex, 5280 Northwest Drive, Bellingham. Written comments may be submitted to:  PDS_Planning_commission@co.whatcom.wa.us

Special Events Zoning goes back to the drawing board

Even more folks showed up to our third meeting on proposed Special Events zoning rules, and nothing was decided except that we didn’t like what was proposed. The Commission had unanimously tabled previous drafts “until it addresses the 10 percent worst offenders, not the 90 percent best.”

Following that decision, I spent a few hours talking with staff about my ideas for how to achieve this in the code, but hardly anything I recommended found its way into the new drafts considered at our September 11 meeting. After the new drafts came out, I asked what happened to my ideas, and didn’t really get a satisfactory answer. So I asked again at the August 11 meeting, and was told something like we just weren’t going to do it that way. I responded that “cause I say so” or “cause we don’t do things that way” aren’t satisfactory answers.

Every square inch of county land is governed by a zoning code, and if the code doesn’t say you can do something, then you can’t. The code already doesn’t allow many of these events that are taking place in rural residential and agricultural areas, unless the property owner gets a permit under the Home Occupations or Cottage Industry rules. The purpose of this exercise is to make these existing rules clear and easier to work with. These draft proposals represent a reorganization of existing code in many respects, and that’s what many Commissioners and the public are objecting to. There was never any intention in bringing up this issue to substantially change the rules in place. But now people better understand the rules in place, and they don’t like them.

The Commission asked staff to work with the public, and commissioners, to come up some alternative proposals. We have run out of time on our schedule and are moving on to Comprehensive Plan work, but at some point we expect to consider new proposals for special event zoning.

Town Hall Meeting on Comp Plan Update

The Whatcom County Planning Commission will host a town hall meeting regarding the periodic update of the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan and the urban growth area (UGA) review, which are both required by the Growth Management Act under RCW 36.70A.130.  The update must be completed by June 2016.  The purpose of the town hall meeting is to discuss issues, and obtain public input, related to the Comprehensive Plan update and UGA review. Project information is available on the County website.

The town hall meeting will be held Thursday, October 9, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. at the Whatcom County Council Chambers, 311 Grand Avenue, Bellingham.  The public is invited to submit written comments and/or attend this meeting to provide oral comments. Written comments may be submitted to:
Whatcom County Planning Commission
ATTN: Becky Boxx
5280 Northwest Drive, Bellingham, WA  98226
Email: PDS_Planning_commission@co.whatcom.wa.us
For more information, please contact Matt Aamot at maamot@co.whatcom.wa.us or (360) 676-6907.

Next County Council meeting September 30
Watershed Improvement Districts are on the agenda, postponed from the last meeting.

FULL County Council AGENDA
Planning Commission AGENDA
Planning Commission Meeting Schedule

Full Agenda on Special Events and Surface Mining

In our third attempt, the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on amendments to Whatcom County Zoning Code regarding Weddings, Receptions and Special Events, at it’s next meeting, Thursday, September 11, 6:30 pm at the County Annex, NW & Smith Roads. At its last two meetings the PC have hashed over various versions, and now we will consider two competing versions one “streamlined” and one “more prescriptive.”. The agenda materials are HERE.
At our last meeting, August 14, we had a full house of county residents commenting on the proposals. Some just wanted some kind of clear rules so they could know what they had to do. Another complained about a “festival” held that past weekend just feet from his house with pounding music all day and evening. One group had a planned event canceled because of one neighbor complaint lodged in advance. Clearly there is a need for some rules not only limiting event use on rural property but also rules defining appropriate use.

But the “what ifs” seem to be endless. It was pointed out by a past Planning Director that the county had tried to do this before and it was such a mess they gave up. I’m not sure where I’ll stand on these proposals come meeting time, but what I do know is that these zoning rules regulate temporary events so if they don’t work we can change then without any great damage or loss of value to property owners.

Amendments to Surface Mining rules

The September 11 meeting will also include a work session on amendments to the Whatcom County Code Title 20 and the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan regarding surface mining permitting processes and mineral resource land designation criteria and processes. The agenda materials are HERE

Comprehensive Plan Update: Hearing on Six-Year Capital Improvement Program September 25

The Whatcom County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the draft Six-Year Capital Improvement Program (CIP) for Whatcom County Facilities 2015-2020 (Appendix F of the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan) that would replace the existing Six-Year CIP for 2013-2018. The Six-Year CIP includes plans for County parks, trails, activity centers, maintenance and operations, general government buildings and sites, Sheriff’s Office facilities, emergency management, correction facilities, stormwater facilities and transportation.  The proposed amendments also include modifying the level of service (LOS) standards for parks and trails and eliminating the LOS standard for activity centers in the Capital Facilities chapter of the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan.  File #PLN2014-00007.
This hearing will be held Thursday, September 25, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. at the Planning & Development Services Northwest Annex, 5280 Northwest Drive, Bellingham. Read the Project information and draft proposal HERE.
The public is invited to submit written comments and/or attend this meeting to provide oral comments. Written comments may be submitted to:
Whatcom County Planning Commission, ATTN: Becky Boxx, 5280 Northwest Drive
Bellingham, WA  98226. Email: PDS_Planning_commission@co.whatcom.wa.us

Next County Council meeting September 16

FULL County Council AGENDA
Planning Commission AGENDA
Planning Commission Meeting Schedule

Scaled down Special Events code considered

The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on amendments to Whatcom County Zoning Code regarding Weddings, Receptions and Special Events, at it’s next meeting, Thursday, August 14, 6:30 pm at the County Annex, NW & Smith Roads. At its last meeting the PC help a work session, learning about the staff proposal and giving some input on it. Most PC members were concerned that the preliminary proposal was much too restrictive and unworkable. That proposal was re-worked and will be considered August 14th.  The agenda materials are HERE.

Are zoning laws really just suggestions? County approves new code enforcer

In my last post, I asked the above question, after the PC dealt with a zoning violation that was being “solved” by changing the zoning to make the violation legal. The good news is that the Planning Director, County Executive Louws, and the County Council seem to get it, and the Council approved additional money to hire a additional code enforcer through the end of the year. Here’s the background from a Herald article.  The County Council on August 5th approved the request.

Watershed Improvement District formation moves ahead

Farmers and landowners in the Drayton, Laurel, South Lynden, and Sumas watersheds have submitted petitions to the County Council to form Watershed Improvement Districts, with independent taxing authority, to help farmers stabilize their water availability under existing restraints and competing rights. A public hearing will be held on each district petition before the County Council, probably on Sept. 16th. Check the agenda closer to the date. Here’s more info from the Herald article.

Map of county’s public land

I love maps, so this is really fun for me. The Washington State Recreation and Conservation office has put a comprehensive public lands map on-line for us to explore HERE.

Next County Council meeting September 16

FULL County Council AGENDA
Planning Commission AGENDA
Planning Commission Meeting Schedule

New Zoning Rules for Events Proposed

The Planning Commission will consider amendments to Whatcom County Zoning Code regarding Weddings, Receptions and Special Events, at it’s next meeting, Thursday, July 24, 6:30 pm at the County Annex, NW & Smith Roads. This meeting will be a work session, learning about the staff proposal and giving some input on it. The Planning Commission will consider the final proposal on August 14th. The agenda materials are HERE. Up until now, special events, weddings, farm festivals, music jams and the like have been permitted as Conditional Uses, with no standard set of conditions.

Rezone at Slater and Elder Roads vote deadlocked; are zoning laws really just suggestions?

At the last PC meeting we considered a request for rezone of 5 acres at the corner of Slater and Elder Roads,  from Neighborhood Commercial to Rural General Commercial which allows for a greater option of commercial enterprises. The six members of the Planning Commission present could not agree on any action on this proposal. Both motions to deny and to recommend failed on a 3-3 vote. It moves to the County Council without a recommendation from the PC.

On it’s face the proposed change seemed reasonable. But the history of zoning compliance of one of the property owners became the main issue for those who ended up opposing the request, including me. The property is already involved in an enforcement action due to non-compliance with current zoning.  After PDS staff notified the owner to remove their used car sales from the property, and they complied, the owner brought the cars back to the site.

This zoning change was recommended by PDS staff to make a currently illegal activity legal. The explanation staff gave for making this recommendation was that enforcement just doesn’t hardly happen.  There is a long list of complaints pending enforcement, the county can’t levy fines, if they take a property owner to court it’s a very low priority for the County Prosecutor, etc, etc, etc. So the solution is make what is illegal, legal, and it goes away.

Having recently discussed with a friend his 19-year battle to get zoning rules enforced on a neighbor’s property, I have no reason to doubt PDS staff’s assessment of the intractable nature of zoning enforcement in Whatcom County. For those who don’t like zoning and believe that property rights are sacrosanct, this status quo is great. Zoning law becomes just a suggestion, to be ignored if you want.

More Water News

County Executive Louws gave the Council an update on the Water Action Plan, and Councilman Weimer is mainly please with the progress. Read his analysis HERE.

If you missed the forth and final Rome Grange water forum, here’s the video.  The program includes Tim Ballew II, Chairman, Lummi Indian Business Council, County Executive Jack Louws;  Mayor Kelli Linville of Bellingham; Dave Olson of Rural Water Systems; Randy Kinley for the Lummi Nation; Tom Loranger, Program Manager of Water Resources for the state Department of Ecology.

Next County Council meeting August 5

FULL County Council AGENDA
Planning Commission AGENDA
Planning Commission Meeting Schedule

GMA Non-compliance, a year and a half on

The Planning Commission will consider a request for rezone of 5 acres at the corner of Slater and Elder Roads, at it’s next meeting, Thursday, July 10, 6:30 pm at the County Annex, NW & Smith Roads. The zoning change is from Neighborhood Commercial to Rural General Commercial which allows for a greater option of commercial enterprises. Agenda materials

Growth Management Act Compliance Update

Two bits of news this past week got me to thinking where the County is on getting in compliance with the Growth Management Act. Gary Davis, Senior Planner with PDS, whipped up this little chart for me, summarizing the status of issues from the January 2013 Compliance Order and the June 2013 finding on water resources. Left to resolve are LAMIRD rules and boundaries along the Guide and Birch Bay Lynden Road, and the water resources issue. Here’s a summary of all the original January 2013 Compliance Order issues.

Issue number 9 (on both charts): On June 30, the State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the County on how we monitor, and plan, for growth in rural areas. While there are over 33,000 parcels in unincorporated Whatcom County that may be built on, the plan is to allow only 2,651 new residents in these areas for the next 25 years. Seems a bit unrealistic. The Court agreed that the County’s process to monitor the growth every year “permitted the County to control rural development.” Bellingham Herald story

The bigger news this week was the County Council deciding to quit negotiations with plaintiffs on the water resources issue (number 10 on the current chart). The Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) ruled in June 2013 that “the County does not have measures required in [state law] to protect rural character by protecting surface water and groundwater resources.” The Council decided negotiations were “futile” and to just leave it up to the State Court of Appeals to decide. Here’s the Bellingham Herald story on it.

This issue has divided people who worked side-by-side to elect a progressive majority to the County Council last year. If there was an easy fix, we would have come up with it already. I’ve sat in front of my computer for quite a while trying to decide what needs to be said about it. While it’s appropriate to try to negotiate a solution with the plaintiffs on this issue, “environmentalists” as they are sometimes labeled, are not the only stakeholders. The Council could negotiate a settlement, the GMHB could agree to it, and other stakeholders would turn around and sue. The plaintiffs have complained that the Council’s decision to appeal the GMHB ruling will have the same effect — more litigation — rather than a final decision.

While it is ostensibly about protecting rural character, it’s really about water rights. And one thing I’ve learned from all the water forums in the last few years is that water rights disputes are solved, maybe, through negotiation with all stakeholders, and then take it to a court to enforce it. Courts don’t come up with solutions. They just tell you if the solution you came up with is legal.

Slaughterhouses ordinance adopted unanimously

Yes you read it right! Unanimous. ‘Nuff said.

More Water News

Yesterday, County Executive Louws gave the Council’s Natural Resources Committee an update on the Water Action Plan. Listen to the presentationHERE and the memo HERE.

The Rome Grange’s fourth water forum will be Thursday July 10, 7.00 pm to 9.00 pm, Silver Reef Hotel/Casino Event Center.  The program includes opening remarks by Tim Ballew II, Chairman, Lummi Indian Business Council, County Executive Jack Louws as Moderator, remarks by Mayor Kelli Linville of Bellingham, Dave Olson of Rural Water Systems, Randy Kinley for the Lummi Nation, and representatives of the Agriculture Water District Coalition and Non-government Water systems. Tom Loranger, Program Manager of Water Resources for the state Department of Ecology, will be the closing speaker.

Keep up with Councilman Weimer’s thoughts on water issues at his blog HERE.

Next County Council meeting July 22

FULL County Council AGENDA
Planning Commission AGENDA
Planning Commission Meeting Schedule