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

Planning Commission considers Open Space tax reduction applications

The Planning Commission will consider and make recommendations to the County Council on five applications by land owners who would like their land valued, and therefore taxed, based on its current use, at it’s next meeting, Thursday, June 26, 6:30 pm at the County Annex, NW & Smith Roads.

The Open Space Taxation Act, 1970, allows property owners to have their open space, farm and agricultural, and timber lands valued at their current use rather than at their highest and best use. the purpose of this law is to promote on-going open space and natural areas that might otherwise feel the pressure to be developed to a higher-valued use.

Here’s the staff reporton the five applications and all the details.

Wireless Communication Tower Zoning moves to Council

After two full sessions on this major reorganization and update of the zoning rules for wireless communication towers, the Planning Commission made a near-unanimous recommendation.

We spent quite a bit of time on the issue of performance bonds, or an alternative, to ensure that money would be available if and when the tower needed to be taken down. Once we understood that a proposed alternative, a lien on the property, would actually be a lien on the land, most likely a landowner who was just leasing the space for the tower, and not a lien on the equipment owned by the wireless company, we dispatched that idea quickly.

But what came up in the discussion is an understanding that the performance bonds were required for every single piece of equipment on the tower, as well as the tower. Planning staff have to keep track of all that equipment, who owns it, and make sure they have a current performance bond for it. My question was why? The tower owner will be motivated to get abandoned equipment off its tower so they can rent the space to someone else, and if the tower is removed, all the attached equipment will have to come down, too. So the Commission included a request for staff to look into how to limit the performance bond requirements to just the tower.

Another substantive change we recommended is to give tower owners more time to find new tenants or sell a tower, rather than force them to remove it within six months of ceasing operation. As long as they are paying the lease, maintaining the performance bond and insurance, it seems a waste of resources to tear it down right away.

Slaughterhouses, deja vu, all over again

A final-final-final version of the Packinghouse Zoning ordinance was introduced at the County Council’s June 17th meeting. A public hearing is scheduled for July 8 for the ordinance amending Whatcom County Code Title 20 to allow packinghouses and slaughterhouses in the Agriculture (AG), Heavy Impact Industrial (HII), and Rural and Industrial Manufacturing (RIM) Zoning Districts (AB2014-060D).  Check for the agenda a few days in advance FULL County Council AGENDA. The main adjustments are that Light Industrial has been removed, and allowing Administrative Approval permitting for small-scale operations. See page 2 for a summary of changes.

 Water Planning

Here’s the video of the latest Grange Water forum, moderated by Councilman Rud Browne, with panelists Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen; Gary Stoyka, Whatcom Co. Public Works; Glen Smith, representing private well owners; Ryan Ericson, Futurewise; Roger Almskaar, Citizens Alliance for Property Rights. The focus of the program is “What are the major issues with water supplies and uses in Whatcom County? What would a comprehensive and reasonable solution look like?”

Next County Council meeting July 8

FULL County Council AGENDA
Planning Commission AGENDA
Planning Commission Meeting Schedule

–Natalie