Both sides on wrong track in Cherry Point dispute

The Whatcom County Council has NOT banned the export of unrefined fossil fuels, despite what Tony Larson of the Whatcom Business Alliance wrote in his opinion piece in last week’s Lynden Tribune. To make it very clear, I have edited Larson’s remarks for accuracy:

On Sept. 27, 2016, the Whatcom County Council passed a six-month moratorium on new building permits for project facilities intended to facilitate that bans the export of unrefined fossil fuels at Cherry Point.

A moratorium is a commonly used tool to pause the processing of new development permits, while changes to planning rules and regulations are being considered. The Whatcom County Council passed their moratorium to give everyone time to consider amendments to the County’s Comprehensive Plan section on the Cherry Point Urban Growth Area.

It’s unfortunate that both industry boosters and environmentalists have characterized the moratorium as a ban on exports, the former booing, the latter cheering. Focusing on what it is not, and ignoring the actual Comp Plan amendments will not lead to a positive resolution to this half-decade dispute over future development of Cherry Point and the adjacent waters.

So what are the goals of the Comp Plan amendments currently being considered by the County Planning Commission? The proposed amendments are intended to bring into the Comprehensive Plan a clear acknowledgment of the challenges and external restraints we must currently work within when making planning and development decisions.

On the state level, the laws include the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve’s protection of tidelands and the species that rely on them, and various laws on shorelines, water quality, etc.

On the federal level, they include tribal treaty rights and federal permits required under the Clean Water Act and the Rivers & Harbors Act to do any grading, filing, building piers, both above and below the high tide mark. Another restraint is the Magnuson Amendment of 1977 restricting tanker traffic east of Port Angeles.

Wait, what? Restricting oil tanker traffic? Yes, the Magnuson Amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act bans any project east of Port Angeles that would “result in the increase in the volume of crude oil capable of being handled in any such facility (measured as of October 18, 1977). other than oil to be refined for consumption in the State of Washington.”

This law was passed after the current Puget Sound refineries were built. It would prohibit any new export terminal at Cherry Point for Bakken crude destined for overseas. But this law didn’t come into play during the coal port fight, because it doesn’t apply to boat-loads of coal. It also doesn’t apply to liquified natural gas (LNG) which is also something being considered for export. And it does not apply to existing Cherry Point refineries as long as they don’t try to expand their capacity to import crude oil.

The proposed County Comprehensive Plan amendments are intended to make clear the regulatory environment within which we must make planning and development decisions. If you disagree with these state and federal rules, go lobby your Congressperson. Here in Whatcom County, let’s make a plan for Cherry Point that we can all agree with.

Two more of the planned four meetings on these Cherry Point UGA amendments are coming up Thursday, November 10 and December 8. Both will start at 6:30 pm in the County Council Chambers. Read the meeting materials HERE.

Council finishes up Comp Plan Tuesday, July 26

The County Council is finishing up its review and update of our 20-year Comprehensive Plan, possibly tomorrow, July 26. On the July 26 agenda is a resolution adopting the Comp Plan as amended. This version does not include some amendments proposed by Councilman Carl Weimer addressing development in the Cherry Point UGA. Carl explains his goals and intent for those amendments HERE.It has been suggested that the Weimer amendments will be referred to the Planning Commission for consideration. State law requires that zoning and planning legislation go through the Planning Commission as part of a thorough public process. What the threshold for an amendment coming out the council needing to go back through the PC, I don’t know, so I’m not going to comment on that decision.

I want to share with you what the process will be if these amendments are kicked to the Planning Commission. There will be the usual process of an environmental review under SEPA, a staff report, the Planning Commission can take whatever time they want to discuss, and at least one official Public Hearing. There is no looming deadline, since these amendments would be considered and made as interim changes. The Comprehensive Plan may be amended only once per year, which usually happens in the Spring. As a planning document, it is not supposed to be constantly changed, because that would defeat the purpose of planning. But we are not stuck for the next 20 years with the Comp Plan as it is about to be voted on.

The Planning Commission spent over a year reviewing and proposing amendments, plus many months invested by various advisory boards. The County Council had less time, but has been very involved in the process of review and amending, holding extra meetings to get through it all. With all big projects like this, the County Council adopts a Public Participation Plan before they start, that lays out what will be considered (issues), who they will do outreach to for input, and the steps they will take to get public comment before making decisions. With a process that took about two years to complete, it’s a little disappointing that people waited until the last minute to pay attention. Some have expressed outrage that the Weimer amendments, drafted only a month ago, will not be in the final.

Planning Commission Agenda July 28:
Low Impact Development principles and Best Practices

At Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting, we’ll consider recommendations for intergrating Low Impact Development (LID) principles and Best Management Practices into the County’s codes and standards in order to meet the state’s 2014 NPDES Phase 2 Permit requirements.. The meeting is Thursday, July 28, at 6:30 p.m. in the Northwest Annex Conference Room, 5280 Northwest Drive, Bellingham. See the meeting materials HERE. NPDES stands for National Pollution Discharge and Elimination System. If you are interested in this, I encourage you to read the staff memorandum on this at the link.

Critical Areas Ordinance review continues

Boogles the mind

At tonight’s Planning Commission meeting, we’ll continue working through the articles of the Critical Areas Ordinance update. The meeting is Thursday, March 24 at 6:30 p.m. in the Northwest Annex Conference Room, 5280 Northwest Drive, Bellingham. See the meeting materials HERE. However, the full information is best accessed HERE. This will our third meeting on CAO, focusing on Article 6 – Wetlands and Article 3 – Geohazards. We have at least four additional meetings on CAO before we finish, but the target is for the County Council to complete it’s work by end of June.

Two advisory committees have been working on this update for over a year before we go it, a Technical Committee made up of science professionals and a Citizens Committee from a variety of life experiences/stakeholders. Here’s an overview of the process.

The Critical Areas Ordinance is part of the state Growth Management Act that requires counties to adopt regulations to protect environmentally sensitive lands. The law requires that the regulations be based on “Best Available Science.” Here are the BAS reports, the original  2005 Best Available Science and proposed update 2016 Best Available Science. The state code says that in order to determine whether information received during the public participation process is reliable scientific information, a county or city should determine whether the source of the information displays the characteristics of a valid scientific process. This includes determining if it is peer reviewed, methods clearly stated and able to be replicated, logical conclusions and reasonable inferences, quantitative analysis, information is placed in proper context, and is well referenced.

Up to know, the decisions I have been called on the make as a Planning Commissioner have been basically political — what are my/the county’s policy goals and is the proposal an effective way to reach those goals? The CAO is asking me to evaluate the scientific validity of hundreds of research papers and apply that scientific understanding to local regulations. I realize this is why we had a technical advisory committee, but the list of “Best Available Science” references is not limited to those the “experts” submitted. They are also not connected through the use of footnotes to the actual code language they are intended to validate as following “Best Available Science.” I can not look at a scientific paper on the list and know why it is even mentioned. The other problem is that I can’t know what is missing from the list of recent scientific research, if anything.

It’s been suggested to me that I am overthinking this, and worrying too much. Maybe. The lead Planning staffperson for the CAO update, Cliff Strong, has agreed to annotate the BAS report to show what scientific papers support the proposed changes, but he won’t be done before we have to make a final decision. He also isn’t going back to the 2005 report and doing the same there, and this year’s update relies to a great extent of the current (2005) report and BAS. If no changes are proposed in 2016, then the 2005 BAS is still valid, they are saying. How am I to know?

So if you attend a meeting and notice a dazed look on my face, this is why.

PC rejects Broadcast Tower limits in code

As part of our “Code Scrub” of seemingly routine code changes, everyone, but me, was okay at first look with the amendments to the Point Roberts Special District zoning rules to govern the height of broadcast towers (Exhibit K). This amendment was intended to “memorialize” the ruling of the Hearing Examiner against the application to put a high-powered AM radio tower in Point Roberts. The Hearing Examiner ruled that because the Pt Roberts zone has a structure height limit of 25 feet, and no exception for broadcast towers, broadcast towers can be no taller than 25 feet. This effectively killed the application for the AM tower because 25 feet is totally inadequate.

Taking a second look at this issue before a final vote resulted in a complete reversal of opinion by the Planning Commission. I had proposed an amendment that would allow for low-powered non-commercial FM that would serve the Pt Roberts community. In the course of the discussion, PC members started to understand the complexity and perhaps the contortions of the code amendments, so they rejected my amendment and the original proposal. The Hearing Examiner ruling stands as precedent for future broadcast tower applications, but they won’t be called out specifically in the code, assuming the County Council agrees with us.

Should we regulate broadcast towers on Point Roberts?

At tomorrow’s Planning Commission meeting, we’ll finish up our “Code Scrub” where we consider needed updates to the Zoning Code that have come up as a result of state law changes or clarifications from Hearings Examiner decisions. The meeting is Thursday, February 11 at 6:30 p.m. in the Northwest Annex Conference Room, 5280 Northwest Drive, Bellingham. See the meeting materials HERE. Most of the updates were routine, but we postponed approval on three items until tomorrow’s meeting. They are: Docketing Procedure (Ex. B), Electric Powerlines, Water Tanks, and Utility Structures (Ex C), and Major Project Permit Procedures (Ex H). The PC will also elect new officers and adopt business rules for the year.

Everyone, but me, was okay with the amendments to the Point Roberts Special District zoning rules to govern the height of broadcast towers (Exhibit K). This amendment is intended to “memorialize” the ruling of the Hearing Examiner against the application to put a high-powered AM radio tower in Point Roberts. The Hearing Examiner ruled that because the Pt Roberts zone has a structure height limit of 25 feet, and no exception for broadcast towers, broadcast towers can be no taller than 25 feet. This effectively killed the application for the AM tower because 25 feet is totally inadequate.

“Memorializing” in the code what appears to be a fluke regulating broadcast towers seems like bad public policy, to me. Many people of Pt. Roberts are adamant about banning high-powered radio stations locating there to serve the Vancouver metro area. I understand and agree with their concerns. But they are trying to use the zoning code to bar these stations because they can’t do it the right way, through the broadcast licensing process on the federal level. I’m concerned that this code language limits all potential radio stations that might want to serve the local community to a ridiculous 25 foot antenna height. I will be proposing amendments to exempt low-power FM licenses, and try to fix the language that confuses towers with antennas. There are other concerns that this Hearing Examiner decision may serve as precedent for other zones with height limits.

Keep up with continued Comp Plan work

The Council has three months to whip through the Draft update. Here’s their schedule. I recommend paying attention to the environment chapter and the UGAs. Here are the final amended versions of each chapter.  Also, the Final EIS for the Comp Plan update is now available, HERE.

Here’s Bellingham Councilman Michael Lilliquist and  County Planning Commissioner Nicole Oliver talking about the County Comprehensive Plan on
the Chamber of Commerce radio show on KGMI recently.

Mapping water pollution in Whatcom County

Whatcom County Public Works coordinates a routine water quality monitoring program at a fixed-network of approximately 90 sites in County watersheds that discharge to marine waters. By the end of 2015, approximately 80% of the freshwater sampling sites in Whatcom County were not meeting the standards for fecal coliform bacteria. Unfortunately, our bays and harbors suffer the downstream consequences of polluted neighborhood creeks. Three commercial shellfish growing areas and several recreational shellfish areas are currently closed to harvest due to elevated bacteria levels. To make fecal coliform monitoring information more readily available to the public, staff from multiple agencies worked together to develop maps locating sampling locations and reporting fecal coliform analysis results. See all the maps here Water Quality Monitoring Results

Council begins Comp Plan review with big hearing

The Planning Commission finished up its work on the Comprehensive Plan update at it’s last meeting, and sent it on the County Council. To kick off their review, the Council held a public hearing last Tuesday. Both the anti-coal port and pro-port groups hyped the hearing and it was standing room only. As I mentioned in my last message the Lummi Nation Planning Department has submitted language to amend the Cherry Point UGA to exclude development for coal and oil export facilities. Here are their submitted comments. I’m pretty sure a lot of people on both sides of the issue don’t understand that the Comp Plan, whatever it says about coal exports, will not effect the pending permit application for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. As soon as the permit application was submitted, the law froze in place, and only the law at that time will apply to that project, if it actually gets approved.

It will be interesting to see if the Council chooses to even talk about the Lummi amendments. The proposals must be taken up by a council member to be considered at all. Otherwise they are just public comments like everyone else’s. Before the last PC meeting I asked legal counsel if voting on such an issue would have any implications for the pending GPT application, and was told that it might give the appearance of pre-judgement by the Council about coal export facilities at Cherry Point. The Lummi amendments are not general. They are specific to the Cherry Point UGA. Continue reading

Planning Commish almost done with Comp Plan Update

One last meeting on the Comp Plan before sending it off to the County Council, Thursday, January 14

We held the official public hearing on the entire Comprehensive Plan last month, but decided to give ourselves, and others, a little more time to consider it before putting it to bed. At our meeting tomorrow we will consider any other amendments anywhere in the document, and hopefully recommend the update to the County Council. The Council will have until June to review, amend, adopt the plan. We are actually on schedule!
Work session and Final Recommendation on the Comprehensive Plan update
Thursday January 14, 6:30 pm
County Council Chambers, 311 Grand Ave, Bellingham

Here are the final amended versions of each chapter.  Also, the Final EIS for the Comp Plan update is now available, HERE.

Continue reading

Final public hearing on Comp Plan update December 10

I took a break from sending out my missives on the Planning Commission in order to manage Bobby Briscoe’s campaign for Port Commission, but that didn’t mean the PC hasn’t been meeting. We’ve slogged through the rest of the chapters, completing the Environment chapter last week. All along we’ve taken public comment on each chapter twice. Now we will hold the official public hearing on the entire thing, consider any other amendments anywhere in the document, and hopefully recommend the update to the County Council. The Council will have until June of next year to review, amend, adopt the plan We are actually on schedule!
Hearing and Final PC Recommendation on the Comprehensive Plan update
Thursday December 10, 2015
County Council Chambers, 311 Grand Ave, Bellingham

We don’t have the final amended versions of each chapter posted yet, but they’ll be here shortly.  In the meantime, you can look at all the proposed edits and comments, and read the meeting minutes, if you like. Also, the Final EIS for the Comp Plan update is now available, HERE.

District 2 vacancy on Commission needs applicants!

Ben Elenbaas resigned from the Planning Commission over a month ago, and we really need to find a replacement. This is District 2, east of the Guide, north of Alabama and the Nooksack River, approximately. See a map here.

Issues on the docket in 2016 include the Critical Areas Ordinance update, code enforcement amendments, Special Events regulations, and an Ag Strategic Plan, plus much more! Join the fun!

Deadline for applicants will be 10 a.m. on Tuesday, November 30. Appointment will be on the Council agenda for December 8. If we don’t get someone the council likes, they will postpone, however. APPLY HERE

Comp Plan update UGA proposals for Ferndale, Everson, and Nooksack

Chapter 8 – Resource Lands

Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting will involve a work session on Urban Growth Area proposals by Ferndale, Everson and Nooksack, as part of the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan. We will also take a second look at Chapter 8 on Resource Lands.  This meeting will be held Thursday, July 23, 2015 at 6:30 p.m. in the County Council chambers, 311 Grand Ave, Bellingham. All meeting materials are HERE.

I took a little break from my regular meeting reports, mainly due to being way too busy with election stuff. Last meeting we had work sessions on the UGA proposals for Sumas, Blaine, Cherry Point, Birch Bay, and Columbia Valley. Nothing too exciting happened at the meeting, but since then we have received comments from the Lummi Indian Business Council regarding the Cherry Point UGA. To get the full picture of what the Comp Plan says about Cherry Point, you’ll need to look at Chapter 2, page 2-54 for the narrative and goals and policies, and that same document, page 2-11, for the Cultural Heritage goals and policies, referred to in the LIBC comments. The Planning Commission will take our second look at these UGA proposals in 3 weeks time, on August 13. At that meeting is when we would proposed specific amendments to the current draft. Although the PC may consider amendments later, to keep on schedule we hope to work out issues Commissioners have at this August 13 meeting.

Bellingham’s UGA proposal is scheduled to be introduced (a work session) on September 24. If you are interested in this one, please confirm the date as it keeps getting moved into the future.

Water back on the front burner

Sorting out water rights in Whatcom County will have to start with the determination of the Lummi and Nooksack Treaty Rights for in-stream flows for salmon, since they are the most senior rights. The tribes asked the federal government to do just that back in 2011. Their strategy that they feel has the best chance of a reasonable outcome, is to negotiate a settlement with all the stakeholders in the county and take it to the federal court for approval, and enforcement. A federal judge is not in a position to figure it all out him or herself anyway. The Lummis are now moving on the negotiation piece of this, as reported in the Herald Politics blog Lummis propose water-rights deal to farmers, cities and the follow up Whatcom council hears outline of Lummi water-rights deal. What they are offering at this time is a framework for the negotiations.

Comp Plan schedule

Find the latest schedule for Comp Plan meetings HERE, at the bottom of the page. Comments and specific suggested edits would be most appreciated 10 days in advance, so they can be published and in the Commissioners’ packets. Doing amendments on the fly is harder.

Comp Plan update Chapter 8 – Resource Lands

Chapter 7 – Economics

Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting will involve a work session on two chapters of the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan: Chapter 8 on Resource Lands, and Chapter 7 on Economics.”  This work session will be held Thursday, June 11, 2015 at 6:30 p.m. in the Northwest Annex Conference Room, 5280 Northwest Drive, Bellingham. We will not be considering any other chapter for final decisions this week.

Council appoints new District 3 Planning Commissioner

The County Council June 11th appointed Kelvin Barton to the vacancy on the Planning Commission, representing District 3. Mr. Barton lives in Birch Bay and has served on the Birch Bay Advisory Committee, and is retired after a career as a land use planner in Everett. You can read his resume here, on page 348. I’m excited to have Birch Bay represented on the Commission, since it is the largest unincorporated area of the county.

Bellingham Planning Commission also tonight – hearing on UGAs

While I’m sure our County Planning commission meeting will be riveting, the real action tonight will be at the Bellingham Planning Commission meeting.  They will be holding a public hearing on the UGA boundary recommendation to be forwarded to City Council for their consideration. The big bugaboo for this County Comp Plan update is the population growth we plan for. Deciding on that number is a combination of demographic projections and community vision. Bellingham City Council has tentatively agreed to take more population than they would take if strictly historically proportional, requiring higher densities in the city and allowing reduced growth in the rural areas. But the devil is in the details. Where and how will this density be put in the city? Here’s what the Herald had to say.

Here’s a link to the meeting packet. Perhaps you’ll have better luck opening it than I did. The meeting starts at 7 pm, in the City Council Chambers.

Comp Plan update Chapter 6 – Transportation

2nd look at Chapter 5 – Utilities

Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting will involve a work session on Chapter 6 of the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan, titled “Transportation.”  This work session will be held Thursday, May 28, 2015 at 6:30 p.m. in the Northwest Annex Conference Room, 5280 Northwest Drive, Bellingham. We will re-visit this chapter on June 25 to consider edits and try to “put it to bed.” See the calendar, below.

We will also take our second look at Chapter 5 Utilities to consider proposed edits. We have the edits from staff, originally presented last month, and a report from staff and edits from Commissioners. Our main questions on the Utilities Chapter was with the rapidly changing environment for telecommunications, and how the planning goals matched the growing reliance on internet access in all areas, not just urban, for everyday commerce and communication. It seems to me the normal goals of limiting “urban” levels of service to urban areas so as not to promote sprawl does not apply to internet access. The foothills area of the county has long struggled with getting decent internet and cell phone coverage, and also has pockets of low income and under-employed residents who would probably benefit from better internet service. Good internet access could provide better employment opportunities without requiring driving into town.

Last meeting’s work session on housing included a very informative presentation by the consultant hired to create the housing market and needs analysis for this chapter. Unfortunately it is not posted to the website, but I will see if I can get it there. We are scheduled to re-visit the Housing chapter on June 11, but may delay that so we can have time to thoroughly review the consultant’s data and conclusions.

Vacancy for District 3 Planning Commission – Deadline next Tuesday

With the resignation of Commissioner Sam Taylor, who represents District 3, we have a vacancy on the Commission. District 3 is basically everything west of the Guide. Deadline is 10:00 a.m. on June 2, 2015. That’s next Tuesday.  Here’s how to apply.

If it looks like I just substituted new chapter titles from last time, you are not imagining it

Campaign season is upon us, and I’m really busy. And I’m heading out to Yakima for the weekend for my son Zach’s wedding, the first of two sons getting married this summer. And no, neither son has been able to find work in Whatcom County, assuming they even wanted to. But they are close, and they both have good living wage jobs with benefits and have purchased homes by the time they are 30 years old. The very essence of growth is millennials creating new households. So I turned Zach’s wedding into a planning topic.

Handy calendar to keep track of the Comp Plan schedule

I’ve created a google calendar so I can keep track of topics and deadlines for submitting edits for various chapters. You can view it, too HERE. As I have said before, the adopted schedule is subject to change, because we don’t really know how long things will take. I will try to update this calendar as soon as I know of changes.