New Chapter: Whatcom County Planning Commission

On January 28, 2014, I was appointed to the Whatcom County Planning Commission, representing District 3. Along with two other new appointees, David Hunter and Walter Haugen, our appointments are seen as the start of a re-balancing of the Planning Commission after a number of years leaning very conservative.

Just a month ago, my husband and I moved to a 5-acre property just outside the Bellingham Urban Growth Area (UGA) and a stone’s throw from the Ferndale City limits. So I’m now a “county” resident getting water from an exempt well and using a septic system. This may seem like an odd detail to mention, but exempt wells and septic systems are some of the more controversial issues that the County Council, and therefore the Planning Commission, have and will deal with. We also will be applying soon for a building permit to remodel a 70 year old feed store into a photography studio, so we’ll get to experience first-hand the County’s permitting and inspection process.

The Planning Commission meets twice a month on the second and fourth Thursdays, usually starting at 6:30, at the County Annex, on the corner of Smith and Northwest Roads. Meetings are open to the public, but the meeting room is quite small, either because they usually don’t have an audience, or they don’t want an audience.  When they hold an official Public Hearing, those are usually held at the County Courthouse downtown.

I know from my own experience that official agendas can quickly cause my eyes to glaze over. Now that I have a responsibility to pay attention to them and make sense of them, I will share my understanding here for anyone else interested.  I particularly want to keep the big picture of the planning process in my head, and I’ll share that as well. If it’s easy to see where we’ve been and where we are going, I believe the public will be more relaxed, and empowered, to participate in the process.

So let’s get to business. The new County Council is hitting the ground running with some major initiatives. These will find their way through the Planning Commission at some point.

See Below:
Population Projections for 20-year Growth Planning
Water Action Plan
Marijuana Facility Zoning
Coal Terminal EIS Contract
Parks Plan update

Packinghouses, AKA Slaughterhouses

Yes, we lived through this brutal mess last year, and now we will re-visit it. The ordinance adopted last fall by the old council, allowing slaughterhouses on ag-zoned land, has been appealed to the Growth Management Hearings Board. While this case awaits resolution, Councilman Carl Weimer has proposed an interim zoning ordinance to block property owners from vesting a right to build a packinghouse under the current challenged rules. This interim ordinance (for six months) would make all packinghouse uses on agricultural land a conditional use, meaning each application will be considered individually, and the public and neighbors can weigh in. This interim ordinance will give the Council time to resolve the GMHB challenge and/or re-work the ordinance.

Council PUBLIC HEARING: Tuesday, February 11, Council Chambers, at the beginning of the agenda soon after 7 pm. Sign in to speak.

Planning Commission Work Session on packinghouses: Thursday, February 27, 6:30 pm, County Annex, NW & Smith. I have no details on this yet. I would guess this is a start of the re-working of the current ordinance.

Population Projections for 20-year Growth Planning

This issue has already gone through the Planning Commission and they’ve sent their recommendations to the Council. Now the Council is looking at them.

Future decisions about building new facilities, roads, schools, etc  made by the County and each of the cities will be based on these population projections. If they are too low, we’ll see (more) crowded classrooms, sewer systems failing to keep up, and clogged roads. If they are too high, taxpayers may invest in infrastructure they don’t need (yet) and have trouble paying for. That’s the situation right now in Blaine, where they built a new sewage treatment plant in anticipation of growth that didn’t happen. Now they must charge higher user fees than expected, and people are complaining.

These population projections have been used in the past to lay the foundation for protecting agricultural land from development and encouraging the growth to happen in the cities. It hasn’t really worked out that way, for a variety of reasons. While there seems to be universal support for protecting our ag lands from sprawl, in-fill decisions in Bellingham and any zoning protections in rural areas hit local opposition.

There’s much work to be done to educate ourselves and our neighbors before we can actualize our shared value of protecting ag lands. I plan to do a separate post about this issue, since it’s so big and important. In the meanwhile, you can start with this:

Planning and Development Cmte – County Council: Tuesday, February 11, 3 pm, Council Chambers
City and County presentations relating to population and employment growth allocation proposals

And for the determined, here’s more background on the Population Projections.

 Water Action Plan

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware that water is a BIG issue in Whatcom County. Things seem to be getting more rancorous by the day. Council Chairman Carl Weimer has proposed the creation of a Water Action Plan, “that would spell out the various water quality, quantity, and habitat issues the Council would like to move forward on as part of the 2015/16 budget discussions.” The action plan would draw together the many official county boards and agencies to get the best ideas and proposals from people on the ground working on these issues, as well as allocating staff to the task.

It’s an amazing document, only 5 pages long, and well worth the read.

Co. Council Natural Resources Cmte, February 11, 9:30 am, Council Chambers:
Discussion of the Draft Resolution for a Water Action Plan

Marijuana Facility Zoning

Washington voters strongly approved the legalization of marijuana over a year ago, including surprisingly strong support in the conservative rural precincts of Whatcom County. But the devil is in the details. A large contingent of neighbors living in a rural area between Lynden and Sumas brought their concerns to the County Council last month. One of the many applicants for a marijuana growing license wants to set up shop in their neighborhood.

With the recent State Attorney General opinion stating that cities and counties have the authority to ban recreational pot businesses, the ball is back in the County’s court. Current zoning laws would treat growing and processing pot like any other “agricultural crop” and retailing like any other retail operation, subject to State Liquor Control regulations. Any change to zoning laws would come through the Planning commission.

Co. Council Natural Resources Cmte, February 11, 9:30 am, Council Chambers:
Discussion of zoning of marijuana related operations

Coal Terminal EIS Contract

Council Chairman Carl Weimer has introduced an amendment to the county code that would require Council approval of changes to the contract with CH2M Hill to produce the Environmental Impact Statement for the Gateway Pacific Terminal project. You can read the “whereases” here and the Bellingham Herald story HERE.  But Jean Melious gets to the nitty-gritty of the issue in her blog post titled “Who’s County is it, Anyway?” Project proponent Northwest Jobs Alliance has sent out an alert opposing the change.

Co. Council Finance Committee, February 11, 11 am, Council Chambers
Resolution requesting County Executive not enter into further contract amendments…

Update to the 2008 Comprehensive Parks and Recreation Open Space Plan (CPROSP)

No sooner had the ink dried on my appointment, I began getting emails about this. The Planning Commission had a briefing on this update at it’s January 23rd meeting. There seems to be a difference of opinion about whether the 2008 document was adopted as part of the Comprehensive Plan, and if not, what Parks Plan is currently in force, and what the requirements are for adopting a governing document for the future.

At this point it does not appear that the Planning Commission is expected to weigh in on this plan. Planning staff say it will be forwarded to the County Council in February for adoption. Since it’s not on the February 11th agenda, that would mean February 25th. I’ll let you know if this changes.

FULL County Council AGENDA
Planning Commission AGENDA
Planning Commission Meeting Schedule

I’m exhausted. I think I’ll go help Mark whack at the giant invasive holly tree.