Hearing on Packinghouse amendments February 27

The Whatcom County Planning Commission will hold two public hearings this week, February 27th starting at 6:30 pm at the County Annex, Smith and NW. I’ve spent way more time doing my homework on this than I should, but I’ve got a steep learning curve. So here goes:

Packinghouses, AKA Slaughterhouses

The interim zoning ordinance to block property owners from vesting a right to build a packinghouse under the current challenged rules was adopted by the County Council on February 11th, following a public hearing. A proposed permanent ordinance will be considered by the Planning Commission on February 27th.

Like the interim ordinance, the proposed ordinance  would make all packinghouse uses in the agricultural zone a conditional use, meaning each application will be considered individually, and the public and neighbors can weigh in. Packinghouses are a permitted use in the Rural Industrial Manufacturing zone (RIM), meaning no special permission is needed there.

Planning Commission HEARING on packinghouses: Thursday, February 27, 6:30 pm, County Annex, NW & Smith.

On a related note, the Lynden Tribune ran a story last week about a new Freeze Dry berry processing plant going into the vacant Ferndale Meats LCC facility, on Portal Way inside the City of Ferndale. Not sure how long this facility has been idle, but Ferndale Meats LLC closed their Dept of Revenue account in 2004. A quick check of the Ferndale and Lynden city zoning codes, both adjacent to the Agricultural Zone, shows that food processing in their industrial/manufacturing zones is a conditional use. See Page 6, Freeze Dry Plant

 Rural Zone Lot Clustering

Last year, in the process of addressing some issues on rural zone lot clustering that the Growth Management Hearings Board required us to fix, the Planning Commission (PC) added a new phrase in the code (adopted by the Council) that the GMHB recently said had to go.

The purpose of lot clustering is to provide an alternative method of creating economical building lots with spatially efficient sizes. Clustering is intended to reduce development cost and increase energy efficiency and reserve areas of land which are suitable for agriculture, forestry, or open space.

One of the design criteria is that no more than 16 residential lots shall be permitted in one cluster and there shall be at least 500 feet of separation between any new clusters, because otherwise you’d end up with a suburban subdivision out in the rural area, which we are trying to avoid.  The language added by the PC was to exempt parcels greater than 20 acres from this rule. I have not yet determined why this seemed like a good idea at the time. The main reason to eliminate this exception is that the GMHB says it doesn’t comply with state law, but I’d like to understand what the arguments for it were. Maybe someone at the hearing will tell me.

Planning Commission Hearing on Rural Zone Lot Clustering: Thursday, February 27, 6:30 pm, County Annex, NW & Smith.

Population Projections for 20-year Growth Planning

The County Council will continue to discuss these recommended projections, upon which the next 20-year Comprehensive Plan will be based (2016-2036). I’m unclear if there is really anything that can be done at this point to influence the final projections, since they were developed with each city and the county and changing one number would require adjusting others in response.

Here’s how they were developed: the state Office of Financial Management does demographic projections for the county and gives us a medium population target for 2036, and a range above and below that. We are required to pick a total population projection within that range. Each city looks at the consultant’s demographic projections for their own city and decides if they want to grow slower, about the medium, or faster. All these numbers are then put together, and subtracted from the County target population, and the difference is the population projection for the Non-UGA (rural) Whatcom County.

What actually happened was that the PC started with the medium projection for the total County. All the cities requested to grow faster than the medium, essentially offering to take more people than is likely to happen. As a result, the Non-UGA number ended up being unrealistically small. So the PC increased the total County number and added those additional people to the Non-UGA projection. This makes the Non-UGA number more realistic, but is still notably less than these rural areas have historically grown.

Now, this is what I think we all want to see happen — the growth is in the cities and we avoid sprawl. But in order for it to happen this way, the cities are going to have to aggressively accommodate new housing within their city limits and their Urban Growth Areas (UGAs). And there are really no disincentives to building new housing in the rural areas — no impact fees, plenty of  lots ready to be built on. In the 2004-05 plan, we allocated just 6% growth to rural areas, but captured 31% of the growth since 2000. Hope is not a plan for birth control or growth management.

Speaking of birth control, one chart offered for background, showed the growth projections for the 20-year period separated between natural increase (births minus deaths) and in-migration (people from California, Seattle, etc). Net in-migration will vary depending on the economy, but be relatively steady. Natural increase will slowly dwindle to a negative number by 2036. I received this comment on my last post from a life-long county resident: “I have to say that I find many of the newcomers disappointing in their views of what suits Whatcom County. We are not rubes waiting to be told how to do things.” Those who hope to sell their rural lot to fund their retirement or want more customers for their local business will have to put up with these clueless newcomers because they are the ones fueling our growth.

Planning and Development Cmte – County Council: Tuesday, February 25, 3 pm, Council Chambers
Discussion of Population Projections

Everything you ever wanted to know about what County Planners do, but were afraid to ask

The County Council, at its meeting Tuesday, February 25, will “docket” a list of proposed comprehensive plan and zoning amendments, that will be worked on in 2014. Here’s the list of proposed amendments and the Planning and Development Services’ draft work plan for 2014.

 Water Action Plan

No action on Councilman Weimer’s Water Action Plan is scheduled this week, but ReSources is asking folks to come to the Feb. 25th meeting to speak in favor of it and urge the council to move quickly on it.

This week’s homework assignment is to watch the League of Women Voters’ forum on Whatcom Water Issues. A second meeting on water, titled “Strategies to Address Whatcom Water Issues” will be Saturday, March 15th, 9:30 – 12 at the downtown Bellingham Library, ground floor meeting room.

Moratorium on Marijuana Facilities

The Whatcom County Council adopted an emergency moratorium on marijuana growing, processing and retail at its last meeting on Feb. 11. This applies only to unincorporated areas of the county. The moratorium is for sixty days to give the Council time to consider specific zoning regulations for marijuana businesses. Enacting this emergency ordinance keeps individuals from vesting rights to building and occupancy permits under the current rules.

One of the  concerns is that the large amounts of cash will make them an easy target and attract crime. The federal government is taking notice of this issue, since the main problem is that federally-chartered banks are afraid to do business with the legal marijuana industry because it is still against federal law.

Coal Terminal EIS Contract

Many people showed up at the Feb 11 Council meeting to comment on this discussion item, as it was not on the agenda anywhere. People predictably lined up on either side of the issue based on their support or opposition to the coal terminal, and from the comments I heard, most had no clue what they were talking about. Sorry, but it’s true. And the Council was uncomfortable with the whole thing because they are barred from taking information on the project before they view the official EIS. Commenters were reduced to referring to the “project whose name we can not speak,” sort of like Voldemort. In the end, County Executive Jack Louws got up and gave his own public comments (still part of the public comment period at 9 pm) and explained what was happening and correcting a fair amount of misinformation coming from the public.

This article by Tyler Schroeder, the lead state Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA, official for the Gateway Pacific project, might fill in some gaps: Whatcom County preparing for 13-month study of coal terminal plan

FULL County Council AGENDA
Planning Commission AGENDA
Planning Commission Meeting Schedule


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 Continue reading