Monday, May 20, 2013

Whatcom's Rural Element III

Back in January the Growth Management Hearings Board ruled parts of Whatcom County's Rural Element Plan were invalid. The board also found other parts were just fine digesting-rural-element-ii-local-wonky.  This ruling was a follow up after a previous ruling against the County Rural Plan digesting-lamirds-wonky-long-and-local.

Since the January ruling, the County has been working on some fixes and has appealed one of the issues in question to Superior Court. The issues taken to Superior Court regards some of the development regulations in areas that are limited areas of more intensive rural development. The County position is that the amount of and scale of business activity in these areas allowed per the plan the Board ruled against should be allowed to stand. The County has hired a Seattle law firm to help them on the matter. As in most legal matters of this sort there is not yet any substance to talk about. Just attorney fees.

Another matter regarding development regulations in the Lake Whatcom watershed is being deferred as well as it is wrapped up in another case as well as additional actions the county may take outside of this specific process.

The Process

The issues being worked on have moved through the Planning Commission (the advisory body on planning issues) and are now before the County Council. The council has already scheduled a public hearing. A good thing as it opens the opportunity for the council to alter the Planning Commission recommendations.

The Planning Department staff came up with a variety of solutions to resolve the problem areas; however, not all the staff recommendations were recommended by the Planning Commission and in at least a few cases the Planning Commission has opted to recommend a stand-your-ground approach to the Council.

The Council will have to decide whether to make a few obvious changes in order to reach compliance or go through the same motions of a round of hearings before the Growth Board and another rejection. Tough business for a Council majority that would much rather not have to contend with the fact their planning choices can be appealed to the Growth Management Hearings Board and overturned.

The Issues

Variety of Densities

Rural areas of Whatcom County outside the forestry zones and agricultural zones are mostly zoned or one home per 5 acres with the scattered pockets of rural villages and LAMIRDs as well as odd ball suburban development neighborhoods created before the Growth Management Act. The County does have some areas zoned one home per 10 acres. However, there was no guiding language as to why an area would be one home per 10 acres versus one home per 5 acres. It seemed random and the Board ruled against the county.

The County staff came up with some language to spell out the criteria from defining the difference between R10 and R5 zoning criteria and how any change from R10 to R5 will be reviewed. The Planning Commission added some language and dropped some from the staff recommendations that could (will) be subject to challenge as the Commission version pushes the envelope of opening up areas that are active farm land to be divided and does little to limit additional lot creation.

Lot Clustering

The Planning staff have come up with a few added bits to really clarify cluster rules and since the Planning Commission work are recommending some additional tweaks to solidify the cluster provisions. The idea of clusters is to provide protection of resource land areas (farm land) where the zoning allows homes at say one per 5 acres one can crowd the homes together to reserve a large chunk of farm land. It is also used as a way to preserve future development land near the margins of cities. By clustering the homes, future urban growth will be easier.


A few of the LAMIRDs in the County did not pass the Hearings Board review, but the County is getting close. These have been reviewed enough that it should be clear where the lines should be drawn. It really has turned into a technical exercise. In a couple of cases, the Planning Commission wanted no change from the previously found wrong boundaries. It will be up to the Council to make the change(s).

Water Transmission Lines

This was an easy fix with clarifying language and should be no big deal.

Concluding Thoughts

As I have stated before, the County Council is close to getting this done excepting the issue of development regulations in limited areas and the water quality protection issue in Lake Whatcom. Given the cost of outside legal help and the questionable advice that may generate, I'm not sure that given the scale of the problem warrants that path and the costs.

In terms of the remaining issues the Council will be voting on, this will come down to being practical or taking a perceived ideological stance. I suspect we'll get a bit of posturing and speeches from some of the Council and then an understandably reluctant vote for the needed changes. And a couple of council members may take a proud ideological and completely irresponsible stand that will hopefully be a minority.

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