Sunday, June 16, 2013

Rural Element IV: Splintered Issues and Costs

It is becoming rather difficult to track exactly where things are at with Whatcom County's rural planning as required by the State Growth Management Act. The rural planning process has splintered into separate issues being fought in various arenas. My last post on the matter (whatcoms-rural-element-iii) only covered part of the rural plan struggles that are before the County Council. But there are aspects of the plan that are in Superior Court and another that was recently been ruled on by the Growth Management Hearings Board (against the County). In addition there are now financial aspects and full-on politics as this is an election year.

June 18 Before the Council

I ended my last post on the rural plan that is now before the council on an optimistic note regarding resolution of one aspect of the County rural planning:

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.
The Council will be voting on the newest version of the rural plan this next Tuesday. The Council did make some changes to fix some of the problem areas, but it appears that two properties are going to be left as future commercial property in an otherwise rural area contrary to the previous very clear rulings of the Hearings Board. Land use attorney Jack Swanson has convinced the Council to leave these two properties in commercial zoning.
Throughout this very long process of multiple Hearings Board rulings against the County rural plans the Council majority has retreated and removed various properties from suburban and commercial zoning to rural zoning. Why stop on these two properties? Council members are using an argument that they are taking a stand for property rights. While an ideological stance can be viewed as noble and principled, Why are the council members only defending the property rights of two property owners after having backed down everywhere else? 
If the Council votes for the plan in its current version, the Hearings Board will review the plan and almost certainly reject the plan for those two parcels. At that point, the County will either have to run the plan for these two parcels through the entire planning process yet again or appeal the Hearings Board ruling to Superior Court. The property owners will likely want to appeal the ruling as well. The process for these two parcels may drag on for a long time.
Court Cases

Whatcom County appealed to Superior Court a few aspects of the Hearings Board ruling from last January. Not much to report on that yet, although legal funding for an outside law firm has been used up on these cases as well as another Growth Management appeal. The County also faces a Court of Appeals case on population allocation.

Hearings Board Ruling on Rural Planning and Water

A bit over a week ago, the Hearings Board ruled rather strongly against the County regarding planning and water. This ruling deserves its own post as it gets at some much broader issues and what may result is complicated. Essentially the Board has stated that Whatcom County needs to do better planning and better consider water issues than it has been. A more detailed post may follow on this, but it requires some research and time not available.

There are couple of sound bite take a ways though. The first is legal costs (see below) and the other is the property rights argument.

Comments by a Planning Commissioner and by Council Members (Kershner and Brenner) have argued that the County is protecting property rights. As noted above, the County has had to retreat and remove urban and commercial zoning from large swaths of the county. But on the water issue, a counter argument could be made that the county is not doing enough to protect property rights. Water right owners are having their water rights threatened by the lack of consideration of water issues in the County Plans.

Legal Costs

The County Prosecutor has turned to outside legal services to assist in defending the various rural plans before the Hearings Board. The cost have thus far reached nearly $100,000 with terrible results in terms that the County has lost on most rulings.

The latest water planning ruling by the Board is a good example. Seattle law firm VanNess Feldman GordonDerr billed the County $26,701.89. A lot of money for a very big loss. That bill is on top of $18,936.60 already billed for the appealing part of Hearings Board January ruling. See Billings if you want details.

The Council will be considering increasing the contract with VanNess Feldman GordonDerr to $90,000 on Tuesday's Council meeting. 

1 comment:

Wynne Lee said...

What we really need is a full accounting of ALL costs, and especially the cost to taxpayers of of all WC legal & PD staff time. That will be hugely more than the $$ spent on external lawyers, I suspect. There has been increasing effort (at least in PW) to cost out all expenses for the Lummi Island ferry. If that is being done for the ferry, then there's no reason not to do it for legal or PDS. Except, of course, for the embarassment factor and political fallout.