By Roger Almskaar, CAPR Whatcom Published in the Business Pulse, Fall 2013 issue:
Whatcom County’s Rural Lands; For Nature and People?
Local news media have barely covered rural land planning and regulation, Whatcom County’s major land use issue during the past 3 years. But, you may have noticed the recent spate of blog rants and “talking point” letters to the editor, accusing the County Council majority of “fighting” the state Growth Management Act (GMA; RCW 36.70A), and squandering scarce public money in fending off legal challenges from supposedly public spirited citizens and organizations. The on-going rancorous arguments over rural lands demonstrate that many citizens, including some decision-makers, don’t really know much about what “rural lands” mean. They want to ignore the facts that the county is now in compliance on almost all GMA matters, except a handful of rural land topics, and that achieving compliance is a daunting task for a large, diverse county like ours, on which even reasonable people will disagree. Whatcom County and its cities must plan under the GMA. In framing the law, the legislature stated that conservation of rural lands and resources and facilitation of traditional rural lifestyles and businesses are critically important to the quality of life of present and future Washingtonians. In our view, this includes environmental protection, economic vitality, and protection of our constitutional property rights. The GMA defines rural areas as, "...all lands which are not within an urban growth area and are not designated as natural resource lands having long-term commercial significance for production of agricultural products, timber, or the extraction of minerals." Thus, lands zoned for commercial farming are not “rural lands”. Most rural lands do not include “prime ag soils” in any real sense; few could make a full time living farming on most rural area soils. According to County Planning staff, rural lands make up 133,400 acres (31%) of the 424,744 acres of unincorporated area subject to county regulations. Resource lands are 65% (276,318 acres), and urban growth areas (outside of cities) are 4% (15,026 acres). The purpose of the rural element is to provide ample space for low-density housing, mainly at 5 to 10 acres per home, and part-time farming and forestry, while also protecting natural resources, such as water supplies and salmon habitat. Rural areas are to include business areas compatible with the rural landscape, such as Hinote’s Corner, Deming, Custer etc. Washington’s Legislature adopted findings in RCW 36.70A.11, recognizing the important economic role rural lands play: …that to retain and enhance the job base in rural areas, rural counties must have flexibility to create opportunities for business development. Further, the legislature finds that rural counties must have the flexibility to retain existing businesses and allow them to expand. The legislature recognizes… that many businesses in rural areas fit within the definition of rural character identified by the [county government]. Given this background, you may be wondering where all the appeals, criticism and vitriol come from. The answer is special, or advocacy, interest groups, largely based and staffed in Seattle, local urbanophiles and a few rural folk. They prize the aesthetics of pristine, unchanging rural landscapes over actual use of these lands for low density housing and occasional business areas, believing rural land is meant to be preserved and looked upon, not lived on and used. For example, a local government appointed group, charged with advising how water ought to be managed in Whatcom County, recently recommended priorities for our future water use. “Independent Rural Living" got zero votes, the lowest of 26. Harvestable game, forestry, and human safety also got very low rankings. “Open space, aesthetics, pristine" ranked at the top!. To this mindset, people wanting a traditional rural lifestyle or business are an obstacle to their radical preservationist agenda. With our great natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities, it’s not surprising that some moving here want to stop anything new on our rural lands, ie to "save us from ourselves”. Also, we must keep the weekend drive up to the ski slopes scenically pure. Why else does Seattle based Futurewise and its lawyers work so hard to circumvent the carefully deliberated and reasonable decisions of our own elected officials? In fact, they advocate draconian regulations aimed at freezing our rural economy and rural landscape, and beating down our individual goals and opportunities. It’s the opposite of “Planning as if people mattered”! Rural lands, according to the GMA, are to be designated by elected county officials, not Seattle based attorneys working for narrow focused advocacy groups. That law has been, in recent years, thwarted in several mainly rural counties, by these groups, and by political appointees on the GMA Hearings Board. This quasi-judicial panel is supposed to pass reasonable judgment on appeals of local GMA plans and rules. But its dominated by former officers and lobbyists for preservationist groups, and retired government employees. Some are not shy about the connection; two former Board members are current state directors for Futurewise! Few members have relevant private sector experience. Its decisions often ignore the GMA’s requirement of balance among its 13 goals, emphasizing environmental goals while ignoring economic, property rights, affordable housing goals et al. Its decisions are frequently overturned by real courts of law. In fact, Whatcom County has been successful in obtaining reasoned, fact based decisions only by suing in Superior court, where facts and the letter of the law carry more weight than private agendas. These continuing assaults on Whatcom’s rural economy and living have already blocked the plans of many rural businesses and landowners. Some businesses have closed or moved; some have been downzoned to low density residential! Longer term impacts will not be known for some time. And the attacks go on. On a larger scale, Whatcom County and its cities must complete growth planning for their next 20 year period by 2016. The next major issue will be water rights and usage, already in play by Futurewise and local activists as a bludgeon against rural residents. The future of traditional rural lifestyles, property rights and the economy of Whatcom County will be decided between now and 2016. At issue: Traditional and diverse Whatcom County rural lifestyles, or pristine pastoral preserves?