Whatcom County adopted a Rural Element in May 2011, revising planning and
zoning for rural lands in the County, those not designated for agriculture, mineral
or forest lands, or for urban growth. Then, the City of Bellingham, a few city based
preservationists and a Seattle based activist group “sued” Whatcom County before the state Growth Management Hearings Board, claiming too many citizens are allowed to live in and enjoy rural areas, and that most rural businesses should be restricted to the building size and use allowed in 1990.
Also important, the activists’ petitions misrepresented facts regarding population
growth in the entire County. This information was cited by the board as important in its
determination, but has been since debunked by County Planning Staff.
Because the County didn’t strongly challenge many of these claims, those opposing a
healthy rural economy and traditional rural lifestyles won. The board ruled the County
made 24 errors, mainly regarding a new planning tool called “Limited Area of More
Intense Rural Development” (LAMIRD) and limitations on businesses. LAMIRDs are
a “one time” optional tool for use where the County decides rural development is now
too intense, and wants to restrain new development.
The majority of businesses in rural areas were put into LAMIRDs; they have special
rules to assure existing and new businesses cannot grow significantly (business type,
building size, lot cover limitations, etc.). Similar rules will apply to new residential uses in other LAMIRDs; some areas might be down-zoned.
A timid County government, despite having prevailed in Superior Court on similar
challenges some years ago, declined to appeal this ruling, except for two invalidated
mainly residential LAMIRDs: North Bellingham and Fort Bellingham. Thus, the County Planning Commission and Council are now frantically having to fix all the invalidated portions.
An unintended consequence for those “suing” is that a Rural Element “do-over” offers
a second chance for the County to stand up to the activists and make things more
balanced and fair. The Council and Executive can soften the highly restrictive LAMIRD approach, and plan for a more reasonable manner of rural business and residential neighborhoods allowed under state planning law since 1990.
But, County officials need strong support from concerned residents to achieve this.
They are routinely and harshly attacked by elitists when they stand up for rural land and business owners. Who can blame them for backing down when they see little support from those hurt the most by arbitrary and unfair government decisions? The board paid little attention to several major goals in the state Growth Management law!
Short term impacts include no applications for permits allowed in all the rural zones,
other than single family homes and minor remodels, for at least the next few months,County caves on some key issues the prospects are grim. Some
LAMIRD restrictions will allow little or no growth; ever. Administration will be susceptible to picky staff misinterpretations, such as “There were no computer stores there in 1990, so we cannot allow them now.”
If your rural home or business does not conform, your ability to obtain financing and
to fully utilize your land are threatened. If you work in a rural area, or depend on it
for services, your job and your services are risk. The next three months represent
perhaps the last opportunity to work with decision-makers to determine the future of
rural businesses and Whatcom County’s traditional, small farm based rural lifestyle.
For information, contact the Planning Department, 676 6907; check their valuable Rural Element site, get on their e-mail list:
The next Planning Commission work session is Thursday April 12, 6:30 pm,
Courthouse. (No oral testimony; letters/emails for it are due 5 pm, Wednesday April
11). Their final hearing will be April 26, same time, place.
Whatcom CAPR will post valuable information on its website and blog too, over the next few months: http://www.whatcomcountycapr.com/.
Roger Almskaar is a Land Use Consultant and board member of the Whatcom chapter,
Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights (CAPR). He is based in Ferndale, and has been assisting people with land use and environmental issues and permits since 1981. He can be reached at 360 671 1324 or email@example.com