Is Rural Whatcom County Under Attack? by Jim McKinney
Are Whatcom rural residents under attack by our elected government officials over farms, jobs, and property rights?
Does collusion exist between environmental activists, progressive ideologues, and local and state government to stop County growth?
Do local and state leaders not care or listen to rural residents and local businesses?
To many who feel under siege, these are rhetorical questions with a resounding answer, “Yes!” Still, consider some interesting points before you decide:
During the last year the Whatcom County Council, the regional Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB), the Washington State Supreme Court, and Gov. Jay Inslee made decisions that directly hurt local farmers, key job providers, property owners, development and working families in our little corner of paradise.
Those bureaucratic leaders’ weapons of choice are water, planning regulations, infrastructure vetoes, progressive environmental activism and threats. Several major decisions contributed to negative outcomes and deserve a response from voters.
The first major blow:
The County Council hurriedly enacted a building moratorium in October 2016 after they lost the “Hirst” case in the WA State Supreme Court. It almost completely halts Whatcom rural development. The moratorium renders as many as 3,400 lots dependent on new domestic wells for development as near useless. It reduces those property values as much as 70%, according to the County tax assessor – nearly a $200M loss to owners.
The well-financed environmental group Futurewise, with Eric Hirst as front man and current County Council member Todd Donovan as a co-plaintiff, filed suit against the County. Futurewise/Hirst argued that the County had failed to effectively plan to protect water flowing into streams for salmon, aka “instream flows.”
According to Department of Ecology (DOE) statistics, numerous hydrologists, water rights lawyers and DOE experts, domestic-use wells account for less than 1% of total County water usage. There is no credible study to support claims that Whatcom County domestic-use wells impact “instream flows.”
The regional GMHB reviewed the complaint, and ruled in favor of Futurewise, Hirst, et al. The County appealed this ruling and an Appeals court found no legal basis and ruled against the GMHB.
Surprisingly, the Washington State Supreme Court overturned the Appeals Court decision. Their Court decision upended decades of precedent, existing local rules, and DOE policy.
The 6 to 3 ruling now limits rural property development for the entire state. It placed responsibilities for ensuring instream flows on local governments, i.e. the Whatcom County Council.
The Whatcom County Council, including Mr. Donovan, had until May 2017 to find a solution. Their answer? Enact a moratorium that hurts rural families. Then the Council punted the problem to the State legislature.
Senate Bill 5239, co-sponsored by Sen. Doug Erikson (Rep., Ferndale,) sets the rules back to pre-Futurewise, Hirst, et al – a solution. No sitting County Council member has testified in Olympia to support this simple, bi-partisan approved fix.
Governor Inslee and House leaders say, “a Hirst fix is not a priority.” This bill lies in committee as local property owners continue to suffer great harm.
The second strike:
On May 16th, 2017, the County Council adopted amendment language and finalized the County Comprehensive Plan (CCP). The CCP severely limits growth in the County’s only designated heavy industrial zone at Cherry Point.
6 of 7 Council members voted to restrict developing a new export pier, restrict growth of the existing refineries, and funded a study to review alternatives to the County’s largest and highest paying wage providers. The study seeks ways to “transition” away from energy job providers, the primary target of activists.
The environmental group RE-Sources claimed victory in a fund-raising memo.
The third attack:
On May 17th, just one day after the Council approved the growth killing CCP, Governor Inslee announced his veto over a $12M interchange project in Blaine.
The I-5 exit at 274 is a critical requirement for future development in the economically challenged small town of Blaine. The Governor claims his veto was due to an information technicality, though in 2015, he approved a $45M project at the same location. Why the change of heart? Senator Erickson’s comment was, “this is political pay-back.”
The next hit:
Activists had success with Hirst. Now, with County Council and County planning assistance, they have turned to increased regulation on water-quality standards for local farms.
Existing regulations are so restrictive that many farmers are struggling. Tighter restrictions will force many out of business, according to local farm organizations like the Whatcom Family Farmers, Whatcom Farm Bureau, and Whatcom Cattlemen’s Assoc.
Seasonal wetland buffers are a concern. Buffers reduce usable farm land. In farming, land equals production. Less production means lower yields, and less income. The Council is considering making seasonal buffers, permanent.
Other areas of pending regulation would require a mandatory $800 farm plan for a single animal, natural animal waste flow limitations, non-permeable surfaces and soil tilling limitations. Many farmers are speaking out loudly that the new rules may force small farms out of business or bankrupt them. How do you say, “no more 4H for your child?”
What does it all mean?
It appears the Governor, the WA Supreme Court, the GMHB, and our elected County Council have sided with extremist environmental lobbyists like Futurewise and RE-Sources. In each above example, our elected officials ruled against local people who sent letters of appeal and appeared in person at public hearings to plead their cases, but sided with the vocal activists.
People who love this County want to protect it. They want to balance the environment with economic vitality. They want to protect their quality of life. They, and many local business owners understand the issues well, but are silenced by aggressive media, political rhetoric and threats.
Business owners fear activists will target their businesses. Some are being threatened. Stand.Earth, recently took aim at Whatcom Business Alliance members in a letter. This is unacceptable in a civil society and disturbing to many observers.
Progressive activists – not voters – appear to control elected officials. Activists and their political hacks continue to attack rural property owners, small and large business growth, farmers, and family wage jobs.
Politically driven agendas and fear tactics will make Whatcom County less appealing to new businesses. Their policies will continue to hurt rural property values, key industries, affordable housing, farms, and the local economy.
How do businesses and average citizens fight back?
Unify and Vote. Talk to your friends and neighbors, and remind them to vote. Become informed; know what is happening before ideologues cost you your livelihood. Become part of the counter-movement. Do not let these groups divide us and continue to destroy our wonderful community. United We Stand and take back Whatcom County as a great place to live, work, and play for everyone.