Common Threads Northwest spoke with Ben Elenbaas, who is running for Whatcom County Council Dist. 5.
CTNW: Why are you running for election and why do you believe you're qualified for County Council?
Ben Elenbaas: I live in a rural area. I own a farm. I work in an oil refinery. It seems like every time I turn around, I run into the roadblock that is our current Whatcom County Council. Why I feel I'm qualified? Growing up on a farm and owning a farm. And I'm also the president of the Farm Bureau. I'm the Vice President of the Cattleman's Association. So pretty much my entire adult life I've been working with local and state government trying to influence regulations that are workable and common sense. We have all of these land use policies that are intended to preserve agriculture, but it just seems that it drives it out. I've also served on the Planning Commission. I was elected to be on the Charter Review Commission. My experiences there kind of showed me that local government doesn't work the way that people think it does. I think a lot of people think that if you stand up at Council, or stand up at a Planning Commission meeting, and speak about your experience here in Whatcom County, that people listen and hear what you have to say. But my experience has been that staff and our current council, they don't weight what you have to say as heavily as they weigh what these high-dollar activist groups do. They kind of regulate and do things based on fear of litigation, which I don't believe is how government should be run.
CTNW: And you're qualified because of your other positions?
Ben: Yeah, so I feel like the rural resident is underrepresented. I feel like agriculture is underrepresented. I feel like industry and business is underrepresented. I went to Western Washington University. While I was there, I designed my own major at Huxley College of the Environment. I have a BA in Natural Sciences, a minor in environmental studies, and a minor in geography. And like I said, I hear these activists saying we can't have agriculture and clean water and harvest-able salmon populations. And then I hear them saying we can't have industry and we can't have clean air. But my experience has shown me that we can absolutely have both, and we must have both, and that's the perspective that I'll take to the Council.
CTNW: What do you believe is the county's biggest financial challenge and how should it be addressed?
Ben: I think as far as the county's concerned; I'm thinking about this from a county resident's perspective; I've got four children, all of which are interested in agriculture, industry, and rural living. I think they all want to live here in Whatcom County in the future. I would like to think that they can live here in the future. However, with the policies that I see being enacted and asked for by our current council, I don't have any hope that my children are going to be able to afford a house in Whatcom County, because I have a concern that there won't be any family-wage jobs in Whatcom County if this Council gets their way; so as far as that's concerned.
CTNW: Do you believe the actions of the current council are actually increasing the cost of living here, and making it less of a possibility to afford to stay in Whatcom County in the future?
Ben: Absolutely. I'm not going to explain how property taxes work—I hope everybody understands how property taxes work—but taxes are obviously part of affordability. And if these industries at Cherry Point dry up and go away—which they will if this Council has their way—that's going to shift a massive tax burden on the rest of us, which is not going to help. As far as land use policy is concerned, all I see them doing is setting up roadblocks. You know, a lot of that is the City of Bellingham not doing their part to accommodate growth, which then puts more stress on the small cities, and more stress on the counties. And all I see is less options for housing, and that does nothing to help with affordability.
CTNW: So would you say then that the biggest financial challenge—I'm just summarizing here—in your opinion, is how to keep the family-wage jobs that are here, and keep it a place for young families to stay here in the future?
Ben: I don't see the community being a place where– I don't see a sustainable community if what this council wants to do happens. I see a community that's going to nosedive and tank. That might help affordable housing, but it isn't the way people are going to want to see affordable housing come around--with people in mass exodus.
CTNW: How do you believe that the county can best build our tax base?
Ben: Well, I think that if we want a sustainable community, we do whatever we can to create a regulatory environment in which businesses, industries, and agriculture can thrive. And we also supply housing options instead of beating people into a housing choice.
CTNW: Is it the county's purview of what kind of housing options, or is it the county's purview for making sure that the proper infrastructure is available to build?
Ben: Proper infrastructure's part of it. I'll tell you what, they didn't do anybody any favors when they didn't help the 1WRIA1 Planning Unit come up with a 2Hirst fix. I look at that as a massive lack of leadership on the Council's part to bring those groups together to come up with a solution. I don't think that they had any intention of having that planning done locally. They absolutely wanted it to go back to Ecology. And now it has, and we all know what Ecology's doing with that decision. It's making it ever harder for the rural resident to live their rural lifestyle, which then limits housing options.
CTNW: What do you believe that the County is spending too much money on and\or not enough on?
Ben: They're spending way too much money on lawyers for Growth Management Act compliance. Even if we're not out of compliance right now, they're still spending money on lawyers. What is it, $160,000 so far they've spent on Cascadia Law Group? Which if you look at who Cascadia Law Group is, it seems to me that it's an environmental activist group, in order to come up with ways to eliminate the industries at Cherry Point.
CTNW: Legal ways...
Ben: Legal ways. So, you know, they're not using the lawyers– they're not using them on the backside, which we normally have to do, they're using them on the front side, but it's still taxpayer money. I don't think that's a very good use of it.
CTNW: Anything else you think they're spending too much money on or not enough money on?
Ben: I would like to see us get a facility built to house our criminals-slash-people who may need help. A new jail or justice center. I fully believe that not everyone who's committed crimes are doing it because they're bad people, they're doing it because they've run out of resources. So I would like to see us be able to get that done.
CTNW: How do you believe that the county is doing with the balance of infrastructure improvements and controlling borrowing costs?
Ben: Well in my particular district, I see a lot of frustration with access in and out of the City of Ferndale, and there's a lot of talk about access in Blaine with border traffic. A lot of that isn't exactly the County's jurisdiction, but, you know, working together with the City and the State, I think that we could come up with some solutions. And a lot of them have been a long time coming, and they are coming now. But as I'm campaigning in my district, I hear a lot of frustration around the traffic issues.
CTNW: Yes, and the 3UGAs, have they been adequately planned for, for infrastructure?
Ben: I think that the City of Bellingham could service some of their UGAs so that they can actually provide housing that people are looking for. You know, when I talk to the planners in the City of Bellingham, I hear them saying they want to provide about 85 percent multi-family and maybe 15 percent single-family residences, where I think the marketplace is exactly opposite. The marketplace is looking for 85 percent single-family, maybe 15 percent multi-family. And I think Bellingham wants to infill as much as they can. The problem is that that's not what people are looking for, which then puts massive amounts of pressure on Ferndale, Everson, Nooksack, Lynden. Because they are providing what people are looking for, which is a single-family residence.
CTNW: How can the County address or assist with the homelessness [issue] and poverty?
Ben: That's a massive question, and I think that the jail/justice center is probably a good way to address it. You know, I'm not going to sit here and say, "these are the three reasons people are homeless." Right? But from what I understand, I went to the Lighthouse Mission's fundraiser and the speaker there talked about [how] most homeless people aren't homeless because they have to be. They're homeless because they've run out of resources. They've burned all of their bridges. They've run out of, not necessarily resources, but relationships—they're run out of relationships. And from my perspective, it looks like a lot of those relationships are ruined because of substance abuse, which leads to mental health issues, or mental health issues lead to substance abuse.
CTNW: And sometimes crime. Too often crime.
Ben: Yes. Sometimes crime, which is driven probably by the substance abuse.
CTNW: So the County could help or assist by...
Ben: Yeah, I don't think doing what Seattle's doing is helping. Turning their back to property crimes, turning their back, you know, letting lawlessness happen. I don't think that's a good solution. I think some tough love is probably the best way to go.
CTNW: So there should be some consequence for that, but...
Ben: Consequence, but while we're paying the consequence, maybe we can get some help. That's why I think it's very important that we get a facility here that can do that.
CTNW: Bring all these entities together?
Ben: Yep. You know, I've never been arrested. But I have been in the jail visiting friends that may have made poor choices. And I have friends that work in the jail, and being in there, you wonder why we don't have more issues than we've had. Because when you hear the Sheriff talk about this place it’s not safe. You get that feeling when you're in there. If we're really looking at rehabilitating people, that's probably not a great atmosphere to do that in.
CTNW: And what about poverty?
CTNW: And the County could assist and help in what way for that?
Ben: Getting out of the way. I mean, you got the Cherry Point UGA, which is, I mean there's so many levels here, but the Cherry Point UGA has eight major employers, and 3,000 or 4,000 people that work there, and the average salary in there is $110,000 a year. [The] Rest of the county, the average salary is $45,000 a year—$45,000. I don't think that's enough to live in this county. I mean it's more than just having 3,000 or 4,000 people with jobs that pay like that; it's there's 3,000 or 4,000 people who can then go to these benefits and spend money to support non-profits and people that are there to help the Lighthouse Mission. There's the 3-to-4 million dollars that those industries are spending in the community. I mean go to the soccer field that says "P-66" on it. Go to the Boys and Girls Club, it's got a big "BP" insignia on it. You know Alcoa... it's not the tax dollars that they provide the communities for the schools, it's the philanthropy that comes along with it. And it's not just the employers that are donating money, it's also the employees. So when I see the council doing whatever they can to harm those industries out there, all I see is that negatively impacting the entire community.
CTNW: So if the County has a policy that helps to retain the businesses that offer living-wage jobs and/or attract businesses that do the same by having those available, we'll have people who can actually spend money and grow the economic base?
Ben: Well you know, when I was on the Planning Commission, I would do more research than I do right now, because I was dealing with it more often. Sure, when I'm on the council, I'll do more research again. When I was in college, obviously I was at Huxley, and we did a lot around long-range planning. I think what the data shows you is that if a community isn't growing, it's dying. And so when I hear people talk about, or I see the council taking steps that are to limit or maintain, I think back to those studies that shows those communities that have stayed the same in order to [keep them] thriving, [instead they] end up dying.
CTNW: You were a big proponent for the County Council to change and make value-added agriculture opportunities. Is that something that you could re-address?
Ben: Absolutely. I would very much like to re-address a lot of the land use policy that we have. You know, I wrote a paper on whether planning and zoning in Whatcom County is helping or hurting our pursuit of preserving 100,000 acres of 4Ag land. Our county's always had a goal of 100,000 acres of Ag land because that's what they feel it would take to have a viable Ag economy.
CTNW: But they're not there anymore, are they?
Ben: Well, I think we have 88,000 acres that are zoned Ag But when you look at it—if you look at the statistics—a lot of new agriculture, a lot of the growth in agriculture, is happening in the rural areas. If you look at the census data over the last few years, you know, a lot of that growth is in the small-to-medium-sized organic farms if you look at farm-gate sales. While the bigger farms—the berries and the dairies—still are an overwhelming amount of the Ag economy, they're not growing like the medium-sized organic.
So you look at land use policies like the 40 acre minimum lot size, and you look at the next generation of farmer trying to be able to access land, 40 acres in the Ag zone is over a million dollars anymore. And with the way banking is set up, even with USDA-type issues, you can't even finance that. There are really no options. So as we look at the next generation of farmers, some of our land use policy is counter-productive to accommodate that. People are like, "ohhh, industrial Ag, bad!" But if our goal is a robust Ag economy, we can't be a monoculture.
We can't just have a thriving dairy industry, because when the dairy industry slips, everything will collapse. We can't just have a thriving raspberry industry, or seed potato industry. We have to have a diverse economy. At Huxley, we talked about how healthy ecosystems were diverse ecosystems. Well guess what? It's the same with a healthy Ag economy. If we have a robust, diverse Ag economy, it's going to be able to weather the ups and the downs. And from what I see being involved over the last 20 years on the charter review, on the planning commission, going to council meetings, with what I majored in in college, and being a farmer my entire life, 4th or 5th generation here in Whatcom County—I don't see the land use policy that we have encouraging a robust, diverse Ag economy.
CTNW: Do you believe that the current council has been fulfilling the mandate of the Growth Management Act?
Ben: I don't believe they have the ability to do it because I don't believe they have the understanding or caring to get there. What I see is them preserving farmland. The problem is that we need to preserve our ability to farm, otherwise we're just going to have farmland. We've all seen it—the fields you drive by loaded with canary grass, alder trees and blackberries—that's preserved farmland, and that's what it's all going to be. But I think that the activists we have on our current council, that's exactly what they want to see. Twenty percent of the dairy cattle in the State of Washington reside here in Whatcom County. A recent study from WSU says that the dairy industry in the State of Washington is $5 billion. So if 20 percent of the dairy cattle in the state are here, that means that Whatcom County is a $1 billion economic force in the dairy industry. And all I see is dairy farmers struggling. Not all of that is because of the Whatcom County Council, but let me tell you, the Whatcom County Council is not helping.
CTNW: So what do you believe the County can do to strengthen neighborhoods or communities? Meaning, like, you've got the Van Zandt community, you've got the farming community—all the different types. Like, we talk about diversity. How can the County help to strengthen those communities?
Ben: I went to college because I got to play football; so I like football. So here's something that I see, and you hear people talk about [this] that watch football. The best football games are the ones where you don't notice the referee. Right? That's a solid game. That's how I kind of look at what the council should do. We shouldn't be noticing them. We shouldn't have to turn around and run into their roadblocks. That would build some community. Right? But it seems like the council likes to pick their favorites, and then cater to those interests. [They] don't seem to hear [their] concerns for, or [that the council is working] to bring people together to solve certain issues.
CTNW: I haven't asked this to any of the other candidates, but do you feel that too many people are looking at government as a form of charity as opposed to a form of meeting the needs and the safety of the community?
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I look at a group like RE Sources and I look at their staff. The number of staff. Paid staff. I look at their funding and their funding sources. And then I look at a group like the Farm Bureau. And I look at their funding and their funding sources and I look at how their staff is paid. It's not. It's all volunteer. Typically if there's an issue in the county, RE Sources might be on one side of the coin funded by our tax dollars, and then you've got the Farm Bureau on the other side of the coin looking for a solution [that is] not funded by the government at all.
CTNW: So basically, there are some groups that look at government as a charity organization...
Ben: Oh yeah. I could write a tragedy on the way money's been spent in this county that has influenced the way our council is. I mean I don't know if you guys want to get into it or not, but when I was on the Charter Review, all of a sudden this government process that we're doing, to look at if there's some streamlining, and make our government better, that's the sole process that's going on with Charter Review. And I see that RE Sources is picketing our process. I look at the individual that is coordinating this effort and I see that it's the same individual that is in charge of the environmental education in the schools. So then I see that Whatcom County Council has designated 200-and-some thousand dollars for this individual to do environmental education in schools—which I think is a good thing. It's good to have environmental education in schools. But then I see that person using those resources that have been given to them by the County to picket and protest our local process, which is defining the representatives who get set on that council, that will then allocate the money. I'm looking at a corrupt system. In my mind, when the people that are sitting on that council, the way in which they're elected is being influenced by this organization using tax dollars.
CTNW: ...who then turns around and gets grants from them.
Ben: Funding—exactly. When I spoke earlier about how I don't think county government runs the way the citizens think it does, that's what I'm talking about.
CTNW: And that's something that you would like to restore, to have it not happen that way?
Ben: Yeah, absolutely.
CTNW: The City of Bellingham will consider a recommendation by the Climate Action Committee to create an ordinance that the city would have all new housing and buildings fossil free. And they are currently, through the Climate Action Committee, considering that same mandate to buyers of existing buildings and homes, to be retrofit to power from fossil fuels at the time they are sold. So, what does that mean to you? How realistic is their timeline for accomplishing that? And what do you believe that's going to cost the residents here?
Ben: I think that if you're serious about affordable housing, if you're serious about solving homelessness, if you're serious about having compassion for the less fortunate, I think what the City of Bellingham's doing is the last thing you would ever want to do. But hey, it coincides great with the mandate that the state just passed about having all electric by 2045. I think if you look, the reality of natural gas as it pertains to the production of electricity: it's cheap, it's clean, and it's abundant. And to pass regulations like that shows me that you don't care an ounce for the less fortunate. All it's going to do is drive up the cost of housing, drive up the cost of doing business in the state and in the City of Bellingham. It's going to hurt people. It's going to hurt people a lot. Because why would you do business in this state when you could go to the next state over and have cheap, clean, abundant power, versus living here and paying for it? In my opinion, it's an extreme agenda that's bringing these regulations to our community. It will do nothing but compound the biggest issues that we face—and it will do nothing for the environment.
CTNW: How do we create more opportunities for young adults? And when I say young adults, I mean just graduating out of high school, technical school, community college, or college. How can the County help in creating more opportunities for young adults?
Ben: If the private sector was doing well enough, local government shouldn't even be worried about it. It shouldn't be a function of Whatcom County. Whatcom County should get out of the way, and let the private sector provide all of the opportunities that are needed. That's not really the world we live in--it doesn't seem to be--but I think that's the best solution. Like I talked about earlier, the best football game is where you don't notice the refs; the best local government would be where you never even notice [them].
CTNW: What is the county's biggest economic development opportunity?
Ben: There're massive amounts of opportunities here. This is a unique area filled with resources, both natural and what our landscape offers us. You know, we have abundant farmland. If we don't have enough water in Whatcom County to grow food, where is there enough water in these great United States? So there's unique opportunities there. If you look at the Cherry Point Industrial Area, zoned heavy industry, it's nowhere near fully utilized. Limiting those businesses from innovating, expanding, and being viable businesses is a massive missed opportunity. I work at the BP Cherry Point facility, and I know about plans that they've had, or that they'd like to have. And if I look back on my almost 20 years of service there, every project that's come through has been for efficiency, environmental compliance, or betterment. Anything that is planned in the future looks to me like it's about renewable energy, clean energy, and limiting those industry's ability to fulfill those goals is contrary to any agenda that the activists on our current council have. When I look at the climate concerns, that's going to cost a lot of money to eliminate carbon or eliminate the use of fossil fuel, and I don't see it happening in a manner which won't harm the community. Unless you engage the people that have the money—and the people that have the money are the energy producers, the energy companies—those are the people that are going to solve the problem. It isn't going to come from a mandate from the Whatcom County Council. That mandate from the Whatcom County Council is only going to harm our community.
Oh, and I didn't even get into the Ag. The opportunities are there in agriculture if we allowed the infrastructure that's needed to take advantage of all the dollars that are passing through our Ag lands. Or the timber resource that we have. We look at Whatcom County and we think about the inhabited portion of Whatcom County; two-thirds or more of Whatcom County is covered in forest.
CTNW: What basic services that the County provides need to be improved?
Ben: Well I think the jail situation is one that needs to be improved. When I think about homelessness, I'm not so sure that the County is the one to solve that problem. I think it can be better solved with groups like the Lighthouse Mission and others. But providing an atmosphere in which they can do what they need to do is probably what Whatcom County should do. You know I believe that a good, efficiently run Sheriff's Department is a good thing for the county. I think that, obviously, any emergency management–type of organizations need to be funded.
CTNW: Do you think that the EMT services need improvement? Do you think the roads, access to internet, stuff like that, needs to be improved?
Ben: Again, how much of that falls on… as far as internet services are concerned, how much of that should be serviced with the private sector versus government funding? But I know that there's funding available for high-speed internet for rural areas; and I live in a rural area, and our high-speed internet is non-existent. When I see how much commerce needs to be done via the internet, it can put farmers at a severe disadvantage if they don't have access to that. I know that's a big issue in the middle of the county because I'm, you know, pretty involved in the farm bureau and that's been a major thing. But I hear that the Port has some money, and they're doing some things to enhance the infrastructure in the county for high-speed internet, and that's probably a good thing. If we pay the taxes, we might as well get some benefit out of it.
CTNW: What can the County do to improve the environment and parks?
Ben: I think the best thing that the County could do to enhance the environment is make sure that our county is prosperous. Because if you look at environmental compliance, it's not something that people that are struggling for their very existence care about. Like, a homeless person has no care for the environment, because their only concern is food and shelter at that point—that's an extreme case. But I think as you look at societies, the more affluent the society is, the better ability they have to care for the environment. And so I think that if the county wants to enhance environmental issues or impacts—fix them—the best thing we can do is encourage a thriving community. Because then we have the resources and ability to care for the environment in the way in which it needs to be done.
As far as parks are concerned, I don't know if you followed my time on the Planning Commission, but I was very passionate when it came time for our planning about our parks. If you look at Whatcom County, we have, I think, eight times the acreage of any other county in the state as far as parks are concerned. So when you look at the level of service that we're providing, it's off the charts. And that's not even counting the two-thirds of the county that's national forest, which would be parks too. And that doesn't count cities and the parks that the cities have. I mean Bender Field is Lynden's city park, and it's not included in Whatcom County's level of service. And so I think we do a fine job in Whatcom County of providing recreational opportunities. What I see is planning staff only counting certain parks in their level of service because only certain parks are serviced in a certain way. But if you look at it, everyone's idea of what a park is and how they want to use a park is different. So for me, if I go to a park, I want to go to a park that is serviced by nothing. I don't want to go to a park that has a playground and a bunch of kids screaming; I want to go sit under a tree and watch the sunset, which we have those opportunities in Whatcom County. But staff doesn't count that as a park, as far as level of service is concerned, because it doesn't meet certain criteria like a restroom, or a paved walking path, or handicap accessibility. So I think we need to look at a holistic approach when we're talking about parks, because what I consider a desirable park may not be what someone else considers a desirable park. So yes, I think we do an excellent job—over and above any other county in the state—as far as parks are concerned.
CTNW: What style of leadership do you believe the county needs right now, and can you provide that?
Ben: Obviously I think I can provide it—that's why I'm running. I think that we need to have people that sit on the council that are interested in solving issues that arise, and not people who are driving agendas. And we can use the Cherry Point Industrial Area as an example. It seems to me that there is an agenda that's being driven there. I would like to think that we would have representation, and the reason I say that is if you read their resolution, they talk about how our county has shouldered more of our burden than we need to in regards to the hazards and environmental hazards associated with refinement of fossil fuels. Now everybody wants to talk about an honest conversation. Well if we're actually having an honest conversation, we're going to talk about the other side of that coin when we're talking about a regulatory environment in which these businesses are going to operate. And the other side of that coin is, what are the benefits to our community? Because we may be shouldering a larger burden than, say, a county that doesn't have these industries. However, those other counties don't get the benefits, and we've talked about the benefits: the tax benefits, the philanthropy, the jobs that it provides, and the stability for the future that's there with that being a thriving thing for our community.
So when I see our current council throwing these resolutions out that are only talking about the negative impacts which, in my experience, have been dealt with and mitigated--that's my entire job at Cherry Point--to manage risk, environmental compliance, and safety. That's what I do, and I've done it successfully for 18 years. And I look at our industries at Cherry Point because I've been all over the place in these industrial settings, and I can tell you that both of our facilities here in this county are world leaders in what we do. And so I think the people in our community deserve someone that sits on that council who knows, who understands, and who can see both sides of the coin. I've got the environmental degree, and I have the caring, but I also have the experience of producing things that people need.
CTNW: So, in a nutshell, would you say that you'd be there more to listen and to help solve problems, as opposed to just saying "no?”
CTNW: Last question: Governor Inslee recently declared the State of Washington a "sanctuary state." What does that mean to you? Do you agree or disagree with it? And do you agree or disagree with our local compliance on this issue?
Ben: This country has laws. This county has laws. This state has laws. Those laws need to be abided by. However, not all laws are good and just, which is something that I think you should look at as well. In my opinion, this country was built, and is great, because of the immigrants that we have. We all are immigrants somewhere in our lineage. And so I think that we need to follow the rule of law. However, I do believe that some of our—on a national level—some of our policies make it so people have no other choice but to break the law. So I would like to see reform. But the County Council's not going to do that. But personally, I would like to see a system there where people can come here easier than they do. They break the law because they feel like they don't have any other choice, which is unfortunate. I think we see that in a lot of things. You know, you see people not following land use policy or getting building permits because our process is broken to the point where they would rather just beg for forgiveness than to hit the roadblock that is the Whatcom County Planning and Development Services.
CTNW: Do you believe making the state a "sanctuary state" will improve the situation?
Ben: No, I think it'll make it worse.
1 WRIA 1: Water Resource Inventory Area No. 1 - https://wria1project.whatcomcounty.org
2 Horst Fix: https://fixhirst.com
3 UGA: Urban Growth Area - http://www.whatcomcounty.us/1184/Urban-Growth-Areas
4 Ag: Agricultural land - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_land
You can find out more about Ben Elenbaas and his campaign at www.vote4ben.com