Citizen Journalism: Whatcom County Council Meeting Report for September 24, 2019

In Hirst Decision, Local Government, Local News, News, Whatcom County Council by CTNW News

Cable TV service, wetland mitigation, bike and trail plans, Lake Samish recreation, and changes to a watershed work plan were the main points of interest at the Whatcom County Council meeting on September 24, 2019.

The public meeting was called to order at 7:00 pm. Council members Barbara Brenner, Rud Browne, Barry Buchanan, Tyler Byrd, Todd Donovan, Carol Frazey and Satpal Sidhu were present.

Public Hearings –

The first public hearing was for an Ordinance granting Comcast Cable Communications Management, LLC, a non-exclusive franchise to provide cable TV services. This was adopted 6–1, with Councilmember Donovan opposed. Vincent Buys, Comcast government affairs manager and former 42nd district state representative, and Birch Bay resident Patrick Alesse spoke in favor of the franchise during the hearing.

This non-exclusive franchise gives Comcast the right to enter, use and occupy public rights-of-way in the county to install, maintain and repair its facilities for the purpose of offering and providing cable TV services. The county had a similar deal with Comcast that expired in 2011. Since then, Comcast has continued to operate in the county under the same terms and conditions as the expired deal.

This new 10-year agreement with the county includes a 4 percent franchise fee, while the agreement Comcast has with the city of Bellingham has a 5 percent franchise fee. Councilmember Donovan asked if the city is getting a better deal. Buys said the city is receiving more fees, but the fee is paid by the consumers, so cable bills in the county will be a little less than in the city. He said the county has the option to increase the fee to 5 percent.

Councilmembers discussed the possibility of partnering with Comcast to expand internet service further into the county. “Internet is becoming like a primary service,” Councilmember Sidhu said. “It’s not entertainment anymore.” Sidhu asked Buys to write a proposal.

An Ordinance granting WaveDivision I, LLC, a non-exclusive franchise for the provision of cable TV services.

Thomas Steele, Vice President of RCN Grande & Wave, said his company is also interested in helping the county expand internet service into rural areas. “We’re interested in cooperating as best we can to see that [internet] gets expanded as much as possible because — for kids in school especially — it’s vital.”

Councilmember Donovan said the county might be missing a chance to get more leverage out of these cable franchise agreements. Councilmember Brenner said the more non-exclusive franchises they bring in, the better off the county will be, as it increases competition.

Byrd noted that the Comcast agreement includes senior discounts and free service for public schools, and Wave offers no such programs. Andrew Hester with Public Works said those programs are voluntary, Comcast is a bigger company and was willing to continue offering them. He added that the contract negotiation items are limited by what federal law allows.

Councilmembers debated whether to hold this ordinance and reconsider the Comcast agreement that they had just approved, but Deputy Executive Tyler Schroeder said the county has already spent four-and-a-half years negotiating with Comcast to get to this point.

“You set me up for a joke about, it took you four-and-a-half years to negotiate a contract with Comcast,” Donovan jested, “I’ll let that one go.”

  • Adopted 6–0 with Donovan abstaining.

A Resolution vacating Safsten Road.

Pam Brady from BP said the Cherry Point Refinery is in the process of restoring almost 136 acres of wetlands on company property across Grandview Road from the refinery. This resolution will allow BP to remove the portion of elevated roadway that currently acts as a barrier to natural water flow. Brady said this will improve hydrology and enhance wildlife in the area. She described some of the other work the company has done to restore wetlands near the refinery.

Donovan noted that this road vacation is part of an Advance Mitigation Project, and that suggests the company is planning to do work in the near future that will require wetland mitigation. Brady said BP has no project designated at this time but this will help them meet wetland requirements for any future projects.

“If you’re doing it now and we can get the benefit of that now … that seems like its a great benefit to our community,” Councilmember Byrd said. “And if we could work together to make that easier for you, that’d be fantastic. I’d be a good model, too, for other companies to be able to replicate.”

  • Approved 7–0.

A Resolution in the matter of the Whatcom County Six-Year Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) for the years 2020 through 2025.

County resident Eileen Cadish, speaking on behalf of the Whatcom County Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), said the county needs to have greater investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure if they want to get people out of their cars and into alternative modes of transportation. She said the committee would like this 6-year program to include sections of the Nooksack Loop Trail and the Bay to Bay International Trail.

Public Works Director Jon Hutchings said several groups have been working together to get the trail projects started, and the county right-of-way leg of the Nooksack Loop Trail is included in this year’s program. He said the first two road projects are bike and pedestrian related projects: one is the Birch Bay berm project, and the other is a crosswalk for bikes to get across Samish Way to access the Galbraith Mountain trails.

County Engineer Joe Rutan said the TIP has room for high-value bike and pedestrian projects, which would be those that address high-speed roads in the rural county that have no shoulder (multi-use clear zone recovery area). He said that’s where they see the most accidents, but adding shoulders means encroaching in people’s yards and moving utilities, and right now there’s no political will or advocacy for that.

Brenner said she would like to see more shoulders on rural roads, and added that walking and biking are also good for public health.

An Ordinance establishing a speed limit for portions of East Smith Road and Everson Goshen Road.

County Engineer Joe Rutan said the intersection of East Smith Road and Everson Goshen Road are experiencing more accidents. The intersection is a compact roundabout that the DOT built when it was using this area as a detour around its Mount Baker Hwy work, and drivers have been approaching it way too fast. To reduce accidents, Rutan said they’ve added signs, they’ll be installing more lighting, and they want to reduce the speed coming into it from 50 to 35 miles per hour.

Whatcom County District 3 resident Cathy Sable said she supports the new speed limit and wants the county to continue to analyze the intersection. Councilmember Byrd asked why the signs would be placed at 1,000 feet from the roundabout. Rutan replied that 1,000 feet is the engineering standard for reducing speed from 50 to 35 mph.

This roundabout lacks some of the safety features that a full-size roundabout would have, so Public Works is trying to find other methods to make people more aware. Rutan said the speed limit doesn’t change driver behavior but the signs will get their attention because some drivers don’t even know the roundabout is coming. He said the new signs have solar-powered blinking lights and reflective posts.

A Resolution adopting the Six-Year Water Resources Improvement Program (WRIP), 2020-2025. No discussion. Approved 7–0.

An Ordinance amending WCC 8.13, Solid Waste Disposal District, regarding the Solid Waste Excise Privilege Tax. No discussion. Councilmember Brenner said she doesn’t like the word “privilege” used to describe this tax. Adopted 7–0.

Open Public Comment Period –

Everyone who talked during the open session spoke about the proposed changes to new rules for recreational boats on Lake Samish. On June 4, the council passed an ordinance (AB2019-046) amending Whatcom County Code Chapters 11.16, 11.20, and 11.32 to protect Lake Samish water quality and shoreline properties. It imposed a 6 mph speed limit within 300 feet from the shore and prohibited wakeboard boats from operating within 300 feet from the shore when water skiing and wake surfing. Then in August, several residents proposed changes to those rules. A new compromise agreement (AB2019-479) was discussed at the 2 pm Council Planning and Development Committee meeting, but council members decided to hold it in committee. No vote was taken on it tonight.

The first to speak during open session was Deborah Noonan, who requested that Lake Samish get the same protections as Lake Whatcom, such as a 300 foot buoy line marking the no-wake zone. She said they need to make sure that swimmers and non-motorized activities are safe and protected.

Meredith Scully, a year-round Lake Samish resident, said recreation is a privilege, and as long as we respect we will be able to enjoy that privilege for generations.

Penny Juit, another Lake Samish resident, said she supported the new rules during the June 4 council meeting, however the 300 foot wake zone needs to be reasonable, and she thinks they should move the no-wake zone closer to the bridge where the lake narrows.

Lake Samish resident Jerry Johnson was one of original supporters of the new rules and  lives on narrow part of the lake. He said people frequently ignore or violate the no-wake zone under the bridge to get from one side of the lake to the other, and that the no-wake zone needs to be bigger.

Richard Herman said his canoe has been flipped over by the wakes caused by wake boats on Lake Samish.

Dave Morrow said the proposed compromise was not agreed upon by a majority of Lake Samish residents, and accused its organizers of selective petitioning. “Who’s going to pay for the damage to my dock?” he asked.

Paul Joostens, Lake Samish resident, said the rules passed on June 4 moved forward without the knowledge of most lake residents. He said the petition to change the rules was as public as possible. Joostens said he has also offered to repair residents’ docks.

Janet Monks, a Lake Samish resident for 30-years, said she partakes in all water recreation including motor boats and wake surfing. She said if the buoy line is at 300 feet, swimmers will feel like they can swim out that far which isn’t safe.

Anne Brimmer, a Lake Samish resident for 76-years, said her family enjoys wake boating. She said Lake Samish has always been a recreation lake and it needs to continue to be. She didn’t like how the original proposal was started without the input of all lake residents.

Three items were on the Consent Agenda (all from the Council Finance and Administrative Services Committee):

Councilmember Frazey said the Plantation Range has lost money for the past 5 years and she doesn’t think the county should put any more money into it. Brenner said training people to use firearms appropriately increases public safety. Byrd said the shooting range pays the majority of its own expenses, increases public safety, and adds more value to the community than some other programs. “I feel like this is really a gun issue versus a safety issue,” he added. Byrd also said he thinks the range should be run by a non-profit.

Sidhu said the reason for putting this money into the range is to preserve its value and sell-ability. “We need to maintain this asset so we can do something with it,” he said. The county has 10 years left on the lease for the range, and Sidhu said they can’t just give it away or have somebody else take over because they are liable for the lead contamination there.

Other Items –

Council Natural Resources Committee:

Council Finance and Administrative Services Committee:

Council Planning and Development Committee:

Executive Appointments To Boards, Commissions, and Committees –

Introduction Items –
  • Introduce for public hearing an ordinance amending Whatcom County Code 9.32, Unlawful Discharge of Firearms, to establish a no shooting zone in the Drayton Harbor area of Whatcom County.
    • Passed 6-1 with Councilmember Byrd opposed. Byrd said he’s yet to see any data why this should be done.
  • Introduce for public hearing an ordinance amending Whatcom County Code Chapters 11.16 and 11.20 to protect Lake Samish shoreline properties and Lake Samish water recreation.

 Other Items –

  • A motion (AB2019-396) to allow the Executive to approve the WRIA1 Planning Unit’s recommended amendments to the Watershed Management Board’s five-year work plan.
    • Passed 5–2.

  • The county council was once again forced to talk about the process but not the content of the Watershed Management Plan update. The Planning Unit for WRIA 1 – the Water Resource Inventory Area designated by state law that includes the Nooksack River basin and Lake Whatcom – was tasked with writing a Watershed Management Plan Update as required by Streamflow Restoration Act (ESSB 6091, now RCW 90.94). That law – the so called “Hirst Fix” law – ended a building moratorium on projects using permit-exempt domestic groundwater wells. The plan update must identify potential impacts of exempt well use, evidence-based conservation efforts, and projects to improve the health of the watershed. The Planning Unit is the only group involved that represents the interests of local well users.

The WRIA 1 Watershed Management Board (another government entity involved in the Watershed Planning process) made a 5-Year Work Plan that was approved August 2018 with the understanding that additional comments would be addressed. The Planning Unit submitted some comments and those were discussed at the June 12th meeting of the Watershed Management Team (yet another government entity involved in the process). The outcome of the Management Team’s discussion was to review the work plan and comments, and consider changes in response to the comments that were presented by the Planning Unit.

At the 9:30 am Council Natural Resources Committee meeting, council members discussed the WRIA 1 work plan and Planning Unit’s role in the plan, and the process for approval of the work plan. Some of the caucus representatives on the Planning Unit spoke to the committee about how the they’ve engaged in commenting on the work plan. Kathy Sable said this 5-year work plan is part of the overall WRIA 1 Watershed Management Plan Update, and therefore it is under the purview of the Planning Unit. Sable said the Planning Unity was allowed to submit comments on the work plan only because the board allowed it, and no document was given back to the Planning Unit for approval. “We want to get something done,” she said.

Councilmember Brenner said the work plan was supposed to go to Planning Unit for their recommendation first and then to the council, but she said the process keeps going around them and it’s not fair to the Planning Unit. Brenner said the management board isn’t just doing the administrative stuff but they are also trying to make the plan, and the plan is supposed to come to the council from the Planning Unit (hence the name “Planning Unit”). “I don’t like it and it’s not state law,” she said.

At the evening meeting, Browne moved to allow the Executive to approve the WRIA1 Planning Unit’s recommended amendments to the Watershed Management Board’s five-year work plan. The motion carried 5-2 with Brenner and Byrd opposed.

Buchanan said: “I think this points out that this is the worst process ever invented, and it needs to be retooled — period.” Sidhu added: “I support that the role of the Planning Unit should not be taken away — that’s their name is ‘Planning Unit’ — to participate in planning activities.”