Some of you out there may have seen the Bellingham Herald article about the $50,000 Whatcom County has decided to pay a Seattle law firm. Some of you may have read some of the fantastic coverage of this issue over at Get Whatcom Planning, home to two of the smartest land-use experts this side of the Rocky Mountains. But if you are just stumbling into this issue and are wondering what the heck is going on, here is Riley’s over-simplified version.
The Over-Simplified Version: Many years ago, the state passed a law called the Growth Management Act (GMA), that required all county governments in Washington to have a plan for how they wanted to grow. Each county is required to have a little chart in their planning department that says this part of the county will be farm land, in this part of the county it is okay to build some apartment complexes, and this part would be perfect for a nice little residential neighborhood. It doesn’t have to be etched in stone, but they need to have a concrete plan to show how they will deal with population increases over the next twenty years.
The idea was that if you made the counties do their homework, they would avoid sprawling strip malls and giant condos next to what should have been rural areas. Unplanned growth leads to expensive infrastructure adjustments by the county. “Oh, you want to build twenty houses at the end of this dirt road? Shoot, we thought there was only going to be one person there. Quick, build some water lines and a fire department nearby!”
The problem was Whatcom County didn’t want to do its homework. There was a great deal of rhetoric about “Property Rights!” and “Land Grab” whenever the county tried to outline what parts of the county were going to grow and what parts weren’t. Most of this came from concerned property owners who worried that county plans would keep them from building a giant condominium on their property some day. Not that they were planning to do so right away, they just wanted to make sure they could.
So the county council has repeatedly refused to turn in its homework (or as the state says, “become compliant” with the Growth Management Act).
Still with me? Okay, expand that metaphor! The State Supreme Court (aka “the principal”) decided a few years back that enough was enough, and if Whatcom County wasn’t going to straighten up and do its homework, then they couldn’t build anything at all! Well, the county promised to go home right away and do its homework, but once they got home, they got some high-powered lawyers (aka “the parents”) to argue that their kid didn’t need to do homework. So, while they are in litigation (aka “parent-teacher conferences,”) the county continues to ignore its homework, leaving Futurewise (aka “the tattle-tale”) to keep reminding the principal that the county really needs to become compliant.
We, the taxpayers, are spending $50,000 a year to keep fighting the legal battle over not planning for the future of our county, and we have a lousy case. We can delay the inevitable, but we will continue to lose in court. Our “parents” can only stall for so long.
The Solution? Tutoring. It is actually pretty straightforward. Have the tattle-tale help the county with its homework. Simple win-win. Futurewise, and a few other non-profit groups, have offered to mediate with the county to help bring them into compliance with the Growth Management Act. They are willing to do this for free, simply to see the county stop wasting money and get back on track. They aren’t offering to write the whole paper (still with me on the homework metaphor?) but they will offer some pointers on how to finish the essay. The county council reacted to this with severe skepticism, but in a down economy, how much longer can they afford to throw money down the drain?
So that’s the super-simplified version of what is going on. There are more layers to this (developers funding County Council candidates, Futurewise being tied to RESources in people’s mind, a discussion of infill) but for now we will leave it here. If you are interested in this, your first stop should be the aforementioned Get Whatcom Planning. After that, the Cascadia Weekly has done a great job covering this issue.