February 23, 2010 - Issue of the Week
Sorry for the delay getting this week's blog up. I could blame it on the 533 pages in our packet materials this week, but in reality it is the great weather. I've got trees to prune, ferns to plant, dogs to run - and that all took precedence over this blog.
There are a bunch of interesting issues on the agenda this week, so instead of just talking about one I would like to talk briefly about a few.
Septic Systems - The much talked about septic ordinance will be back in front of us for a hearing and vote on Tuesday. The major change in the new version of the ordinance would be to remove the requirement that all septic systems are inspected by a professional to begin with to ensure that the County has a good baseline of information about how well the 30,000 systems in the county are working. The professional inspection requirement will be replaced by allowing the homeowner to do their own inspections if they agree to take a class and file the paperwork.
I intend to vote against this change because I believe it represents a backsliding in the regulations designed to address a known water quality problem throughout the county. I don't believe the $150-250 fee would be over burdensome, and is certainly not out of line with what every person that lives within one of our cities pays for sewer service. Other counties that have had owner-based inspection programs are now considering adopting professional inspections because they have found a small percentage of people fudge on their inspections, and while it may not be many it certainly is enough to impact water quality and public health. To put good science, public health, and water quality aside to appease a small percentage of loud complainers doesn't seem like very good policy. That being said, I don't think most home owners will choose to take the class and do the dirty job of inspecting their own systems, so even with this slackening of the rules we will still be way ahead of where we were at just a few years ago regarding ensuring septic systems are working. Unfortunately, if places like Drayton Harbor continue to show human bacteria in the water we will either have to bring back professional inspections, or spend lots of tax payer money trying to track down individual scofflaws.
The Bellingham Herald just published a good editorial on the subject which can be found here
Planning Commissioners - This week we will be making the final appointment to the Planning Commission to fill the vacant slot created by the death of Sean Wilson. The Planning Commission is current pretty evenly split between those with more progressive ideas regarding growth management and land use and those that take a more property right approach. This appointment could potentially give one side or the other a majority. If you are interested in reading the applications of the 5 people who have applied for this position you can download them here.
Personally, I think it is good for the Planning Commission to be a mix of beliefs about land use issues to ensure that all viewpoints are represented and solutions that may not have been considered it the group was too one-sided are well vetted. Of course whichever side people are on they need to be willing to listen to the professional experience of staff and work within the sometimes frustrating constraints of the law. For this vote I am looking for someone who is a good listener and will make decisions based on the facts and not their own deeply help ideology. I also am more apt to vote for someone who will use a precautionary approach to land use, since once you allow property to be subdivided it is almost impossible to undo those decisions. Protecting our county from sprawl is a constant battle and one Planning Commission backed by one County Council that allows land to be subdivided willy-nilly can create havoc that is nearly impossible to undo. To undo that damage would cost tens of millions of tax payers dollars, and to allow it to stand would also cost millions of tax payer dollars in the form of increased costs for law enforcement, fire control, roads, etc in the rural areas.
Long Range Planning Work Program - On Tuesday we will be having the first discussion about priorities for our Planning Department regarding work on Comprehensive Plan amendments and zoning changes. Staff has told us they do not have sufficient staff to move everything on the list forward this year, especially when huge decisions from the past year have been added to the list by Council members who were on the losing side of those past votes. This prioritization decision will be made at our March 16th meeting, but is on the agenda this week to help educate all of us as to the reality of the list and the implications for the choices we will make. Developers and the cities have already started to chime in. To download the list of possible projects and the long discussion about which are mandatory and which are not click here.
Subdivisions within the Lake Whatcom Watershed - We will have a hearing on Tuesday about extending an interim moratorium on any subdivision of land in the Lake Whatcom Watershed smaller than 5 acres. As is well known development within the watershed has been responsible for the decline in the lake, so allowing more development through subdivision of land makes little sense from a drinking water protection standpoint. This moratorium has been in place for a number of years now, and needs to stay in place until the County's rural element of the Comprehensive Plan is updated at which time the zoning will be changed to make this permanent. Unfortunately it is unclear how the vote on this will go on Tuesday. If science and rational thought lose out we will very likely see a rush to vest all the potential lots left in the watershed, with the end result that once again the taxpayers will get to further subsidize the clean up of the lake for that can afford to buy a lot there.
Repealing provisional zoning in Birch Bay - We will have a hearing on Tuesday regarding repealing an ordinance that created some provisional zoning in the Birch Bay area. This area in Birch Bay was proposed for an upzone as part of the Birch Bay plan to create a commercial area and denser housing. This upzone in the area makes good sense since it will help move commercial activities and housing back from the bay to help protect water quality as well as maintain a more community/pedestrian friendly drive along the bay. To encourage such development the zoning would change in the area from as little as 1 house per 10 acres to 24 houses per acre. This represents a huge windfall profit for the developers who purchased this property at the current low density zoning. There is no doubt that implementing such developments costs developers a lot of money, yet it is also clear that they make a lot of money when successful. The provisional zoning, that is proposed for repeal, was an attempt to get some additional public protections and benefits from this huge gift to the property owners. The language in the provisional zoning requires that for the developers to realize these profits they would have to work together to create a master plan for the entire area and transfer a number of development rights from other parts of the county (Lake Whatcom, prime agriculture) that are slated for protection. These seem like valid requirements for such a huge change in land use and I am unsure why we are considering giving them up. In particular, everyone seems to claim that transfer of development rights is one of the few ways we have to protect those parts of the county we recognize need protection, so why are we so easily giving that up for the benefit of few developers in Birch Bay?
Finally one correction - At our last meeting the Council passed a resolution opposing House Bill 3181 which would increase the state's hazardous substance tax to help local government pay for stormwater protections needed to protect our local waters. I was the lone vote against opposing this bill, yet the Bellingham Herald reported that while I voted against the resolution I also oppose the bill. This is not accurate. As stated at our Council meeting I do support the efforts of the state legislature to find ways to fund these much needed stormwater improvements. I actually argued against voting for something drafted by a "lobbyist for big oil," (which Bill Kidd from BP and Sam Crawford acknowledged earlier in the day) and said the money was clearly needed by local government to deal with stormwater pollution. I also defended the bill against Kathy Kershner's rant about it being dishonest, against Barbara Brenner's rant about it being a sneak attack, and against Sam Crawford's statement about how it is not needed because the county has such great regulations and enforcement. I also argued that the claims by many that our local refineries will close up shop and move to Indonesia if they are required to pass this small tax on to purchasers of their products is nonsense. In reality the price of gas varies way more than this on a day-to-day basis based on the price of a barrel of oil and so far consumers don't seem to have quit filling up.
I did voice concerns about the bill diverting the money to the general fund for the first couple years, and that it placed the tax on wholesalers instead of the actual retail products. I do believe the bill could be better targeted on individual purchasers of the products to send a clear incentive to quit using them, but I am not a state legislator and have no idea of all the pressures they are under or discussions they have had. While perhaps not perfect this bill is certainly a needed step to start funding improvements to stop the decline in our marine waters.
The "talking out of both sides" award of the evening goes to the Council members who argued vociferously that they just can't support legislation that diverts money from its intended use to the general fund. While I agree with this sentiment, the Council members making this argument did exactly the same thing recently when they voted to gut our local - voter approved - Conservation Futures fund and divert that money to the County's General Fund. I guess they are only opposed to such diversions when it is the state legislature doing it, not when they do it.