Saturday, July 5, 2014

Getting People Onboard, Or At Least Aware

Hi all,

As you know if you have been following this blog, or my Whatcom Water Action Facebook page, I have been pretty focused on water issues since the County Council passed the Water Action Plan resolution this spring. Results from the survey I undertook showed strong support for the County moving forward on nearly every water issue. There was also strong support for a number of the possible actions that could be taken to address these issues, including the need for greater outreach so people understand there is a problem and what they can do to help solve it (technical assistance), enforcement of the rules when education and technical assistance don’t get through to some, and increasing taxes or fees if necessary to accomplish those things.

Our County Executive – Jack Louws – has embraced the Council’s request for focused engagement on many of these water issues. On Tuesday (7/8/14) he will for the first time start to lay out his thoughts on the issues and the options that will be in front of the Council this fall when we get into the budget approval where we can help shape future staffing and what gets paid for. It should be an interesting presentation if you can make it at 9:30AM in the Council chambers.

One issue that I believe is critical is for the County (and our city partners) to expand the amount of outreach that is provided so people understand the problems and have access to ways they can personally help solve them. This clearly needs to be ramped up before any significant enforcement of the rules take place, because the reality is that many people don’t know about the problems or the rules in place to address them.

I am not talking about generic brochures and radio ads. I am talking about focused communications with people that are currently under some sort of rules that they may not even realize exist. Things like septic system owners, people who live in critical area zones, and small hobby farmers. People need to understand their legal obligations, be told why those obligations exist, how to most easily and effectively meet those obligations, and have advanced warning that if they don’t meet their obligations there will be penalties.

For instance, I live in the Shoreline Zone along Ten Mile Creek. Most people that live near me have no idea that they live in such a zone, or that living there includes restrictions on being able to build, clear vegetation, put in a sidewalk or patio, or even bring in soil. On any particular sunny Saturday you can drive through my neighborhood and hear chainsaws cutting trees, hear hammers pounding nails as new structures go in, see people dumping yard waste down the hill into the shoreline buffer, or let their dogs run down to the creek to crap, etc.  I’ve never talked to anyone out here who says “I think I will spend the day reading the County’s Critical Areas Ordinance so I understand what my obligations are.”  And as far as I can tell the County has never told any of these people that they live in this special zone, and have obligations.  I know that in the 16 years I have lived here I have never been told what my obligations are and why they are important, and there certainly was no disclosure made when I bought the property that I was taking on these special restrictions. 

Does County government think people will learn about these rules somehow on their own or from someone else? I would hate to think how my neighbors would react if all of a sudden the County began to talk about enforcing these rules before people were even told they exist and apply to them. Lots of pitchforks in this neighborhood, and I have no doubt they will come out if the County tries to jump the gun on enforcement before adequate notification and education is provided.

Of course this leads to a much deeper discussion of what is adequate and effective education that leads to changing people’s behavior, and when is it time to say enough is enough and start to use enforcement to change the behavior of those who refuse to be educated. Lots of shades of grey and differing timelines that need to be focused on different issues and geographies. For instance, I think the people in the Lake Whatcom Watershed have been educated pretty clearly and consistently for years so their timeline to enforcement needs to be shorter.  Each area and issue needs a careful communication plan, and the County needs to commit to stay the course. Previous efforts have been derailed early on when even the first efforts at notification and education have been responded to by anger and misinformation leading weak-kneed politicians to pull the plug on any meaningful water improvements. I suspect that is why I have never received anything letting me know I live in a Shoreline Zone.

Will this time be different? Well-designed initial education efforts, with input and involvement of those affected, are the first critical step. If done right this notification and education step can preclude the need for most enforcement, but in the past the County has not done this well. Are there other groups out there that could do this better, in a more inclusive manner, for some of these issues?  Before we can get into the weeds on who and how and where, the County Council needs to prioritize long-term money for this effort. We’ll see where that discussion goes on Tuesday.

See you there.


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