Whatcom County required to improve protections for drinking water and rural Whatcom County

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On January 9, 2012, the Growth Management Hearings Board issued a 177 page opinion concluding that Whatcom County’s updated comprehensive plan policies and development regulations for the rural area failed to meet the minimum standards in the Growth Management Act. The appeal was brought by Futurewise, the City of Bellingham, and concerned community residents in response to a developer that wanted to build an intense urban style development at Governors Point on Puget Sound.

On January 9, 2012, the Growth Management Hearings Board issued a 177 page opinion concluding that Whatcom County’s updated comprehensive plan policies and development regulations for the rural area failed to meet the minimum standards in the Growth Management Act (GMA) to protect the water quality of Lake Whatcom, the drinking water source for Bellingham and other communities, and failed to protect the character that makes rural Whatcom County a great place to live.  The appeal was brought by Futurewise, the City of Bellingham, and concerned community residents in response to a developer that wanted to build an intense urban style development at Governors Point on Puget Sound.

The Hearing Board found three broad categories of GMA violations in response to Futurewise’s challenge.  First, building on Futurewise’s win before the Washington State Supreme Court’s in the 2011 Kittitas County decision, the Hearings Board concluded that the Whatcom County comprehensive plan did not include standards to protect the rural area from overdevelopment, to protect the visual character of the rural area, to protect fish and wildlife habitats, and to protect surface and ground water quality including Lake Whatcom.  In making this decision, the Hearings Board cited to evidence Futurewise provided documenting that the densities that the county allowed would continue to pollute lakes and rivers, allow salt water to intrude into wells that supply drinking water along Puget Sound, allow septic tanks to contaminate surface and ground water, and exacerbate the overuse of surface and ground water.  The Hearings Board required Whatcom County to address these issues in its comprehensive plan.

Second, the Hearings Board found that Whatcom County’s newly adopted policies and regulations for allowing more intense uses in already developed parts of the rural area failed to comply with the GMA’s requirements.  These areas are referred to as limited areas of more intense rural development, or LAMIRDs.  The Hearings Board concluded the policies and regulations allowed too much land in LAMIRDs and did not properly manage the size and types of uses allowed in the LAMIRDs to protect rural Whatcom County from overdevelopment.  The Board found Whatcom County’s method of designating LAMIRDs and accommodating the allowable uses “laborious and convoluted.”  Again, Whatcom County is required to amend their policies and development regulations to comply with the GMA.

Third, Futurewise and the other challengers agreed that the county did a good job of siting many of the LAMIRDs.  However, the Hearings Board agreed with Futurewise and the other challengers that some of the LAMIRDs were oversized and included land that did not qualify as LAMIRDs.  In particular, the Board found the LAMIRDs adjacent to urban growth areas and on Eliza Island violated the GMA.  Again, the county is required to fix these violations.

The Board also found that some of the densities allowed in the Lake Whatcom watershed were so high they would lead to increased pollution of this important drinking water source.  In response to the developer’s challenge, the Hearings Board concluded that Governors Point was properly zoned for rural densities and the county was not required designate it as a LAMIRD and allow higher densities.

Futurewise has been working on the Whatcom County comprehensive plan update to better protect drinking water, the water quality of Puget Sound and the county’s lakes and rivers, and to encourage development in the county’s cities since 2004.  One of the strengths of Futurewise, with its broad statewide membership, professional staff, and your support, is that we can work on these issues over many years.  This is just the latest in a series of Growth Management Hearings Board and court wins dating back to 2005 on Whatcom County issues.

The Growth Management Hearings Hearing Board’s latest Whatcom County decision is Futurewise et al. v. Whatcom County, GMHBWWR Case No. 11-2-0010c, Final Decision and Order & GMHBWWR Case No. 05-2-0013, Order Following Remand on Issue of LAMIRDs (Jan. 9, 2012).  You can download a copy of the Board’s decision at: http://www.gmhb.wa.gov/LoadDocument.aspx?did=2790


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