Whatcom County Council members embraced critics of a new slaughterhouse policy even as they pushed those critics away.
While dismissing some arguments against slaughterhouses on farmland as "ridiculous" or "hyperbole," council still voted unanimously Tuesday, Dec. 4, to delay a vote on the matter, saying more work was needed to ensure that large-scale slaughterhouses aren't built.
The proposed ordinance would allow slaughterhouses on agricultural land with nothing other than a building permit, as long as the building was no larger than 15,000 square feet. Larger slaughterhouses would require a public hearing.
Some opponents said the ordinance would open the door to factory livestock farms that would ruin the rural landscape. The detractors spoke at a public hearing on the ordinance Tuesday.
"What is proposed is not small-scale," said Tip Johnson of Friends of Whatcom County, a group that takes credit for closing Bellingham's Georgia-Pacific pulp and chemical plant in 2001.
"The proposal permits unrestrained slaughter and rendering facilities, and encourages factory farms across 88,000 acres," Johnson said, adding that the ordinance amounted to "willy-nilly industrial rezoning of the entire ag district."
Opponents at the hearing also spoke of the need to control waste from the slaughterhouses, something that would be challenging because farmland isn't serviced by sewer systems. Also, the 15,000-square-foot limit still provides enough room to handle 75,000 chickens a day, Johnson said.
Some council members took offense at the picture drawn by more fervent critics, of a pastoral setting overrun by factory farms and feed lots. The ordinance was written in response to a single application for a small slaughterhouse near Lynden.
"We're not that stupid up here," council member Ken Mann said. "That level of hyperbole, really, it undermines your argument."
Council Chairwoman Kathy Kershner, who had been frustrated at past meetings over the inability to reach a decision on the ordinance, agreed nonetheless with the rest of the council to give it still more consideration.
"Some of the arguments that we've heard tonight border on ridiculous," Kershner said. "But we can send it back to committee and see what we can do to make sure that the sky doesn't fall on Whatcom County if we have a slaughtering facility on our ag land."
That committee won't meet until January at the earliest.
Council member Carl Weimer said he liked the original proposal, which appeared to offer more certainty that a slaughterhouse would be truly small-scale.
That proposal called for all slaughterhouses to undergo a public hearing and to be limited to 10 employees. The county Planning Commission changed it to be more permissive. Some critics of the original proposal had said it would be overly burdensome to dairy or livestock farmers trying to make their operations more profitable.
"The original proposal ... was a very good proposal," Weimer said. "Unfortunately, when it got to our Planning Commission it took off on a new philosophical discussion about property rights."
Consensus among council members is that small slaughterhouses would be good for the county. The only thing left, in their view, is to make sure those slaughterhouses will be small.
"Our job is to respect the wisdom of the people in Whatcom County, and I think all of us agree a rural, agricultural setting and lifestyle and business is what this county's about," Mann said in an interview. "Turning it over to industrial meat packing facilities is not in anyone's vision."
Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at email@example.com or call 715-2298.