Whatcom County hired high-powered attorneys to help fight appeals against the county's rural development rules, which are currently out of compliance with state law.
Some of the appellants had tried to talk the county out of the hire, suggesting free mediation instead.
In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, Dec. 4, the County Council added $50,000 to this year's budget to cover any legal bills from Van Ness Feldman GordonDerr, the Seattle firm that has been named multiple times to U.S. News and World Report's "Best Law Firm" list for land-use and zoning, among other areas.
The firm will give a discount to the county because it's a public entity. Rates are as high as $375 an hour. The one-year contract, not to exceed $50,000, starts Saturday, Dec. 15, and is renewable for up to two more years.
An attorney representing appellants in the dispute over how much development to allow on rural land - Eric Hirst, Laura Leigh Brakke, Wendy Harris and David Stalheim - sent an email to the council on Sunday, Dec. 2, urging it to reconsider bringing in outside counsel.
"The council and the public need to be aware that another, far cheaper option is available: mediated settlement negotiations," attorney Jean Melious wrote in the email. "We have strongly urged this path, and the (Growth Management) Hearings Board has provided several options for a pro bono (free) mediator."
"This proposal for the hurried approval of a 'war chest' does not present a very hopeful starting point for good faith settlement negotiations," Melious wrote.
At issue is a far-reaching piece of county legislation called the rural element, which covers everything from water quality to the size of commercial buildings.
On behalf of her clients, Melious wrote in a document filed with the Hearings Board in September that, among other issues, the county's development rules fail to protect valuable habitat in the Chuckanut wildlife corridor, and water quality in Lake Whatcom.
The board, which has been hearing cases on the county's rural element the past seven years, is expected to issue a ruling this month on whether the county's latest rewrite of the rules complies with the Growth Management Act. That's the state law enacted to limit urban sprawl and conserve the natural environment.
The board is almost certain to decide that some parts of the new rules remain out of compliance, and the case will need to continue. But mediation was an unpalatable option for some council members.
Barbara Brenner said the county has already met the appellants more than halfway in negotiations over the years.
"We give and we give and we give, and then we keep getting sued anyway," she said at Tuesday's meeting. "I'm getting tired of that. We were elected by the public, and I feel like we've got a diverse council with a lot of different perspectives, and we're supposed to be doing our job."
Brenner elaborated in an interview on Friday.
"It reaches a point where we have given up our authority to represent the people, and I don't think that's democracy," she said.
The council is frustrated with the appellants over the failure to make progress on the rules, leaving a lot of developers in limbo about what or whether they can build on their land. Even so, some on the council were willing to try mediation.
Chairwoman Kathy Kershner said in an interview that the council had not yet received advice from county attorneys about whether to enter into mediation with the appellants.
"We're not shutting the door on any options at this point," Kershner said at the meeting. "We're just lining up resources in case we need them."
She said the county wouldn't necessarily spend all of the $50,000.
Council member Ken Mann expressed skepticism at the meeting over mediation, calling it "a waste of time," but said later in an interview that he was only reflecting the general opinion of the council.
"I would love to go to mediation," Mann said. "Litigation is expensive and time-consuming, and distracts us from actual planning."