A proposal to allow slaughterhouses on Whatcom County farmland got a major rewrite this week, after the threat of a legal challenge. A group called Friends of Whatcom County has bombarded the county council with strongly worded emails opposing the proposed ordinance.
For the group, there simply is nothing worse than a slaughterhouse. The ill effects would be far-reaching, from extinction of Nooksack River chinook salmon to "bad karma," said Douglas Tolchin, director of research for Friends of Whatcom.
"Slaughter and rendering really are the most notoriously noisome land uses imaginable, with potentially terrible consequences for both human health and the environment," group member Tip Johnson wrote in a Jan. 7 email to the council.
Emails such as another one Johnson sent the council on Dec. 4, 2012, amounted to a thinly veiled threat to appeal the slaughterhouse ordinance to the Growth Management Hearings Board, which hears complaints about excessive growth outside of cities.
"You propose a willy-nilly industrial rezone of the entire (agricultural) district," Johnson wrote. "That is a laughingstock matter for the Growth Management Hearings Board. It's illegal. Don't do it."
The emails prompted council members to meet with county attorneys behind closed doors on Tuesday, Feb. 12. Immediately after that meeting, the council Planning and Development Committee met in public and introduced the new language.
"It was a very real threat of legal action against the county," council member Ken Mann said in an interview. "We take that seriously and took a close look at our ordinance in that light."
The new ordinance also takes into account criticisms from other citizens and members of the council. The intent of the latest version, according to Planning Manager Mark Personius, was to establish what the council has wanted all along - small, locally operated slaughterhouses.
Provisions of the new proposal, which are still subject to change:
-- Maximum building size of 5,000 square feet, or 10,000 for a larger category that requires a public hearing.
-- "Kill floor" limited to no more than 1,000 square feet, or 1,200 in the larger category.
-- A limit of six slaughterhouses on farmland.
-- Public notice to neighbors.
-- No processing of animal byproducts.
-- No poultry.
The changes were "a step in the right direction," Tolchin said, but he was suspicious of council's motives. The restrictive set of rules could be just enough to pass legal scrutiny, only to open the door to less regulated slaughterhouses, Tolchin said.
"If it goes forward, this establishes a precedent for what they really want, which is an unlimited number of relatively unregulated slaughterhouses," Tolchin said.
Council member Barbara Brenner said in an interview the ordinance may introduce too many regulations, but she might "hold my nose and vote for it."
"It would be nice to get something passed," Brenner said. "When it works out, we can look at it again in the future."
At the public meeting on Tuesday, more than a dozen people spoke about the latest slaughterhouse proposal. While some were opposed, several supported allowing small slaughterhouses as part of a local food movement.
Some farmers spoke for slaughterhouses but against a limit on the number allowed, as that would impede business growth.
"You can't preserve farmland without preserving the farmer first," said Jessica Elenbaas of Farmer Ben's in Lynden.
The council will hold a formal public hearing before considering a vote on the latest ordinance. The hearing date hasn't been announced.
Reach Ralph Schwartz at email@example.com or 360-715-2289. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.
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