Those who think zoning decisions aren't political haven't been paying attention in Whatcom County.
For eight years, the county has been in a fight over how much growth to allow in land zoned "rural," and the latest ordinance setting the rural-growth rules, due July 3, will be its fourth attempt to comply with state law.
Property owners and conservationists are tugging at Whatcom County Council members from opposite directions.
Council has heard from progressive citizens, represented by Bellingham attorney Jean Melious, who are concerned about sustainable water use, the public cost of urban sprawl into rural areas, and the harm done to city businesses when retail is allowed in the county.
For many of the same reasons, council members have heard from Futurewise, a watchdog group that takes legal action if it believes a local government isn't following the Growth Management Act.
Individual property owners also have stated their case: If the county strips their land of its commercial designation, that would amount to a "taking" of the land. This, they say, is also illegal under the Growth Management Act.
The council debate over the next month promises to be heated, and members have already staked their positions.
Council member Bill Knutzen is looking out for people such as Doug Pullar and Sam Boulos, property owners who cannot develop their commercial properties as they intended, due to rulings by the state Growth Management Hearings Board.
Pillar owns 13.5 acres on Guide Meridian, three miles north of Walmart. Boulos has owned a lot across Interstate 5 from Birch Bay Square, at the corner of Birch Bay-Lynden Road and Valley View Road, for 23 years. He's been waiting for the right time to build a gas station there.
"It's absurd to me, what we've done, to especially these commercial properties," Knutzen said. "People saved up money and bought a piece of commercial property. Now they're being told they can build a house on the Guide."
The planning commission took a politically conservative approach to the rural rulemaking, repeatedly citing in its conclusions the primacy of property rights. The loss incurred by the individual property owner in these cases is greater than any benefit to the community, the commission said.
Knutzen said that approach was still was too conciliatory because the commission agreed to remove some commercial zoning.
"I'll have a hard time supporting any of this," he said.
Council member Carl Weimer, who has been most supportive of the position of anti-sprawl groups, said the planning commission's conclusions were "clearly erroneous" - a legal term that means they should be dismissed.
Melious said state law is clear on these property cases: "We need to encourage development within cities to discourage sprawl outside cities, and that's what these individual decisions come down to."
Others on the council just seem ready to be done with this long legal dispute.
"For me, this is not even about preventing sprawl," council member Ken Mann said. "This is not about anything other than, we need to get in compliance."
Council members Barbara Brenner, Kathy Kershner and Sam Crawford have made statements sympathetic to the planning commission.
"We're kind of punishing the people that have held off on developing and sort of rewarding the people that developed early, when there was less environmental regulation," Crawford said.
"I think it's a shame the state got into the growth planning business anyway. I don't think it works," he said.
Regardless of any council member's opinion, state laws are there to be followed, Melious said.
"When you become a county council member, you don't get to decide what bodies you get to obey," she said.
ATTEND THE MEETING
What: Whatcom County Council will introduce an ordinance to comply with state rural-growth rules.
When: 9:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 4.
Where: County Council Chambers, 311 Grand Ave. in Bellingham.
More information: Go to this Whatcom County Council webpage and click on "AB2013-180."