Civic Agenda: Whatcom County planning agency works to cut permit time


Many people are not aware of the large variety of work tasked to staff at Whatcom County's Planning and Development Services. The department is responsible for long-range planning including comprehensive planning, rezones and amendments to the zoning code, creating and maintaining all GIS planning maps, and involvement in numerous advisory and inter-governmental coordination groups. The current planning section deals with zoning interpretations, conditional use applications, variances, major development permits and subdivisions. The permit center answers general questions and processes all types of permits, including natural resource and building permits. The building services division answers questions regarding life safety codes, conducts plan review and field inspection of approved plans, works on fire review, co-shares arson investigation responsibility with the Sheriff's Office, and also works with Northwest Clean Air administering burn permits. Numerous staff work daily on State Environmental Policy Act distributions and determinations, called SEPAs, and are very involved with major projects such as the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal project and the proposed county jail SEPAs.

Long-range planning addresses growth management issues and prepares information that is then presented to the Planning Commission, a group of community minded volunteers, for review and recommendation before being sent to the County Council for their discussion and potential adoption. The most recent large public process is achieving compliance with the Growth Management Hearings Board rulings on the rural element of the Comprehensive Plan. This task has gone on for 10 years and still has not been completely resolved. The remaining issues have made part of the county zoning invalid causing development in certain areas to halt until the county is deemed in compliance with the Growth Management Act. Noncompliance has an effect on the economy, future development, predictability, and results in uncertainty for property owners in the agriculture and rural zones.

The permit center takes in all of the permits for the unincorporated parts of Whatcom County, including discretionary as well as building permits. These are reviewed for compliance with the Critical Areas Ordinance, Shorelines Master Program, Title 20 (zoning), Title 17 (flood), and all life safety codes. Last year the permit center processed 1,923 permits including 189 new single family residential permits.

The department is continually looking for ways to improve on its processes. Earlier this year an advisory group headed by our long-range planning team was organized to review the zoning ordinance and recommend improvements to clarify and improve understanding of the county's zoning regulations. In addition to this activity Planning and Development Services was fortunate to be chosen by the Washington State Auditor's Office Local Government Performance Center to participate in their Lean Academy. The academy provided training to management and team leaders on what "Lean" means and provided a facilitator to lead 18 staff members through a full week of training and exercises to develop a system aimed at improving the process for building permit review. The approach is from bottom up with the staff who are responsible for the residential permit reviews working together to figure out how to improve the process. Their goal was to find a way to reduce building permit process time from an average of 30 days down to 15 - a 50 percent reduction.

This is a major change and staff stepped up to the plate by detailing all areas of waste in the review process and defining ways of getting rid of that waste. They have determined what each person can do, eliminated the linear process (routing permits to each person/section that needed to review it) and replaced it with the permit center where all reviews are completed simultaneously. If additional information is required only one letter goes out, a consolidation of any outstanding items.

Staff is continuing to "try storm" (try it and if it doesn't work, try something else). The team is following up with an implementation plan for 30-, 60- and 90-day reports that focus on what went well and what still needs work. Implementation began on May 20, 2013. New checklists have been developed to assist both staff and the public determine what reviews will be necessary. Also, pre-development site inspections have helped the public know in advance of any natural resource assessments that may be applicable before submitting a permit application. Incomplete applications are not accepted, which means they are not sitting in limbo. Of the first 16 permit applications since this change, seven were reviewed in full and issued within one day. Planning and Development Services is committed to successfully administering this process improvement, and will continue improving more processes in the future.


This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports. Sam Ryan is director of Whatcom County Planning and Development Services. If you have questions regarding the department's work, call 360-676-6907 or email The Bellingham Herald invited Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws to provide to share updates about Whatcom County issues and projects. He invites citizens to contact him at 360-676-6717 or

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