Despite overture, Whatcom council remains firm in opposition to anti-sprawl groups

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 22, 2013 

Some members of the Whatcom County Council wanted to call a truce on eight years of disputes over the rules that govern development in rural areas.

A majority of the council, however, voted Tuesday, June 18, to continue the fight. The council also authorized another $40,000 to a Seattle law firm helping the county defend itself against a proliferation of claims that it allows too much growth on rural land.

As of last month, the county had spent almost all of the $50,000 initially set aside for the firm, county invoices showed. The firm, Van Ness Feldmann GordonDerr, in April unsuccessfully defended the county's practice of allowing residential wells to be drilled without safeguarding nearby streams.

The council's Tuesday vote was 5 to 2 to appeal the Growth Management Hearings Board's June 7 order to the county to tighten its rules on new wells. Council members Ken Mann and Carl Weimer opposed the appeal.

Mann said his vote wasn't because the county wouldn't have a good case.

"That was not an easy call for me," Mann said in an interview Friday, June 21. "It was not as much on the merits of the case as it was on the insanity that is our lust for litigation."

Mann indicated that the council was feeding that lust when, on Tuesday, it voted 5 to 2 on an ordinance changing the county's rural-growth rules that Mann said would surely be rejected. By refusing to take certain rural properties out of commercial use, the county was directly contradicting a January order from the state hearings board.

Mann and Weimer voted against the ordinance, which was due to the hearings board by July 3.

"I think people's positions have hardened, and that is exactly when you should step back and see if there's a better way instead of fighting, and I believe there is," Mann said.

The challengers to the county's rural rules, Futurewise and a quartet of citizens that includes David Stalheim, asked council Tuesday to halt work on the rural rules and to negotiate with them to settle the appeals.

"I'm kind of hoping that there will be four reasonable minds (on the council) who will sit down and talk about this because actually, you're pretty close on a lot of these issues," Stalheim said.

Mann, Weimer and council member Pete Kremen said they would agree to settlement talks.

"They asked for four reasonable voices. It sounds like there's three of us up here. Is there one more?" Weimer said.

No one else wanted to settle immediately. Council chairwoman Kathy Kershner spoke in favor of approving the ordinance and considering negotiations later.

"If the folks at Futurewise want to tell us that we're still not in compliance and want to work with it, then we can work with it," Kershner said.

The hearings board is the body that will tell the county whether it is out of compliance, maybe four months after the county submits its latest version of rural rules.

"The county isn't even pretending that it complied," said Jean Melious, the attorney representing challengers Stalheim, Eric Hirst, Laura Leigh Brakke and Wendy Harris. "What a gigantic waste of taxpayers' money, to pay lawyers to go before the hearings board to say, 'No, we didn't comply.'"

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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