Whatcom Planning Commission to take comment on controversial rural well issue

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 10, 2013 

A potential disruption to rural life - a state ruling that could prevent new water wells from being drilled - looms so large that the Whatcom County Planning Commission in October refused to hold a hearing on the issue, saying it could undermine a pending court case.

The commission now appears ready to hear public comment on how the county has failed, according to the state Growth Management Hearings Board, to protect surface and ground water. The hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, even though the county has appealed the state board's ruling. Thursday's hearing will take place in the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.

The county missed a growth management board deadline to comply with its ruling. The county asked for an extension to February, and a hearing on the request will go before the state board on Dec. 18.

What needs to be resolved through the county appeal is whether the typical home well, a so-called "exempt" well, will face the same restrictions that are placed on water rights. The hearings board ruling could halt new wells in basins where new water rights aren't being issued. County officials say the board overstepped its authority with this ruling.

The state Department of Ecology has allowed wells on rural land after restrictions on water use were put in place in 1985 to protect salmon habitat.

Thursday's hearing is only about moving language about water protection that's in the county code into another document called the comprehensive plan - a change that is not substantive and has no bearing on the appeal, county officials said.

"There's no new regulations being proposed here," county planner Gary Davis said.

Changes made to the proposal before the Planning Commission since October have satisfied attorneys for developers who have a stake in the county's rural lands. They originally asked the commission not to hold a public hearing.

"This simple change will ... satisfy concerned landowners that the rules regarding the requirements for drilling a well have not changed significantly," wrote Jack Swanson of the Belcher Swanson law firm, in a Monday, Dec. 9, letter to the commission.

The Planning Commission will hold a second public hearing, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, on how much population growth should be allotted to Bellingham, Lynden, Ferndale and Blaine, and some areas outside the cities. Officials from these cities will give presentations before public comment is taken. If more time is needed, the public hearing on population allocations will continue at a January meeting, Davis said.

The allocations are preliminary and won't be finalized until 2016.

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

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