Progressives to shape Whatcom council priorities in 2014

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 30, 2013 

The four progressive candidates who swept into the Whatcom County Council in the Nov. 5 election have "no incoming agenda," said council member Ken Mann, but they have a shared vision and a lot of issues in common.

The council is sure to take a new direction after incumbents Mann and Carl Weimer join forces with newcomers Rud Browne and Barry Buchanan in 2014. Conservative council members Kathy Kershner and Bill Knutzen were ousted in the election, ending the conservatives' narrow majority.

Of the other members on the seven-person council, Sam Crawford has a conservative voting record. Pete Kremen is a moderate, and Barbara Brenner defies political pigeonholing.

That leaves the progressive foursome to shape the council's identity.

"There's nothing organized about what we're going to do, but certainly I think we're aligned on a lot of issues," Mann said. "We have a lot of the same goals and are willing to try some of the same approaches that maybe didn't have traction in the past."

One idea tossed around but not implemented in the past four years was a transfer of development rights program, which would enable landowners outside of the city to sell their rights to build homes to developers, who then could increase housing density in Bellingham.

Such a program was considered in 2010 as a solution to development pressures in the Lake Whatcom watershed. Development is a major source of phosphorus pollution in the lake, which provides drinking water to about half the county's population.

Progressives and conservatives alike have backed the transfer concept. Mann likes it for its potential to reduce rural development. Conservatives prefer a transfer program to the other option discussed to reduce rural growth, which would be to rezone properties for fewer homes without compensating the owners.

The extremely right-wing political climate over the past four years has been an obstacle to a transfer program, Mann said.

"Some people don't want to see any type of intervention in the property market," Mann said. "I understand that instinct, but it's unrealistic to think that government and the people don't have a role to play in how we grow and how we protect our natural-resource lands."

Weimer said he also supports a transfer program, as did Browne and Buchanan.

Bellingham's City Council also would need to approve such a program. Weimer said city leaders back the concept as well, although it has yet to be determined whether the program would pencil out financially.

"There's some alignment there," Weimer said. "The devil's in the details."

At a campaign rally in September attended by the four progressive county candidates, Weimer co-opted a conservative talking point.

"We are the job creators," Weimer told the small crowd at the Teamsters/Sierra Club rally in Bellingham.

All four candidates were successful businessmen, Browne perhaps most of all. He started Ryzex, a Bellingham-based company that at its peak employed 360 people.

Weimer said the new council will make economic development a priority, with Browne taking the lead. Mann and Browne both said the council would reach out to investors in lower British Columbia.

The county is well positioned as "a gateway for Canadian businesses looking to expand their manufacturing into the U.S. market," Browne said in an email.

"We can offer British Columbian investors something truly unique and valuable: the opportunity to employ and train U.S. workers during the day and then return home to B.C. to enjoy dinner with their families every night," Browne wrote.

Weimer and Mann were on the losing end of a vote in September to allow slaughterhouses on agricultural land - a controversial decision that has been appealed to the state Growth Management Hearings Board. The council vote was 4 to 3, and two of the "yes" votes won't be on the council in 2014.

The slaughterhouse rules that passed were an example of a compromise that won't work, Mann said.

"I am open to revisiting the slaughterhouse ordinance," he said. "I don't think anyone got what they wanted."

Mann said the ordinance is too permissive.

"I'd like to figure out a way to make it a smoother process for the mom-and-pop-type slaughterhouse, for the small-scale, as was originally intended," he said.

Crawford said he has grown weary of the slaughterhouse issue, which the council debated for more than a year.

"I dread the thought of even having to go back and review that," he said.

If the council's progressive bloc is intent on making changes, Crawford said, it should go slowly. Changes in land-use rules, known as zoning, are intended to be deliberate and take at least a year to complete, he said.

"I would suggest when people come into office they take a deep breath, get a feel for the lay of the land, then over time work toward implementing some change if that's their desire," Crawford said.

The council will need to devote a lot of time over the next two years to updating the county's 20-year planning document, called the comprehensive plan, Crawford said. The council also needs to chart a course toward funding and constructing a new jail, after the council agreed in November to purchase a 39-acre Ferndale property for it.

The council will almost certainly need to ask voters for a tax increase of some kind to pay for the new jail.

"It was a big step to acquire the property," Crawford said, "but that is just the very beginning of what is going to be a long and arduous process."

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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