A crowd of rural property owners responded to a call to appear before the Whatcom County Council on Tuesday, Jan. 28, to defend what they perceived to be a threat to the right to develop their land.
Council members beat the audience to the punch, announcing at the start of the meeting that they intended to continue to appeal a state board's ruling that could reduce or even put a halt to new wells on rural properties.
The council voted 7-0 to reaffirm its intention to stay on course with the appeal, which was scheduled to come before the state Court of Appeals. The overflow crowd of more than 200 people cheered in response.
"My daughter may now have a chance to live on my parcel," said Cheri McKay, who lives near Everson. "I'm trying to teach her to farm."
While the council was unanimous on the appeal, members were split over whether property owners were justified in their fears.
"I think a lot of people were very relieved, and justifiably so, because they had been misled into thinking the apocalypse was coming," council member Ken Mann said.
Mann said tea-party organizers stoked unwarranted fear in rural property owners. Conservatives were dealt a blow in November when four progressives won in elections for County Council.
"This issue of water is huge, but the idea that the tea party Republicans were putting out there was so far from the truth, and purely just a political gambit and an attempt to increase their mailing lists," Mann said.
Kris Halterman said the property owners' concerns were legitimate. She said her political action committee Save Whatcom had a small role in organizing the turnout at the council meeting.
"If you do not have access to water and the ability to get water, soon your property becomes worthless," Halterman said.
Council members Sam Crawford and Barbara Brenner also sympathized with the crowd.
"There's not a more urgent issue for people than water," Brenner said.
Members of the public were motivated by the belief that the hearings board's order would require property owners to prove their wells would not draw down nearby streams. The June 2013 order is vaguer, saying the county must do a better job of protecting water resources in its land-use rules. The county has several options for accomplishing that, the order said.
Crawford said he sees the issue as more black and white. If the hearings board order prevails in the courts, the county would not be able to allow wells on subdivision applications or building permits in rural areas, he said.
"Otherwise I don't know what we were appealing about," Crawford said. "If there are other options available to the county, I would like to try to understand what those are."
Even though the hearings board;s ruling does not necessarily imply a halt to new wells, Brenner said that is not enough to reassure rural residents.
"People can't get along on 'not necessarily' to buy a house," she said.
Mann and council member Carl Weimer said there was a kernel of truth in the concerns of residents.
"I'm kind of glad they're worried," Weimer said. "Sooner or later there's not going to be enough water in the streams, and someone's going to get turned off. And we may have already reached that in some places. Who knows?"