Whatcom, challengers talk settlement in closely watched water dispute


Both sides in a controversial dispute over access to water in Whatcom County have said they wanted to meet and possibly reach agreement before the issue goes to court. County officials, Futurewise and an attorney for a group of conservation-minded citizens met on Jan. 24 to explore settlement of the case, which is about to go before a state Court of Appeals.

No progress was made at the settlement meeting, according to those who attended and a council member briefed on the talks. County attorney Karen Frakes said the meeting shouldn't even be called a settlement discussion.

"This was what I would characterize as an exploratory or informational meeting, not a negotiation," Frakes said.

Futurewise and the four citizens - Eric Hirst, Laura Leigh Brakke, Wendy Harris and David Stalheim - have accused the county of failing to adequately protect water quality and quantity in the rural areas. In June 2013, the state Growth Management Hearings Board agreed and required the county to better protect the water supply by limiting or conserving its use.

The exact outcome of the board's order, if it stands, is not known. Rural residents fear the state and county will not allow them to drill new wells on undeveloped lots for future homes.

The County Council is challenging the state order and reaffirmed its intention to continue the appeal in a unanimous vote on Tuesday, Jan. 28.

Council member Ken Mann said he voted to continue the appeal in part because he was told the settlement meeting was not fruitful. He did not attend the meeting himself but was briefed on it.

"The impression ... was a settlement would look like what they would get if they won in court, and that's not something we could tolerate," Mann said. "We have no choice but to continue to fight the ruling."

Jean Melious, the attorney for the citizens group, disagreed with Mann's account of the meeting and said there is a way forward in settlement discussions. Futurewise attorney Tim Trohimovich also was at the meeting.

"Tim and I presented a range of ideas and proposals, which we believed were well-received," Melious said in an email to The Bellingham Herald. "The county did not reject any of our ideas and did not tell us that it viewed any of our suggestions as unreasonable. Because the county did not present any ideas or proposals, it cannot be said that we rejected any reasonable approach to a path forward."

"These are not easy issues to address, and it was (and remains) our assumption that it will take more than one discussion to address them," Melious wrote.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2289. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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

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