Tighter slaughterhouse rules in Whatcom County pave way for settlement talks

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 12, 2014 

Rules passed five months ago allowing slaughterhouses on Whatcom County farmland took 15 months and four public hearings to approve. But the County Council wasn't finished.

The council revisited the slaughterhouse rules on Tuesday, Feb. 11, and voted 5-2 to make them more restrictive.

The change requires all agricultural slaughterhouse applicants to get a "conditional use" permit, which brings the application before the county hearings examiner to face a public hearing. The original rules allowed slaughterhouses smaller than 7,000 square feet to be approved without public review.

The leading voices on the majority said they wanted to get the rules right this time. One council member said he also wanted to bring a group challenging the agricultural slaughterhouse ordinance to the negotiating table.

Citizens Nicole Brown, Wendy Harris and Tip Johnson filed a petition with the Growth Management Hearings Board in November, arguing that allowing slaughterhouses on farmland violated county rules mandating the preservation of agriculture and the protection of water quality.

"I'm hoping (the changes) might help prevent us from having to spend a lot of money on outside lawyers defending that," council member Carl Weimer said.

Terry Wechsler, the attorney representing the petitioners, said her side wants the same thing.

"It was always our goal to reach a settlement with the county and avoid the necessity of a hearing," Wechsler wrote in an email to The Bellingham Herald. "With the lifting of the threat of vesting of permits (under the old rules), we anticipate moving forward to reach resolution as quickly as possible."

A hearing on the citizens' petition is scheduled to go before the Growth Management Hearings Board on March 31.

The council majority agreed with Bob Aegerter, a retired environmental planner who spoke at Tuesday's public hearing before the vote to change the ordinance.

"I believe that the slaughterhouse ought to be a conditional use to make sure environmental review is adequate and to make sure neighbors have a chance to speak," Aegerter said.

The original ordinance, passed during fiercely contested county elections, was corrupted by campaign politics, council member Ken Mann said. Mann won re-election in November 2013 after a campaign that included aggressive attacks by the Whatcom Democratic Party on "tea party Republicans" who voted for the slaughterhouse ordinance in September. Mann voted against the ordinance and was endorsed by the county Democrats.

"Nobody liked this ordinance when we voted on it," Mann said Tuesday, adding that the original goal of allowing small "mom and pop" slaughterhouses was lost during several rewrites of the ordinance.

Mann still wants to salvage something of the original intention behind allowing slaughterhouses on farmland. In the unincorporated county, the facilities had been limited to manufacturing and industrial zones.

"I would like to see it be easier for small-scale agricultural slaughterhouses," Mann said.

Council members Barbara Brenner and Sam Crawford voted against the added restrictions.

"Conditional use doesn't streamline anything. It doesn't make it easier," Brenner said. "It makes it more expensive and convoluted."

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

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