Some on Whatcom Council optimistic of settlement in water disputes; council still funds legal fight

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 26, 2014 

The Whatcom County Council approved $40,000 on Tuesday, March 25, to pay an outside law firm to fight two rulings that struck down county development rules.

The state Growth Management Hearings Board found that the county violated state law by not doing enough to protect Whatcom's rural character. The cases focus on water quality and quantity, and the eventual court decisions could help determine how difficult it will be for rural landowners to get approval to build a home and drill a water well.

The issues are complex and would take years to resolve in the courts. After Tuesday night's vote, the council had authorized $140,000 so far to pay Seattle firm Van Ness Feldman GordonDerr for cases before the Hearings Board and a state Court of Appeals, to fend off challenges by a group of four people and the anti-sprawl group Futurewise.

More money would certainly be needed to bring the case to the state Supreme Court, where some county officials say it likely would go.

The case may not need to go that far. A Futurewise attorney emailed county attorneys on Tuesday morning with a settlement offer that some council members said was promising.

"The indications from the plaintiffs are making it clear that settlement is possible," council member Carl Weimer said before the vote to fund the Seattle firm. "(It) will be quicker than legal and cheaper in the long run, and I can't support the $40,000."

All other council members expressed support for the funding.

Council member Ken Mann said in a Tuesday morning committee meeting that he, too, was optimistic of a settlement.

"It's very reasonable to think we can come to a settlement or agreement with these folks," he said.

While the settlement proposal was written by Futurewise, the group of private citizens also supports it, said David Stalheim, who is one of the four people, along with Laura Leigh Brakke, Eric Hirst and Wendy Harris.

At the Tuesday evening meeting, Mann wanted to be clear that he still supported the appeal. He was part of a unanimous council vote to continue the appeal in front of a room full of private well owners in January.

"I support the legal case that we have, absolutely," Mann said Tuesday evening. "I've never been talking about backing out. ... I think we're going to win."

It's unclear how complete the settlement would be. Futurewise's letter only addresses water quality problems; dirty stormwater and faulty septic systems were mentioned. At least as controversial is the issue of water quantity - the part of the dispute that has motivated rural residents to show up at council meetings.

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

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