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For the fourth time, Whatcom County Council curbs building that relies on rural wells

Whatcom County residents sound off on Hirst decision, county moratorium

For the fourth time, the County Council is restricting new rural developments that rely on domestic wells in Whatcom County, in response to a controversial Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision. These county residents spoke at a public
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For the fourth time, the County Council is restricting new rural developments that rely on domestic wells in Whatcom County, in response to a controversial Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision. These county residents spoke at a public

For the fourth time, the County Council is restricting new rural developments that rely on domestic wells in Whatcom County.

On Tuesday, the council voted 6-1 for the six-month extension. Council member Barbara Brenner voted “no.”

This moratorium runs another six months, ending in April – it replaces the existing six-month restriction that ends Oct. 30.

The council’s actions were in response to a state Supreme Court ruling in October 2016 that required the county to make sure there was enough water – both legally and physically – in streams for fish and those holding senior water rights.

The court ruling, known as the Hirst decision, reached beyond Whatcom to other counties, which also have placed restrictions on new developments in rural areas that rely on what are known as permit-exempt wells.

Property owners in rural Whatcom County have been upset and frustrated because they can’t build homes on their land without access to drinking water.

Todd Beld, who spoke to the County Council prior to its decision on Tuesday, is among them. He wondered why city water supplies also haven’t been restricted.

“You’re putting a closed sign on Whatcom County,” Beld said. “If we can’t use the water in the county then, doggonit, Bellingham and every other city shouldn’t be able to expand their populations and use more water.”

Other audience members criticized the County Council and said they would vote out council members in November if they didn’t do something.

“A couple of people came up and said ‘do something, do something.’ I wish we could do something. This is well above our pay grade,” said Council member Ken Mann – he said he didn’t agree with the high court’s decision but that didn’t change the fact that the Supreme Court was the supreme law of Washington state.

Mann said one of the reasons he wasn’t seeking re-election was because it was “extremely frustrating to have a bunch of people really angry at you for something that you don’t actually have say over.”

Bret Espey of Bellingham testified before a state House committee Tuesday, March 28 that rural property owners are "collateral damage" from the recent state Supreme Court decision involving water rights and the use of domestic wells.

Council member Rud Browne, responding to accusations the county didn’t put up a fight, reminded the audience the County Council spent $300,000 to fight the court case all the way to the Supreme Court. “I think that’s been forgotten,” he said.

Wendy Harris, one of the people who was part of the Hirst lawsuit, said if the county allowed people to take water for the homes they’d like to build “what you’re essentially doing is stealing from the people that are senior water users.”

“What’s going to happen next is very predictable,” Harris said. “They’re going to be the next wave coming in here, screaming at you saying ‘I had a water right. Why did you let someone take it?’”

The council continues to look to the state Legislature – though that effort has stalled in Olympia – which members hope can remedy the fallout from the court’s decision that said Whatcom County failed to protect water resources as required by the Growth Management Act.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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