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Following state measure, Whatcom lifts restrictions on building that relies on wells

Whatcom County Courthouse in Bellingham.
Whatcom County Courthouse in Bellingham. eabell@bhamherald.com

The County Council has temporarily ended restrictions on new rural developments that rely on domestic wells in Whatcom County, allowing frustrated property owners to once again apply for permits to build their homes.

“What the bill does is lines us up with newly adopted state law,” County Executive Jack Louws said in an interview.

The council’s approval of an emergency ordinance on Tuesday lifted what had been the fourth temporary moratorium the council put in place in response to a state Supreme Court ruling in October 2016, known as the Hirst decision, which required the county to make sure there was enough water – both legally and physically – in streams for fish and those holding senior water rights before allowing developments that depend on what are known as permit-exempt wells.

The local restrictions were replaced by temporary rules, lasting for 60 days, that bring the county into line with what has been called the Hirst fix, which the Legislature passed in January.

The council did so by a vote of 6-1, with council member Todd Donovan voting no. Donovan wanted more time to consider the rules, indicating his issue was with a rushed process that he felt wasn’t good governance.

That measure – and another one that would extend those temporary measures for six months – have a public hearing at the next council meeting on Feb. 13. A six-month extension would allow the county to work on permanent land-use rules.

The Hirst case originated in Whatcom County but had statewide implications.

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.

Since the Supreme Court ruling, property owners in rural Whatcom County have been upset because they couldn’t build homes on their land without access to drinking water.

They’ve vented their anger and shared their fear at County Council meetings.

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

“I’m relieved,” Louws said Wednesday. “My job is to follow the laws of the state of Washington and of Whatcom County. As the administrator, I don’t get to pick and choose which ones I like and which ones I don’t like. It’s difficult to have to say no to people.”

The state measure essentially reversed the Supreme Court’s decision, allowing counties to once again rely on Washington state Department of Ecology rules for water resources and Whatcom County to start issuing building permits for projects that depend on such wells.

Other aspects of the new state law include:

▪ In Whatcom County, a maximum of 3,000 gallons a day can be drawn from wells constructed after Jan. 19, 2018, when the state law went into effect.

▪ A $500 fee for new wells.

▪ Two pilot projects that would measure water use in other areas of the state, though the Hirst fix doesn’t require metering.

▪ Approval of an updated watershed plan for the Nooksack, also known as WRIA 1, by Feb. 1, 2019. If the county doesn’t approve one to improve instream flows and salmon habitat by then, Ecology must adopt one by Aug. 1, 2020.

▪ $300 million for water conservation projects throughout the state.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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