Bellingham postpones habitat-protection update to hear more from public

Environmentalists blasted city staff at a recent public hearing over proposed changes to rules intended to prevent development from encroaching on wildlife habitat and other critical features, such as steep slopes and flood zones.

City officials have responded by indefinitely postponing consideration of the critical areas ordinance. A meeting of the Planning Commission to discuss the ordinance, scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 5, was canceled.

The critical areas ordinance is almost 10 years old and due for some housekeeping, according to staff in the city’s Planning and Community Development Department. Planning staff came to a meeting of the Planning Commission on Jan. 15 with minor revisions to the ordinance, intended to keep up with changes at other levels of government and fix rules that were confusing or inconsistent for builders.

Staff was confronted by nearly a dozen speakers at the public hearing who were dissatisfied — some said resentful — over not being included in writing the first draft of the changes. Environmentalists said they were suspicious of a document that was written with no input from them and with the help of developers.

“We are free to choose who we want to be involved in these kinds of efforts,” city planner Steve Sundin told the Planning Commission and the critics in the audience. “We had what I would call a very diverse group of people helping us out with this and providing good input.”

Bob Burr, who has been active with the Green Party of Whatcom County, spoke at the hearing and took issue with a statement by Sundin that the city’s customers included developers, people looking to build homes on vacant lots, and homeowners who want to add a deck.

“I resent as a member of the public that I am not a customer of the city,” Burr said. “We’re the ones who the (critical areas ordinance) is supposed to protect. Developer stakeholders are those who seek permission to infringe on our protection.”

The changes proposed so far are technical, including an updated definition for “mature forested wetland,” and a clarification of the requirements for strips of vegetation along streams.

Some changes were made to avoid redundancy or add reasonableness to the rules, according to staff. For example, the same assessment of geological hazards is required for both the critical areas and building permits; the new rule would require the hazard check to be conducted only once.

Staff also would create a less expensive, less rigorous reporting requirement for projects that likely would have no impact on critical areas. The cost of a critical areas permit plus the report is about $2,000, Sundin said.

“What was happening too often was that the cost of permitting and reporting was outweighing the cost of the project itself for things that were benign or had no impacts,” he said.

Some of those who spoke at the public hearing said changes to the critical areas ordinance should go much further. Wendy Harris, an activist for habitat protections, said the critical areas ordinance and the city’s approach to updating it fall short of legal requirements.

“We need habitat open space and connectivity, and that’s not in this plan — and they are specific requirements of (state law),” Harris said.

“I think there’s been so many problems with this process,” Harris said, regarding what she said was insufficient public input so far. “Procedural issues are the No. 1 reason that jurisdictions and the work they do are found invalid by courts. So we really want to make sure we get our procedures right.”

The solution, Harris added, was to “start all over again” with the update. The process won’t be restarted, Sundin said in an interview on Thursday, Feb. 5.

At the meeting, senior planner Kurt Nabbefeld said the intent of this update never was to revisit the environmental protections in the critical areas ordinance.

“It is still a very good ordinance. It still does protect — it does do what it’s intended to do,” Nabbefeld said.

The update process is flexible enough for the Planning Commission to do a more substantial update of the critical areas ordinance if it chose, staff said.

“Maybe we need to do that. Maybe that’s what some of the comments are going to lead us to do,” Nabbefeld said.

Sundin also tried to assuage the concerns of the audience.

“We want to make clear that we are not in a rush to get this done,” Sundin said. “We are here to take the time it takes ... for you to be comfortable and put yourselves in a position to make a recommendation to council at some point.”

The city continues to take public comments on the update. The Planning Commission eventually will recommend a set of changes to the City Council for final approval.