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‘Road show’ to get public feedback on Whatcom County’s 20-year plan

“What would you prefer Whatcom County to look like in the year 2036?”

The League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County and RE Sources for Sustainable Communities hope the question will inspire people to contribute to an update of the county’s comprehensive plan. After all, “What do you want included in the 2016 comp plan update?” may not generate much interest.

Technically speaking, that’s what officials want to hear from the public as they work over the next 15 months to meet a mid-2016 deadline to rewrite the county’s 20-year planning document.

The League and RE Sources have teamed up to offer comp plan road shows to interested organizations: neighborhoods, churches, granges — “anyone in the county that would be interested in having us come and talk,” said Ann Russell, a RE Sources program manager.

“Any issue that people are concerned about, it’s probably either impacted by growth, or it has to do with how and where we grow,” Russell said.

Whether people want more good jobs or want to save the environment, their issues are addressed in the comprehensive plan.

The county’s plan is a requirement of the state Growth Management Act, which guides development with 13 goals. The goals generate plenty of friction in a divided community such as Whatcom County, which is split roughly along Bellingham’s periphery between people who want the government to improve environmental protections and people who say those protections amount to over-regulation.

The Growth Management Act’s goals cater to both types. Alongside “protect the environment” and “reduce sprawl” are goals such as “encourage economic development” and “protect property rights.”

RE Sources falls on the environmental side of this divide. The group sued SSA Marine, the developer of a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point, for filling wetlands without a permit and took BNSF Railway to court for spilling coal dust into state waters. RE Sources also has patrolled farms and other properties, looking for water-pollution violations.

Conservative candidates for County Council in 2013 shunned a forum organized by RE Sources and another environmental organization because the candidates, including farmer Ben Elenbaas of Lynden, said the groups worked against the interests of farmers and other property owners.

“I support some of their stated goals,” including farmland preservation, Elenbaas said in July 2013, “but I just don’t support their tactics.”

Despite RE Sources’ reputation, the organization and the League of Women Voters both emphasized that the road show will be neutral territory.

“Our board felt we could make this work without introducing bias,” said Judy Hopkinson of the League, adding that her organization will “be a watchdog” to make sure a strictly environmentalist point of view does not come out of the meetings.

“I really hope it is more than just really progressive groups in Bellingham (participating) because that wouldn’t be fair to the Planning Commission,” the county advisory body that will receive the comments from the road shows, Hopkinson said. All public comments will filter up to the County Council, which will ultimately approve changes to the comprehensive plan.

The Planning Commission currently is going through the plan chapter by chapter. It next meets on April 9 in the Northwest Annex Conference Room, 5280 Northwest Drive, Bellingham.

Russell of RE Sources offered similar assurance.

“If we are actually making an effort as a community to explore shared values and get as much input as we can, we can balance our input as a county,” Russell said. “When it comes down to it, we are one county and we have one comp plan.”

Debbie VanderVeen, president of the Whatcom County Farm Bureau, said farmers should participate in the road shows.

“I encourage people to attend the RE Sources and League of Women Voters’ road show because hearing from every angle is always best,” she said. “All events are better if you have people who are respecting each other’s comments, and listening and learning.”

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