Politics Blog

Whatcom candidates consider regulation vs. property rights

I didn’t have time on Wednesday to post the third of five Q&A’s with the four candidates vying for a seat on the Whatcom County Council, District 1. So today offers a two-fer. First, what do candidates Bruce Ayers, Todd Donovan, Theresa Sygitowicz and Emily Weaver think about the recent internal disputes and legal battles over how much development to allow in rural areas?

The dynamic around this issue has been a little complicated. Groups and individuals seeking to preserve Whatcom County’s natural resources and quality of life — at least their vision of it — challenged County Council rules that they said allowed too much growth in rural areas. A state Growth Management Hearings Board agreed, resulting in multiple rulings that the county was not in compliance with the Growth Management Act because it failed to protect rural character.

A conservative Planning Commission and the conservatives on the council pushed back, arguing that compliance with a flawed hearings board wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted to see property owners be able to cash in on their investment on land in the rural zones, sort of as a basic right.

While most of the issues in this decade-long fight have been resolved, some of it lingers, including a case currently before the state Supreme Court concerning whether the county has allowed too much development on rural five- and 10-acre parcels such that residential wells are depleting the water available for fish and other “users” in the Nooksack basin.

In the highly partisan, nonpartisan County Council elections, this question is a good litmus test for voters who have been known to cast their ballots on this very issue. The conservatives won the 2009 county elections because property-rights advocates got out the vote.


Council has been pulled in two directions the past several years. Rural property owners have asserted their rights to develop and benefit from their land without unexpected downzoning. On the other hand, certain citizens and environmental groups are pressuring the council to clamp down on rural development to protect water quality and quantity. How would you resolve this dispute?


Theresa Sygitowicz, age 65:

It is very important that we consider all interests when creating policy to protect our water quality. Rural property is key to any water policy of the future, including those of conservation and quality. It is important that all stakeholders be included in this process. We need to have an open and transparent process.


Todd Donovan, 52:

Property owners need certainty and predictability about what they can do with their land. For decades, county councils have complicated this by granting or proposing upzones and inappropriate densities in places where such densities were not legally defensible. Rather than establishing certainty by adjusting policies to comply with state law, we have had councils drag the process out for years. We can resolve many of these disputes by finally adopting zoning policies and development standards that survive legal challenges. It’s time to move forward.


Emily Weaver, 61:

We are just 25 years into the GMA, that is a really short time to accept changes but I believe agriculture can make this the very best community anyone could ask to live in. Farmers love their land and are constantly trying to make it more sustainable for future generations, but it is not easy. Families have to live close and have homes to support the farm as well as rotate crops to make enough to support the help necessary to get the job done.

Investment in land is really hard in an area that is highly desired as a new home for many newcomers. We are just now realizing that our Pacific Northwest climate and rainwater, and groundwater resources may even have more pressure going forward. I don't believe the issues are downzoning but addressing looking at the farm and an economic multiplier that is properly evaluated in the review of comprehensive plans. It is not us and them unless we want to stop eating anytime soon. Farmers adapt for resource management all the time but they need to know that the investment has a possibility of return for their heirs and the families that will continue to do this work in the future. As a community we need to support this. All jobs use water. When the University increased its enrollment, when we develop our downtown working waterfront. Recreational uses increase the demands on both water quality and quantity. What we don't measure we don't value as much as we should. The quality of life people have come here for includes a thriving agricultural community.

Keeping the residential growth in the urban boundaries will help to take off some pressure and is consistent with the GMA. Working together we can accomplish these goals. (cut to keep within 300-word limit)


Bruce Ayers, 64:

As a Professional Land Surveyor and land use consultant for over 35 years and past City Council member I know there are no easy resolutions concerning land use policy, issues and regulation. Adding more government regulations and restrictions on top of existing regulations and restrictions is not always the best way to protect our water quality or quantity. Individual landowners can be the best stewards of the land, if allowed to do so, in collaboration and cooperation with government agencies.

In my experience heavy-handed, agenda-driven restrictions and the lack of trust between competing interest groups can do more damage to our environment. I prefer education, cooperation and willingness for everyone concerned to work together for the future of our diverse community.


Later this afternoon on the Politics Blog, the candidates answer a question in the same vein: How would you direct growth in Whatcom County over the next 20 years? In Q&A’s already posted this week, the candidates addressed the new jail and district-only voting.