Whatcom County's money-saving plan: let developers' attorneys write land-use laws

Last year, the county took a money-saving approach to another environmental issue by letting homeowners inspect their own septic tanks.

Last year, the county took a money-saving approach to another environmental issue by letting homeowners inspect their own septic tanks.

Local governments encountering fearsome holes in their operating budgets are scurrying to save dollars wherever they can find them. The Whatcom County Council has taken that search into interesting legal territory.

Responding to a lawsuit filed by developer interests protesting the zoning of potential development property, the council majority wants a new ordinance changing the status of the land. Instead of having thinly stretched county staff draft the proposed ordinance, the council turned it over to attorneys for the developers; the same lawyers who are suing the county will write the proposed ordinance designed to respond to the lawsuit.

According to the Bellingham Herald’s Jared Paben, the draft ordinance would restore more than 500 acres of urban growth land along Yew Street Road, north of Lake Padden. The area was removed from urban growth potential by the 2009 county council.

It isn’t the first time Whatcom County has made news by pointing the way to frugality. Last year the council began allowing home owners to inspect their own septic tanks, to be certain they’re not polluting ground water, streams or lakes. Results were highly positive: while only 62 percent of professional inspectors found the septic tanks functioning the way they’re supposed to, a remarkable 94 percent of those who inspected their own found them to be working just fine.

Allowing developer’s attorneys to write the land use ordinances may save money, but is it good government? Council member Ken Mann, the former head of the county’s planning commission, told the Herald, “It’s obviously less than ideal when you have people suing the county writing our ordinances. It does throw up some red flags for me, obviously.”

Council member Kathy Kershner, elected last year as part of the council’s new conservative majority, sees nothing wrong with the arrangement. “I think it’s a good idea to get outside help when we can,” she said, “and I don’t think there’s anything wrong or unusual about it.”

Kershner said the majority of the council wants to restore the growth area anyway, so it makes sense to get free help in doing it.

County Planning Director Sam Ryan is skeptical of the out-sourced ordinance, and says County Executive Pete Kremen does not favor it. “Our job is to be neutral, and I don’t believe what was done was neutral,” she told the paper.

But it was free.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.