Community collaboration to make long-range plans for county
Imagine Whatcom County in 2107.
Does that evoke scenes of our great grandchildren driving hovercrafts or horses? Riding in hydrogen-powered light rail or solar-charged buses?
Will residents live in dense urban skyscrapers or a Los Angeles-style honeycomb of subdivisions?
What about our water sources, our economy and our recreational land?
It’s hard to imagine, but that’s exactly what a group of local business owners, educators, conservationists, developers and nonprofit workers are attempting to do.
The Whatcom Legacy Project organizers envision creating a long-range, roughly 100-year visioning document for Whatcom County land use and infrastructure, developed with rigorous public input.
The resulting document would be submitted as a county charter amendment and voted on by county residents. Organizers say a plan of this magnitude would reduce the negative effects of planning reactively.
This year, project organizers assembled a 20-member steering committee of county residents and have brainstormed a wish list for a 100-member community advisory committee.
But it’s an effort that is still in its preliminary stages, and the exact content and format of the final document are up in the air.
One thing is certain — the scope of the Whatcom Legacy Project is vast, far-reaching, and incredibly ambitious. These folks want to bring together all walks of county life to collectively plan for future generations, and they intend to do it in an enjoyable and productive manner.
A plan for our great grandchildren
The idea for a long-range county plan has been gestating for decades but began to solidify when Lisa McShane, the former community relations director for Conservation Northwest, contacted Roger Van Dyken, owner of San Juan Sailing and Yachting, about 18 months ago. The two began talking with former Trillium Corp. alum Mauri Ingram and County Executive Pete Kremen about a concerted long-range planning effort.
Originally, there was some discussion about whether it should be a governmental program, but the organizers decided against that route.
“It seemed to us that focusing on engaging the public would be the best way to move this forward — coming from the community in a more organic way,” said McShane, the project’s full-time paid manager.
Their goal is to plan for growth deliberately and avoid the expense and distraction of reactive planning.
“[Reactive planning] is expensive because you’re always trying to play catch up. If you anticipate opportunities and risks, you have a better chance to be prepared. If not, it can cost you a whole lot more to deal with it,” said Ingram, a steering committee member. “It’s distracting because we want people to focus on what they want, and when you’re reacting to things, it tends to be what you don’t want. So you end up fighting against or dealing with your fears, instead of heading in a direction you actually want to go in.”
McShane gave the example of infrastructure. If the county can assume that transportation forms and patterns will likely change in the next few decades, the ability to acquire transportation corridors now will reduce future costs.
Until now, planning in Whatcom County has been a combination of reaction and proaction, organizers say, and the county would benefit from planning more than 20 years out, as the Growth Management Act mandates.
The final plan, shaped by the steering committee from input by the community advisory committee, a technical advisory committee and consulting experts, is still nebulous, but the organizers have come up with a preliminary three-year time line.
This first year marks the formative process. Next year the group will create a baseline forecast that represents one possible view of Whatcom County in the future and gather community feedback to develop several alternative visions. Then in 2009, the public would vote on the visions to select a preferred alternative.
The final plan would likely include a long-range vision based on the public’s common land-use values, but probably wouldn’t dictate specific zoning regulations, Ingram said.
Because a lot can happen in 100 years, Van Dyken, the president of the Legacy Project’s steering committee, said a long-term visioning document needs to have the right balance between predictability and permanence, as well as flexibility.
“We can set some visions, some ideas, and can picture the type of Whatcom County that the citizens would like to see, and then make periodic adjustments as the future comes into clearer focus,” he said.
That’s why organizers want to submit the plan as a charter amendment, so it has permanence and yet would contain a mechanism so the amendment could be updated every 10 years if necessary, he said.
In order to get the charter amendment on the ballot, the organizers would need to gather signatures from 20 percent of Whatcom County’s voters from the last gubernatorial election (about 23,000 signatures), McShane said. It could also get on the ballot with a five-person vote on the County Council, but McShane said they’d like to use the signature gathering campaign as an outreach opportunity.
A cross-section of stakeholders
Organizers stressed the importance of involving a wide cross-section of participants from diverse backgrounds for both the steering committee and the community advisory committee.
“We’re trying to make sure we respect everybody’s position in the community. If you have a vocational job, a white collar job, if you’re a student, all of those opinions are relevant, because they all form the fabric of the community,” Ingram said.
However, the list of steering committee members noticeably, and intentionally, lacks any positions for city or county staff or elected officials.
“The goal of this process is to give elected officials and municipal staff the kind of information and support they need to do their work and to make their decisions,” Ingram said.
Everyone involved in the project will be involved as a citizen, McShane said, although they have kept all the county’s municipalities apprised of their efforts.
During the process, the organizers will also assemble a technical committee made of experts in fields such as transportation, biology and economic development, and will hire planning consultants, as well.
The overall emphasis will be on gathering input from the community while attempting to eliminate the battlegrounds between commercial interests and environmentalists that typically define land-use discussions.
The organizers envision gathering public input through the requisite public meetings, but also through innovative and enjoyable approaches like Internet postings, coffee-table discussions and Kiwanis club meetings. The community advisory committee members would meet quarterly and then elicit feedback from their constituents in informal get-togethers.
By doing it this way, Ingram said, she hopes people who normally are intimidated by City and County Council meetings will be more likely to participate.
Land use has a reputation for being contentious, but the organizers insist their process will be collaborative, not combative, because everyone participating will have agreed to find commonality.
“While we may not ever be on the same page with regard to what we’d like to see in the long term, I think what we’ve agreed to is that we’ll work through the process,” Ingram said.
“We want to build optimism and community through this process,” McShane added.
Currently, the organizers are discussing whether the Legacy Project should continue functioning under the legal umbrella of Conservation Northwest or whether they should create their own 501(c)(3) organization.
While they are grateful for Conservation Northwest’s support, and while they insist it has not exerted any control over their efforts, they want to ensure the project is independent, Van Dyken said.
“We know whenever you’re dealing with land use, people are going to say ‘okay, who’s really behind this?” he said.
So far, they have received about $56,000 in funding from several Bellingham and Seattle-based foundations and organizations, as well as private donations, and have grant applications pending, including one from the county. Their operating budget is about $130,000 a year and includes two staff salaries (for McShane and staff member Seth Cool) and a budget for contract work.
Their next step will be to assess community data about economics, land biodiversity, zoning, demographics and population projections, as well as gather information from the community on suggestions and ideas for how to proceed.
Van Dyken said he hopes business owners will join in the planning effort because of their experience with gathering input and organizing information from employees and customers.
In return, a planning effort such as this will benefit business owners because it will create predictability and identify future growth and economic markets, he said.
After all, the first definition of “legacy” in the dictionary is “money or property that is left to somebody in a will.”
The folks in the Legacy Project want to ensure their inheritors aren’t disappointed.
Where the funding is coming from
- $5,000 from The Dudley Foundation, based in Bellingham (www.dudleyfoundation.org):
- Incorporated in 1990, this nonprofit’s primary goal is to “help alleviate unnecessary present and future suffering of all sentient beings by attempting to address environmental and social roots of suffering,” according to its Web site. Its primary objectives toward this goal deal with problems of “human overpopulation,” “wanton consumption of resources (greed),” “ecological degradation,” and “intolerance/injustice, including fascist threats to our ‘democracy.’”
- Major grants last year went to: ReSources for Sustainable Communities, Center for Public Integrity, ACLU of Washington, Fair Vote, Whatcom Peace & Justice Center, Whatcom Land Trust and North Cascades Institute.
- $10,000 from the Kongsgaard-Goldman Foundation, based in Seattle (www.kongsgaard-goldman.org):
- Formed in 1988, the foundation has provided support to 600 nonprofit organizations in the Pacific Northwest in areas of environmental protection and conservation, human rights, civic development, and arts and humanities, according to its Web site.
- Last year’s grant recipients included KUOW National Public Radio, Museum of Glass, Seattle Arts and Lectures, Audubon Washington, Cascade Land Conservancy, Conservation Northwest, Earthjustice, Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and YMCA of Greater Seattle.
- $30,000 from the Bullitt Foundation, based in Seattle (www.bullitt.org):
- According to its Web site, the mission of The Bullitt Foundation is “to protect, restore, and maintain the natural physical environment of the Pacific Northwest for present and future generations.”
- Last year’s grant recipients include the Bellingham Bay Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Cascade Land Conservancy, Climate Solutions and Futurewise
- $1,000 from Brown & Cole
- $10,000 in private contributions
For more information about the Whatcom Legacy Project, e-mail Lisa McShane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steering committee members
Roger Van Dyken
steering committee president and president of San Juan Sailing
steering committee vice president and professor of business law at Western Washington University
steering committee secretary and retired Georgia-Pacific employee
Emily Barnett Highleyman
Conservation Northwest board member
owner of Pure Potato
CEO of Ryzex Group
president of FW Bovenkamp Ventures
chair of the Northwest Dairy Association
executive director of Conservation Northwest
economics professor at Western Washington University
principal of thinkwell consulting
owner of Fourth Corner Nursery
executive director of Bellingham Whatcom Economic Development Council
policy director for the Nooksack Tribe
past president of Southside Neighborhoods
Realtor and past president of Whatcom County Realtors Association
deputy director of the Whatcom Council of Governments