Rural Element update worries some property owners

Proposed changes to Whatcom County's zoning laws seek to ensure that urban sprawl does not reach rural land. But from...

By Lance Henderson

For the past 40 years, Doug Pullar, 81, has been able to look out from his front porch and see his savings account.

From his home just north of Smith Road along the Guide Meridian, Pullar can look just past his sloping, manicured lawn and a small corn patch to see his 600,000 square-foot general commercial lot, which abuts the five-lane highway.

“Very truthfully, I hung on to that land because I knew it was the most valuable that I had,” Pullar said. “Someday — and it won’t be that long — I am going to have to go to a retirement center. Maybe I won’t get around to developing it, but it was still my savings account. I never put much money in the banks. I never invested in stocks, but I had a tangible asset.”

However, the forces of government and growth management are coming together to drastically devalue Pullar’s 14 acres of land.

The land’s drop in value would be the result of proposed updates to the Rural Element of the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan that would bring the county into compliance with the Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA).

The proposed changes to the county’s zoning laws seek to ensure that urban sprawl does not reach rural land. But from Pullar’s perspective, the county is downzoning his land from general commercial to residential that would allow for only one dwelling per 10 acres.

In losing his ability to develop his general commercial land, Pullar estimates he could lose more than $1 million and the ability to take care of himself.

“There was no consideration given me whatsoever here,” Pullar said. “Where is the consideration?”

What is a LAMIRD?
In 1990, Washington passed the GMA which, Whatcom County Planning Director David Stalheim said, was passed under the main premise that population growth and development should be encouraged in urban areas and not within rural areas.

“It is really encouraged to go into urban areas where you have adequate public facilities and services,” Stalheim said. “That is where you invest in roads, water, sewer, fire protection, police protection and all those types of things because when you have those concentrated areas, it is more efficient for public services.”

When the GMA was first passed, Stalheim said there were only three categories of land use: urban lands, rural lands and resource lands. As counties and jurisdictions began submitting their plans to become GMA compliant, it was found that the GMA was not flexible enough to address small, historic hamlets like the small communities of Whatcom County.

To address these communities, the state Legislature passed amendments to the GMA to allow for limited areas of more intensive rural development (LAMIRD).

“Essentially, the state Legislature said, ‘We understand that there are these historic communities that are not exactly urban growth areas, so we will allow them and here is the set of criteria,'” Stalheim said.

It’s that set of criteria that could affect many properties, just like Pullar’s, which is on the outskirts of one of these pockets of rural development.

Pullar, who has spent most of his life in Whatcom County, said back in the ’60s there were small little communities all over the county.

“You go over to Glacier and Deming and then over to Acme, which was a little logging town, and all these places were little communities with little churches,” Pullar said. “There is nothing wrong with this. This is life.”

Flashback: 1990
Every seven years, Whatcom County is required to review and revise its comprehensive plan, which includes its rural element plan. If it does not, the county could be subject to sanctions and lose eligibility for state and federal funding.

In 1997, Whatcom County was in the midst of doing its seven-year review. A couple months after the plan was updated, the LAMIRD statute was instituted and, in the eyes of the law, Whatcom County was immediately out of compliance with state law because it had no LAMIRD provision.

“Essentially more intense rural development was allowed under the 1997 plan,” Stalheim said.

Then in 2004, at the next seven-year review period, Whatcom County did not update its growth plan to acknowledge and manage these small towns and historic pockets of development.

Stalheim said when he first took this job in late 2007, he had strict orders to begin work that would bring the county back into compliance with the GMA.

The LAMIRD statute basically requires that the county must draw a “logical outer boundary” around these pockets of development in order to manage their growth — similar to managing the growth of a city.

Everything inside the LAMIRD boundary must conform to the level of development in 1990 and everything outside the boundary must “meet standards of rural character,” which means downzoning the land to one dwelling per 10 acres as recommended by the Whatcom County Planning Commission. Businesses outside LAMIRDs would be considered a non-conforming use and would be allowed to remain, but would require a conditional-use permit for any growth or expansion.

The map above show the areas in Whatcom County that would be affected by the Rural Element update proposal in yellow and orange. Map courtesy of Whatcom County Planning Services
The map above shows the areas in Whatcom County that would be affected by the Rural Element update proposal in yellow and orange. Map courtesy of Whatcom County Planning Services

To assess the development level in 1990, county planning staff have been looking at aerial photos from 1990 and sifting through tax records to find out what types of land uses existed in these areas then.

“We have vast acreages that are designated for up to three units per acre that are outside our urban growth areas and outside the logical outer boundary of a LAMIRD, so those areas clearly are not rural in character and don’t meet the growth management test,” Stalheim said.

Similarly, Stalheim said there has been a lot of commercial development that has been allowed in areas that are an expansion of areas that are not within the boundaries of what was there in 1990.

Preparing to implement the LAMIRD statute has led to a cluster of proposed LAMIRDs along Guide Meridian, where Pullar and his neighbor, Jerry Laakso own the same kind of property.

Laakso owns 20 acres along Guide Meridian and he said he didn’t buy it for its rural character.

“I bought it because it has general commercial in the front and was dividable into five acre lots in the back, so I could make some money for retirement in the future,” Laakso said.

Laakso said even though 1990 is the explicit measure of the LAMIRD statute, he doesn’t much understand why 1990 needs to come into the conversation.

“What does 1990 have to do with 2009?” he asked.

Illegal zoning
For those who see the implementation of the LAMIRD statute as an inevitability, the whole process wouldn’t be so painful if Whatcom County had acted sooner to move into compliance with state law.

Cathy Lehman, director of Futurewise Whatcom County, the local chapter of a statewide interest group working to protect farmland and build healthy communities, said Whatcom County is simply fixing illegal zoning that has been allowed to fly under the radar for 12 years.

“A former Whatcom County Council allowed illegal zoning to move forward that would never stand if challenged. Now land owners are the ones who are bearing the brunt of that,” Lehman said. “It’s just the way it is, unfortunately.”

However, some compromises can be made along the way, Lehman said, pointing to recent amendments to the proposal that would drastically reduce the number of affected properties and businesses.

“Some people are still going to be unhappy with the result, but I think it will impact as few property owners as possible and will benefit the county by bringing them into compliance,” she said.

Lehman said that according to the Whatcom Legacy survey, nearly 70 percent of Whatcom County residents want to “preserve farmland, focus growth into existing urban areas and have open space.”

“This would help create a reality for the citizen’s preferences. It would align policy with what citizen’s say they want,” Lehman said.

Even though the county planning department can provide a long list of public outreach regarding this issue, Pullar and Laakso still feel that no one really consulted them before making decisions that have such egregious financial impacts.

“They talked about how they had all these calls out. No. They called the certain people they wanted to call, but they certainly didn’t call the ones who were going to object to it,” Pullar said.

Lehman said when creating a public policy that will affect everyone in Whatcom County for generations to come, it is counterproductive to focus on a single property.

“This is the greater good that we are talking about — the greater vision that is more than just individuals,” Lehman said.

This fact is hard to swallow for Pullar and Laakso.

Pullar said he has been paying general commercial taxes on his property the entire time, but always saw it as an investment.

“I never complained about that,” Pullar said. “It was my savings account and it was gaining value everyday, so I wasn’t worried about that. But to come and just say one day, ‘You are not general commercial anymore.’ This is tyranny.”

The Whatcom County Council must still vote the LAMIRD statute into law and it is likely to see changes before it is solidified. The council should undertake the issue before the end of the year.

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