Still the Big Hurdle for Reconveyance

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Tue, Sep 30, 2008, 5:19 pm  //  g.h.kirsch

From the outset of discussion of the proposal to reconvey forest lands to the county for a new park I have written that it is necessary to first rezone or amend Whatcom County's Comprehensive Plan in an attempt to make the proposed action compatible with the Growth Management Act, and state court rulings, before seeking transfer of these lands to the county.

Park proponents and Whatcom County government have sidestepped this issue in their enthusiasm to just push their program through. They rest their case on the claim that a forest preserve with a trail system is not prohibited by current zoning in the Commercial Forest zone.

But the very centerpiece of their plan, and the emotional argument for support of their proposal and its alleged benefits for water quality, however, is to stop logging operations on all of the reconveyed lands. As such, the centerpiece of the plan, and the motivation of its most zealous proponents, is in direct conflict with the Comprehensive Plan's goals and policies: to be consistent with and achieve the GMA goal to "maintain and enhance" natural resource based industries, and fulfill the vision of Whatcom County “where resource based industries are widely practiced and to be encouraged.”

Not only was enhancement of natural resource based industries and the conservation of productive forest lands a goal of the GMA, the act specifically discouraged uses incompatible with that goal. And, underscoring the priorities of the legislature, the first mandate of the act was to designate lands of long term significance for natural resource based industries.

What could be more incompatible with achieving that goal than removing forestlands so designated from future forestry use? The park as proposed would not merely interfere with forestry uses, it would eliminate them.

Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan Policy 8F-7 is to “Discourage inappropriate conversion of productive forest land to incompatible non-forest uses. It is the intent of this policy not to allow conversion of forest land if the proposed use is incompatible with the maintenance of long-term forest management. Incompatible uses include those which permanently remove a significant portion of a parcel from productive forest use.”

In King County v. Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board the Washington Supreme Court concluded King County's amendment to its comprehensive plan and zoning code that intended to change the use of designated resource lands to recreation did not comply with the GMA, holding that the GMA's mandatory duty to designate and conserve resource lands clearly trumped the GMA's provision to identify appropriate lands and encourage planning for recreation.

In City of Redmond v. Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board the court quoted with approval the observation that: "Natural resource lands are protected not for the sake of their ecological role but to ensure the viability of the resource-based industries that depend on them. Allowing conversion of resource lands to other uses or allowing incompatible uses nearby impairs the viability of the resource industry."

If the Supreme Court has already struck down amendments to comprehensive plans and zoning codes that remove resource lands from use by resource industries, how does Whatcom County, without even attempting an amendment, propose to do the same without being challenged?

Therefore, if forestry will for the foreseeable future take place on these lands, what is to be gained by taking them out of state control? Why would the taxpayers of Whatcom County want to assume the liabilities and expenses associated with the management of these lands? Under present circumstances these lands are to be managed for multiple uses, including public recreation.

No, when you take away the emotional plea of the anti-forestry zealots, “stop the dirty rotten loggers,” little reason remains to ask for reconveyance of these lands.

It is time to put this distraction behind us and turn to protection of Lake Whatcom and enforcement of existing regulations on public and private forest lands throughout the watershed that can safeguard the reservoir.

Tom Pratum  //  Wed, Oct 01, 2008, 3:56 pm

Thanks Greg for continuing to harp on this issue - this is one of the many issues that need to be discussed with regard to the proposal. The county administration has had 2 years to discuss these issues, but obviously thought they could avoid that by keeping the whole thing behind closed doors. Now that it is before the council, it appears they will try to get at least some of the questions answered.

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