For the last week, public concern has increasingly focused on important agenda items that will be discussed by the Whatcom County Council this Tuesday. I have come to understand a simple truth about these situations. Whenever people are distracted by county issues, keep an eye on the city of Bellingham. I reviewed the agenda for the Monday, February 10, 2013 City Council meeting and I was not disappointed.
The city is trying to amend the Bellingham Municipal Code to increase its ability to provide wholesale rural sewer services outside of an Urban Growth Area (UGA) or Limited Area of More Intensive Rural Development (LAMIRD). This will be the subject of a discussion during the City Council 9 a.m. Public Works and Safety Committee meeting, broadcast on BTV-10.
There are two agenda bills proposed. AG 20297 amends Bellingham Municipal Code 15.36 to allow “greater flexibility” for the mayor and her staff by removing restrictions based on a rural land use designation as an UGA or LAMIRD. The proposed change to city code is purportedly needed for AG 2029, an interlocal agreement between the city and the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District (LWWSD), but it will also result in changes in rural areas not serviced by LWWSD.
The Washington Growth Management Act (GMA) restricts the provision of urban services outside of a UGA boundary. It allows, but does require or encourage, provision of urban sewer services in limited circumstances where there are emergency health issues and this does not harm rural character. RCW 36.70A.110(4) states:
“In general, it is not appropriate that urban governmental services be extended to or expanded in rural areas except in those limited circumstances shown to be necessary to protect basic public health and safety and the environment and when such services are financially supportable at rural densities and do not permit urban development.”
The Bellingham Municipal Code 15.36 is fully compliant with the GMA on this matter. Changes can only create unintended compliance risks.
The city historically provided city water and sewer outside city boundaries, and the code includes grandfather clauses for these contracts. However, the code includes two provisions that impose greater restrictions than state law. First, new and renewed wholesale sewer service contracts may not extend new sewer mains outside a UGA or LAMIRD. And second, such contracts prohibit the water district or association from enlarging its area of jurisdiction without the express approval of the City Council.
These safeguards are removed under the proposed amendments, but they serve an important purpose. They prevent provision of urban services, and the sprawl that this often generates, in the most remote and undeveloped parts of the county. These restrictions also provide a review process that is transparent to the public, balances power between the executive and legislative branches, and ensures services are financially supportable at rural densities. And why would the City Council ever want to give up its ability to exert some control over if, how and where the wholesale contract holder expands?
Determining whether or not a health situation exists, and justifies extension of wholesale sewer service, is not as black and white as you might imagine, and this leaves plenty of room for political manipulation and pressure by the development lobby. And because this involves wholesale contracts, we are not just talking about a few lots.
We are told that a decision has already been made to provide sewer connections in lieu of on-site septic systems as a necessary measure to protect Lake Whatcom. I do not recall this important policy issue being determined, do you? And if it is necessary, why isn’t the proposed amendment restricted to the Lake Whatcom watershed? Instead, it will apply to any rural area in the county.
But my primary concern is the fact that this is being done now, on the very eve of the city’s efforts to update its 2016 Comprehensive Plan. There is no urgent need to pass this tomorrow. Instead, it should be evaluated at the same time that the Comp. Plan is updated, allowing for an environmental review of potential impacts and consideration of how this will interplay with other changes in city policy. Moving forward now reflects the kind of piecemeal planning that the GMA was intended to discourage.
Let’s be honest, the last time the mayor and her staff asked for increased flexibility, it was for the waterfront plan, and that did not work out so well for the public. So forgive me if I am not sympathetic to the mayor’s alleged need for increased flexibility for a GMA provision that should be applied rarely, if ever at all.