UPDATE: The County Council sent out an email today pulling this matter from the Tuesday agenda. We are advised this will be reset for a public hearing on June 3, or sometime after. This is good news. It would have been better news if a number of us were not required to waste our time and energy responding to the on-going barrage of ineptitude that has surrounded the rezone(s) from the very beginning.
This Tuesday, May 20th, the Whatcom County Council will discuss an “Ordinance amending Whatcom County Code Title 20 to allow packinghouses and slaughterhouses in the Agriculture (AG), High Impact Industrial (HII), Low Impact Industrial (LII), and Rural and Industrial Manufacturing (RIM) zoning districts (AB2014-060B).” This is a revision to the slaughterhouse and meat packing plant rezone for AG land that was enacted several months ago. It now includes four land use zones. That is three more than last time.
The public is entitled to a public hearing on this. And they got one. Two weeks ago… when this same proposal was called the “Ordinance amending the Whatcom County Code to allow packinghouses and slaughterhouses in the Agriculture Zoning District as administrative approval uses (AB2014-060B).” Well, maybe it was not as clear then that RIM, LII and HII were involved, but all you had to do was read the definitions at the very end of the proposed ordinance, and then determine in what way this amended the existing definitions, and it would be crystal clear. That was also your public notice.
A few people, myself included, appealed the AG rezone to the Growth Management Hearings Board. We did not think it protected the public, or our farm land. The application, which was submitted for “small scale slaughterhouses in the AG zone”, responded “N/A” on every question in the SEPA checklist. A monkey with a paintbrush could have provided better insight. But we were not expecting the proposed revision to include unrestricted expansion into the LII, HII and RIM zones.
During the public hearing, according to the meeting minutes, this is what our attorney, Terry Wechsler said,
“The petitioner’s arguments aren’t about whether there is a need for slaughter facilities in the county. The issue is about process. They are rezoning four districts, not just the agricultural zone. This is all based on prior SEPA review, but there was no SEPA review. It’s not appropriate for the light impact industrial zone. There are no buffers or boundaries in either district. To resolve the appeal, the council should have started with an environmental impact statement (EIS) two years ago. Direct Planning Department to do an EIS for whatever zones they want to rezone. The alternative is to allow for it to be properly handled and with enough land in rural industrial manufacturing (RIM) and heavy impact industrial (HII) zones. Make sure small farmers can and must use the agricultural district. Make sure proper environmental protections are in place for waste management.”
At the end of the short public hearing, something rather unusual occurred. The county executive asked the County Council to delay their vote, because he, too, was concerned about the SEPA process. According to the meeting minutes,
“he forwarded the comments from Wendy Harris today to legal counsel. They all agreed things could be done better, which is why they are asking for a delay with the understanding that getting it right is the correct thing to do. Tighten it up, and vote on it in a couple of weeks. He appreciates comments from citizens and reads them all. In this instance, this is the right action to take. Staff throughout Whatcom County are committed to doing the best job the first time through. This is a complicated issue. He would like to complete this in two weeks.”
How do you complete an environmental review and analysis in two weeks? And provide for public comment and review prior to public hearing? Mark Personious, from the Planning Department, clarified that the county considered this to be a “scrivener’s error.” That is a fancy word for a clerical mistake. Like when you forget to capitalize a state capital, or you transpose words in a paragraph. Or when you forget to identify and review three additional land use zones in your small scale slaughterhouse AG rezone application.
And just so that everyone was clear, (well, you know Barbara Brenner… “why isn't there a new public hearing.. blah, blah, blah…”), the council’s attorney stood up and explained that the county was revising definitions, and certaintly that was not substantive. I can hardly wait to see how much the Growth Management Hearings Board will love the county's new position on zoning issues. (Do I see another “excellence in planning” award for a certain county?)
Rest assured that this entire matter has been thoroughly resolved by documenting in the case file and ordinance that “small scale slaughterhouses in the AG zone” naturally includes the HII, LII and RIM zones too. And that, my friends, is how Whatcom County handles rezones for development of heavy industrial bio-hazardous activities.
I do not want to say that the county did nothing to improve the situation. Restrictions were increased for the AG zone. And look at the new title to this proposal. It is way, way better. It actually tells you what the proposal involves. Maybe next time they can do this prior to the public hearing.
That just leaves a few minor questions. How much land does this involve? How many potential facilities? Where is that land located? Is it in a sensitive watershed? Is it near residential housing? A preschool? A habitat conservation area? It is a problem that LII currently and specifically prohibits meat processing? Or that RIM restricts new development, otherwise applicable, to isolated small-scale businesses.
This means that the County Council is free to enact the new ordinance on Tuesday, without public comment. Maybe more people will show up this time to speak at the open session. Maybe the people who supported the AG rezone will show up. Because this undermines the intent of the original ordinance, which was to provide additional revenue for local farmers, without having to compete with the slaughter industry and its large consolidated facilities, and its economies of scale.
Oh, just one more thing. Why is there another proposal to amend the AG rezone for slaughterhouses and meat packing plants so soon after enactment? According to the language in the proposed ordinance, it is to help facilitate the settlement of the GMA lawsuit. Maybe next time, the county will actually let us petitioners in on it. Just in case we are not happy about a settlement that unilaterally increases the nature and scope of the items in dispute.
So let us just be grateful that our county executive and planning staff is committed to doing the very best job. And even if it is not the very best job, at least those kaizen sessions result in the speediest job.
Read the original SEPA application yourself and see if you think it is broad enough to cover the rezones for HII, LII and RIM. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1idtwV4RQwgKRPsuOPax9IsnYJjqe3nsfunZZyf8K83c/edit
Read the original AG rezone application by the applicant and Council Member Barbara Brenner and see if you think it is broad enough to cover HII, LII and RIM rezones. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B4uUR0E44bH3N0VfMEZ5WTlZcTA/edit.
Here is the link from the May 6th meeting on audio and the council minutes (still marked “draft”). http://www.co.whatcom.wa.us/council/onlinedocs/onlinedocs2014.jsp. (Minutes are still listed as “draft.”)