Policies for Whatcom County’s future: Whatcom Comprehensive Plan

August 29, 2016

The Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan touches everything we value, from ensuring we have plentiful clean drinking water to preserving our farmlands, from protecting our aquatic ecosystems to moving our county toward a clean energy future.

Local planning, global influence

The Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan informs regulatory policy, budget decisions, and development standards for local government on a 20-year planning horizon. Required by state law, it shapes the context of our county’s decision-making and determines how our county will develop in the future.

It answers crucial questions such as: Will we sprawl into farmland or protect this key economic driver? Will we set goals to solve water quantity problems or wait for someone else to solve them for us? Will we allow new dirty and dangerous fossil fuel projects or commit to a clean energy future?

2016 Comprehensive Plan

On August 9, 2016, the Whatcom County Council adopted an updated Comprehensive Plan.

RE Sources focused on policies in four areas: protecting clean water, preventing urban sprawl, investing in energy security, and discouraging unrefined fossil fuel export projects. The council crafted sound policies in several of theses areas, and sent proposed amendments discouraging unrefined fossil fuel export projects back to the Planning Commission for further review.

Read more about the updated Comprehensive Plan policies in each of these areas:

For decades, our community has risen to the challenge of battling a powerful, wealthy fossil fuel industry to protect our home from exploitation. As our County’s only deepwater port, Cherry Point is a major target for plans to export coal overseas, despite fierce community opposition and objections by Lummi Nation and local fishing businesses.

Under heavy lobbying pressure from Big Oil, the federal ban on crude oil export was lifted at the end of 2015, despite objections from the environmental community and unions representing refinery workers. Cherry Point is positioned to become a transshipment hub for crude oil and natural gas. With the crude export ban no longer in place, the oil that comes here could easily be loaded onto ocean tankers bound for Asia.

Whatcom County should protect the health, safety and economy of our community by discouraging the shipping of unrefined fossil fuels from any future terminal or pier at Cherry Point.

With our population expected to grow by 75,000 in the next 20 years, it is critically important that our county takes the lead on water issues that position Whatcom County for a sustainable future — instead of a future of water shortages, failing crops, and county-wide water rights battles.

Our streams and bays are in trouble. High levels of fecal coliform threaten our health, shellfish farms, recreation opportunities, and local economy. Development is destroying wetlands and waterfront habitats, diminishing survival rates of salmon and aquatic life. Whatcom County must assert a leadership role in cleaning up our waters, leading on coordination, education, and enforcement.

Whatcom County faces serious challenges with availability of water. There is not enough water in streams to support fish populations essential to the Salish Sea ecosystem and to honor tribal treaty rights. In 2015, our county was included in a statewide drought declaration. The severity and frequency of drought is likely to increase as a result of climate change, and we currently have no plans in place for dealing with these changes. Whatcom County must better coordinate the management and planning of water quantity.

The plan includes policies and language that:
  • Quantify water usage throughout the county to promote water conservation (Policies 11J4, 5 and 6)
  • Connect land use and development decisions with water availability (Policy 2A-15)
  • Acknowledge the importance of the shellfish industry and give it the same weight as industries like agriculture, forestry, and mining (Chapter 8: Resource Lands, Marine Resource Lands section)
  • Protect the Lake Whatcom Watershed by preventing UGA designations or expansions and implementing a funding source for stormwater projects (Chapter 11: Environment, Lake Whatcom Watershed section)
  • Develop and implement plans to comply with Department of Ecology in-stream flow rules (Policy 11J-3)
    Track wetland mitigation efforts and establish a baseline of wetland functions to track and prevent net loss and avoid cumulative impacts (Policies 11N-8 & 11N-9)
  • Work with farmers to implement measures to prevent livestock from degrading riparian and instream habitat by fencing off livestock from streams and supporting alternative watering systems (Policy 8E-2)
  • Acknowledge Whatcom County’s water resources face climate change related risks (Policy 11D-1)
  • Incorporate knowledge of wellhead protection areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, and high-priority watersheds into management plans that limit activities impacting water quality (Policies 11H-6 & 11H-7)
  • Develop and implement comprehensive stormwater management programs by prioritizing polluting areas and planning retrofits in areas that impact sensitive waters (Policy 11I-12)
  • Preserve farm and forest lands by preventing urban sprawl
  • Invest in energy security by opening the door to renewable energy jobs and achieving carbon neutrality

Whatcom County should direct our future growth in a way that recognizes the links between land use planning, natural resource protection and economic prosperity.

If we want to maintain the qualities that make our community a desirable place to live, we must limit sprawl into our rural areas. Our citizens have been clear, we value clean air and water, parks, farms and community character. Whatcom County must protect these values by limiting the expansion of urban areas.

The plan includes policies and language that:
  • Protect Critical Areas such as wetlands or habitat conservation areas from environmental degradation while balancing private property concerns (Policy 11A-4)
  • Develop programs that protect and encourage restoration of habitats essential to endangered or threatened species, and habitats with significant biodiversity and connectivity (Policy 11L2 and 11L14 & 15)
  • Develop a process for when to expand or reduce Urban Growth Areas (UGAs), incorporating a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program that sends development rights from rural areas to urban areas for more dense development (Policy 2A-14)
  • Deny expansion of Birch Bay and Bellingham Urban Growth Areas (UGAs).

With compounding effects of coal industry bankruptcies, peak oil, and climate change, we must transition our dependency on fossil fuels to long-term, sustainable energy sources.

Whatcom County should lead the nation in creating a secure future by encouraging jobs in clean energy technologies and policies that encourage sustainable energy solutions to be produced locally.

Unlike many states, Washington state’s policies provide residents with the best combination of solar incentives in the nation, opening the door to a vital solar industry. Whatcom County is home to our state’s largest solar panel producer, and we should continue to lead in this emerging sector.

The plan includes policies and language that will:
  • Establish a Climate Impact Advisory Committee to establish targets that meet state climate impact goals, recommend updates to the Comprehensive Plan that meet county emission goals, and ensure county facilities and operations meet climate protection and conservation goals (Policy 11D-6)
  • Pursue renewable energy supply portfolios for the county from power suppliers, as well as small local renewable energy projects such as anaerobic digesters and wind energy (Policy 5H-2)
  • Revisit restrictions on the development of wind energy systems, aka the wind moratorium (Policy 7G-4)
More information

FAQ: Learn more about the Comprehensive Plan process.

In 2036, what should Whatcom County be known for?

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