Rural Lands / LAMIRDS

Since 2008 Whatcom County has been working to update the Rural Element of the County's Comprehensive Plan. After the county adopted revisions to its Comprehensive Plan in 2005, Futurewise filed a petition with the Growth Management Hearings Board that the adopted amendments and the development regulations that implemented the Comprehensive Plan were not compliant with Washington's Growth Management Act (GMA) with respect to rural land use planning.

The Hearings Board agreed with Futurewise and ordered the county to make further revisions to ensure that urban densities are not permitted in rural areas, and that areas of more intensive development are designated per the GMA's standards for Limited Areas of More Intensive Rural Development (LAMIRDs).

Following an extensive public process, the County Council adopted a 2011 ordinance changing the Comprehensive Plan, zoning code requirements, and zoning map. Futurewise and other petitioners filed a petition with the Hearings Board challenging the 2011 ordinance and the Hearings Board found that several aspects of the ordinance were still not in compliance with GMA. In 2012, the County adopted another ordinance, making further revisions to the Comprehensive Plan, zoning code requirements, and zoning map.

Latest News
County Council approves zoning code and Comprehensive Plan amendments

On November 24, 2015 the Whatcom County Council adopted a zoning code and Comprehensive Plan text amendment that resolves some of the last remaining compliance issues with Whatcom County’s rural element. 

The amendments remove part of the zoning code that would have allowed for building sizes larger than existed in 1990 in Type I LAMIRDs (but the amendments would allow for public community facilities such as schools or fire stations to be expanded through the conditional use permit process). The Growth Management Hearings Board had found that building size provision to be noncompliant with the Growth Management Act (GMA) and the County had appealed the Board’s decision. The amendments also remove wording from the Comprehensive Plan that support the building size exceptions in LAMIRDs. Here is a link to the draft amendments and the accompanying staff memorandum (PDF).

Under a settlement agreement signed by the County, if the County removes the building size expansion provisions in LAMIRDs, the challenged boundaries of the Birch Bay-Lynden & Valley View LAMIRD and the Smith & Guide Meridian LAMIRD (which had also been found noncompliant) would remain as approved by the County in 2012. Now that the County has adopted the amendments, the parties will jointly request that the Board find compliance on these two issues, leaving only the water resources issues unresolved. That issue has been appealed to the Washington Supreme Court.

Court of Appeals Upholds GMHB Finding of Compliance
On June 30, 2014 the Court of Appeals issued a decision (PDF) upholding the Hearings Board's finding of compliance on the population issue. There are currently four remaining noncompliance issues. PDS's most recent issue summary sheet (PDF) lists the status of the compliance issues dealt with since January 2013.

Hearings Board Finds Compliance on Lot Cluster Issue
The May 14, 2014 Hearings Board decision (PDF) found that the county's Ordinance 2014-023 (PDF) addressed the findings of the Board's previous order and brought the county into compliance on the lot clustering issue.

County Council Adopts Lot Clustering Amendment
On March 25, 2014, the County Council adopted the proposed code amendments on lot clustering in the Rural zone (Ordinance 2014-023 (PDF)). At the February 27, 2013 Planning Commission meeting, the Commission voted to recommended approval of the amendments to WCC 20.36.310(6), Rural (R) zone lot clustering standards. The issue was discussed by the County Council Planning and Development Committee on March 11 and the ordinance was introduced at that evening's County Council meeting.

On January 23, 2014 the Growth Management Hearings Board issued an order revising its November 21, 2013 order (PDF) regarding the lot clustering issue. Upon reconsideration, the Board found that the wording the County added to WCC 20.36.310(6) exempting large parcels from some clustering standards is not compliant with GMA. The order set a compliance date of March 24, 2014.

Countywide Monitoring Report Published
PDS staff has published a countywide population growth monitoring report (PDF) for urban and non-urban areas of the county. While the Non-Urban Growth Monitoring Report (PDF) published in January focuses on the portion of the county outside the urban growth areas, this report includes the urban areas and compares recent growth (as estimated by OFM) with the population growth allocations that are currently adopted in the Comprehensive Plan.

Non-Urban Growth Monitoring Report Published
PDS staff has published its 2015 Non-Urban Growth Monitoring Report. This report, which is required by Comprehensive Plan Policy 2DD-1, estimates population growth using residential permit data and compares that estimate with the population growth allocated to the non-urban areas in the Comprehensive Plan (Chapter 1, Table 4).

The report shows the estimated population growth over the past year, and over the past 7 years overall, has been below the Comprehensive Plan's allocation. 
County Council Adopts Water Resources Amendments
The County Council has adopted and the Executive has signed Comprehensive Plan amendments (PDF) related to water resources at their January 28 meeting. The Council also voted to publicly reaffirm our intention to continue the county’s appeal of the Growth Management Hearings Board decision as it relates to water resources.

On December 12, 2013 the Whatcom County Planning Commission held a public hearing on the amendments and recommended approval. The December 3 staff report addendum (PDF) discusses the amendments, which reference existing County code provisions. No changes to existing regulations were made.

Recent Hearings Board Orders
On February 7, 2014 the Growth Management Hearings Board issue an order denying reconsideration of a request for invalidity (PDF). On January 23, 2014 the Growth Management Hearings Board issued an order revising its November 21, 2013 order (PDF) regarding the lot clustering issue. In its January 10, 2014 order (PDF), the Board moved the compliance date on the water issue to February 14, 2014 and scheduled a compliance hearing for April 1.

On November 21, 2013 the Growth Management Hearings Board issued an order finding Whatcom County (PDF) in compliance with GMA regarding variety of rural densities issue and lot clustering. The order also finds compliance on the other issues which the petitioners had concurred had been resolved by the county, including the Rural Neighborhoods issue.

The county remains noncompliance on the water resources issue (subject of the June 7, 2013 order (PDF)), LAMIRD development regulations, and the boundaries of the Smith / Guide and Birch Bay-Lynden/Valley View LAMIRDs (discussed in the January 4, 2013 order (PDF)). The first two of those remaining issues will be heard by the Court of Appeals, and the two LAMIRD boundary issues have been appealed by private parties to Superior Court.

County Council Adopts Lake Whatcom Watershed Stormwater Ordinance
On July 23, 2013 the County Council adopted Ordinance 2013-043 (PDF) enacting new stormwater regulations in the Lake Whatcom Watershed, addressing one of the issues in the Hearings Board's January 4, 2013 order.

County Council Adopts Rural Element Ordinance
On June 18, 2013 the County Council adopted the Rural Element ordinance (PDF). The ordinance was signed by the County Executive on June 20 and will take effect June 30, 2013.

GMHB Issues Decision on Water Resources & Transportation
On June 7, 2013 the Growth Management Hearings Board published its final decision (PDF) and order on Hirst and Futurewise's 2012 challenge regarding water resources and transportation planning. The Board found the Comprehensive Plan, as amended by Ordinance 2012-032, is noncompliance with GMA as it lacks measures that protect surface and ground water resources throughout the rural area.

Though the Board found the county's Comprehensive Plan noncompliance on this issue, they did not declare invalidity. The Board set a compliance date of December 4, 2013. On the topic of inconsistency between the Comprehensive Plan's rural and transportation elements, the Board did not find that there was an inconsistency.