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Council member: Bellingham protects Lake Whatcom water with land purchases

Actions by city were misrepresented, overlooked in previous commentary

By Michael Lilliquist, Guest Writer

For more than 20 years, the City of Bellingham has undertaken various efforts, rule changes, education programs and outright land purchases to limit development in the Lake Whatcom watershed, all in an effort to reduce the harmful impacts on water quality in the lake and to safeguard the health of our drinking water.

This is widely known to most of you, and good evidence of these efforts has appeared in this newspaper several times recently.

That is why I was dismayed and disappointed to read the guest commentary by Randall Potts. Although they make very sound points about the harmful effects that dense development can have on natural systems and infrastructure, Potts seems to completely misunderstand what the city has been doing and intends to do.

I believe misinformation is harmful to the public interest, so I’d like to give you some information that was overlooked, mischaracterized or misrepresented.

To begin with, the author asserts that the city is taking steps to develop property near the end of Oregon Street. No such plan exists. This was emphasized at the city council meeting after Potts first raised this question. In fact, the property was purchased by the city more than 20 years ago specifically to stop its development. It was one of the first acquisitions under a city program to buy land in environmentally sensitive areas in order to protect water quality.

This program has protected more than 2,400 acres so far, and the program remains active. There are more than a dozen properties, big and small, that are currently under acquisition, which would add an additional 1,500 acres of protection. All those properties are part of a program to protect water quality, and they have been purchased with funds dedicated to that purpose. It is hard to imagine where the idea that the city planned to develop this property came from. In fact, at the same city council meeting that Potts attended, the city added 10 additional acres to property protected from development.

The author suggests that the city disbanded a citizen advisory board to weaken water protection efforts and avoid transparency, even saying this action was taken “behind closed doors.” In fact, the city has been openly discussing the plan to revise and replace the old Watershed Advisory Board with a new, enhanced Water Resources Advisory Board that will have a broader and more comprehensive role to play. The new board is empowered to support water quality protections across the city, not only in Lake Whatcom. The author seems to have gotten it backward.

Potts’ main point is that the city’s temporary moratorium on multifamily development in the watershed should be continued permanently. The guest column says that the expiration date six months from now is a “loophole” to allow future development. That’s not how temporary moratoria work.

Under state law, an emergency moratorium must expire, although it can be renewed with good reason. The purpose of a temporary moratorium is to hold things in place while allowing time to develop permanent rules. Permanent rules are always the goal. In other words, it is not possible to make a temporary moratorium permanent, as Potts requests; but it is possible — and standard practice — to end the temporary moratorium at the same moment permanent rules are enacted. So, the city and Potts are in agreement on this.

Although local government cannot ban the development of private property in the Lake Whatcom area, it is possible to adopt stringent limits and rules to protect water quality. Such rules were first adopted by the city council in 2001 and further strengthened in 2009. City planning staff are developing additional rules along the same lines, which is why the planners asked for the temporary moratorium to be enacted last year.

Although local government does not have the power to outright ban development, there is another way to achieve the same goal: to purchase the property on the open market, to take it into public ownership.

And that is exactly what the City of Bellingham has done with the property at the end of Oregon Street, and with the thousands of acres that are, or will be, part of the Lake Whatcom preservation program. I hope this fact is welcomed by Potts and all other people who are concerned about the harm we might do to our drinking water source.

In the end, my hope here is not only to offer some facts and information to you. My highest hope is to establish confidence and good communication between elected officials such as myself and you, members of the public that we serve. If you have questions or concerns about what the City of Bellingham is doing, please search the city’s website for information and please call and write to us. Your engagement helps us to do our jobs better.

Michael Lilliquist is the Ward 6 representative on the Bellingham City Council and currently serves as the council president. He may be reached by email at mlilliquist@cob.org.

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