Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Letter of Thanks from Wendy Harris to City re: emergency moratorium

To: Mayor Dan Pike
CC: City Council, Planning and Community Development, City Environmental Resources Division-Public Works Department
From: Wendy Harris

Date: 5.28.08

Re: Proposed Amendment to the CAO/EPF Law

Dear Mayor Pike:

I applaud your recent action in declaring an emergency moratorium on development within the Lake Whatcom watershed, Ordinance 2008-05-053. As noted within the Ordinance, there is irrefutable evidence, from both the TMDL and Huxley’s Institute for Watershed Studies, that the water quality of Lake Whatcom has deteriorated over the last 20 years, endangering the health and welfare of local residents, fish and wildlife. Federal and state laws dictate that the City takes action to restore the health of the Lake.

The results of the TMDL “paint a dramatic picture of how much work needs to be done….It will be up to local government leaders to develop strategies and pass laws that improve stormwater management…” so the full impacts of development are deflected. You have risen to the challenge set out in the TMDL by taking an important step forward in resolving this environmental crisis.

Unfortunately, Lake Whatcom is not the only natural resource located within the City that is suffering from chronic environmental degradation. A 2006 study by the City, located on the COB website, documented the negative impact of development on City streams. Of 18 samples taken from 11 different streams located within the City, only 2 passed applicable fecal coliform standards. As far back as 1995, a City Wildlife Habitat Plan, also located on the COB website, indicated that development results in loss of habitat necessary for the survival of fish and wildlife.

Additionally, the City’s Wildlife Habitat Plan explained how numerous federal, state and local laws were inadequately drafted and/or implemented, and thus, failed to properly protect wildlife habitat. Similarly, the Department of Ecology’s notes, on its TMDL website, that in most cases where a TMDL is required, water quality standards could be met if existing programs were implemented and existing regulations enforced.

In this context, I urge you to reconsider the City’s plan to allow exemptions to its Critical Areas Ordinance (“CAO”) for public works projects. The admitted purpose for this exemption is to provide relief from the costs of complying with the environmental protection laws currently in place. However, the requested exemption, as drafted, fails to establish standards to ensure that: (1) exempted projects meet the definition of an Essential Public Facility (“EPF”) under the Growth Management Act (“GMA”); (2) the project is important enough to warrant financial relief at the expense of the environment. These standards should be mandatory, particularly since the City’s Municipal Codes already define and allow for the siting of an EPF, including the siting within a Critical Area in conformity with the normal mitigation standards set out in the CAO.

Establishing and protecting Critical Areas lies at the heart of the GMA. As noted by the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development (“CTED”) in its Critical Area Handbook, available on its website, the protection of Critical Areas is essential. “Critical areas perform key functions that enhance our environment and protect us from hazards. The beneficial functions and values provided by critical areas include, but are not limited to, water quality protection and enhancement; fish and wildlife habitat; food chain support; flood storage, conveyance, and attenuation (the slow release) of flood waters; ground water recharge and discharge; erosion control; wave attenuation; protection from natural hazards; historical, archaeological, and aesthetic value protection; and recreation.” Once destroyed, Critical Area are expensive and difficult, if not impossible, to restore.

Accordingly, the GMA imposes a duty on local governments to adopt development regulations that ensure no net loss in the ecological function of critical areas and resource lands. However, the results of the TMDL, Huxley’s Institute For Watershed Studies, the City’s Wildlife Habitat Plan and its 2006 Creek Drainage Basin Study, speak loudly regarding the on-going degradation of our natural resources. In light of this environmental degradation, it is clear that the “no net loss” standards of the GMA (as well as the SMA) are not being implemented and enforced. This indicates that the City’s CAO needs to be strengthened, and/or enforced more vigorously to ensure that there is no net loss of ecological function in our Critical Areas.

Instead, contrary to the available information, and in the mist of a necessary emergency moratorium on Lake Whatcom watershed development, the City intends to weaken its CAO to allow more, and less expensive, development. Allowing a CAO exemption betrays the vision and leadership that you have shown in passing the emergency moratorium. It mocks the City’s title as the greenest city in Washington, it contradicts strong public support for protecting our environment, and it violates our legal responsibilities under the GMA and SMA.

Mayor Pike, you have taken a great stride forward for the cause of public health and safety by refusing to allow Lake Whatcom, itself a critical area, to be subject to continuing degradation. Please do not begin walking backwards. Let us all learn an important lesson from the TMDL and take the necessary actions today to avert additional emergency situations tomorrow.

Wendy Harris
Bellingham resident; WSU BeachWatchers/Watershed Master; Board Member, People for Lake Whatcom

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