Candidatesoffer variety of viewpoints in local forum

Published on Thu, Oct 13, 2005 by ara Nelson

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Candidates offer variety of viewpoints in local forum

By Tara Nelson

Birch Bay and Blaine area residents got first hand answers from Whatcom County Council and Northwest Parks and Recreation District candidates during a candidate forum last week at Birch Bay Square, formerly known as the Peace Arch Outlet Mall.

The forum, sponsored by The Northern Light newspaper and the Birch Bay Steering Committee, gave candidates a chance to present their views on a variety of topics to the public, ranging from water quality and farmland preservation to rent controls, district-only voting and traffic impact fees.

Whatcom County Council candidates Seth Fleetwood, Carl Weimer, Mike Kent, Craig Mayberry, Laurie Caskey-Schreiber and Ward Nelson, and also Northwest Parks and Recreation District candidates Ted Morris and Jeralyn Smith attended the event along with approximately 80 Whatcom County residents.

County council candidate Gary Lysne and parks district candidate Jere G. Hawn were invited but did not attend the event.

The majority of the questions reflected residents’ concerns about growth. Candidates were allowed to introduce themselves and moderators Pat Grubb, publisher of The Northern Light, and Kathy Berg, chair of the Birch Bay Steering Committee, asked a series of questions drawn from a hat. One question, for example, asked candidates about their views on controlled land values, development quotas and rent controls to maintain affordability in the area.
Most candidates agreed on potential risks associated with controlled land values and rent controls, but debated over the possibility of development quotas.

Incumbent Seth Fleetwood, an attorney and Bellingham native, said while he hadn’t given much thought to rent controls, he advocated densification, establishing units in cities and building up in appropriate places to ensure adequate housing supplies. In addition, he said some growth control is necessary in order to maintain the atmosphere of the community and to prevent urban sprawl.

“I am in favor of controlled growth,” he said. “I recognize that that has an effect in the world of supply and demand and how things cost but in the future, if we look forward 50 to 100 years, if we are going to protect our natural resource amenities in Whatcom County, we have to change our conception in the future, of how we are going to live. And obviously it can’t be single tract housing with backyards and fences forever and ever– that’s not what the county vision calls for.”

Fleetwood’s opponent, Gary Lysne, did not attend the forum.
Carl Weimer, who worked on pipeline safety issues and helped establish the ReStore, a building material recycling store in Bellingham, said he was in favor of controlled growth if growth rates exceed the ability of county officials to approve development proposals in a conscientious manner. Weimer, however, disagreed with rent controls and controlled land values.

“I think there are more flexible ways to do some of the same things,” he said. “One of the fallacies you see is the belief that the only way to control housing prices is to cover the whole county with housing. But at some point, you’re going to get to the end of the county and what are you going to do? So you have to have some sort of control on where the housing needs to go. But I think there’s also ways to provide affordable housing within that context.”

One of the methods Weimer suggested was designating certain percentages of developments as affordable housing with groups such as the Kulshan Community Land Trust making up the difference in cost. Weimer said currently, all affordable housing in Whatcom County is subsidized.

Mike Kent, a realtor who is active with the Realtors Political Action Committee of the National Realtors Association (R-PAC), said he had more of a market fundamentalist view on the subject.

“In terms of controlling land values and rent controls, I am simply of the philosophy of market-driven solutions,” he said. “I believe that in the United States of America, private enterprise can provide the best solution to our toughest challenges. Controlling land values is not the solution, we have to come up with more ways to accommodate the housing needs.”

Craig Mayberry, an economics professor at Whatcom Community College and candidate for the council, agreed.

“Price controls don’t work,” he said. “The unintended consequences are far worse than what it accomplishes.”

Mayberry added he advocates alternatives such as abandoning certain state and county building regulations that add cost to development, though he did not specify which ones.

“I think we have to look at the cost of regulation and what impact that is having on pricing and see if there might be some things that we can do, making it cheaper for people who do need to build a house to be able to do it,” he said.

Incumbent Laurie Caskey-Schreiber, a fourth-generation resident of Whatcom County, said she had not considered rent controls but one of her long-standing goals is to steer growth into already-populated areas in order to maintain some level of affordability.

“One of the things that we know for a fact is that if we can steer growth to where we want it, it is cheaper for government to service that kind of dense population so therefore, your taxes will be less, your commute fees will be less, and probably your (emergency vehicle service) cost will be less,” she said. “Building up versus out is the answer to that.”

She also said she supported Kulshan Community Land Trust’s efforts to ensure a certain percentage of affordable housing.
Incumbent Ward Nelson, who is running unopposed, however, did not venture far beyond his campaigning for a 1/10 of a percent countywide sales tax to fund the Whatcom County emergency medical service.

“There is desperation but the best way to do that approach is not to use draconian measures that only create more rift and strife in our communities,” he said about building permit quotas.

Later, he added, “If we don’t take care of the EMS medical system, we will see a demise in the property values in the rural areas if people feel that they cannot receive the proper protection in those rural areas. We need to fund EMS because what good is growth if they can’t get into the hospital?”

At the end of the meeting, audience members were allowed to ask all candidates or individual candidates their own questions.

Lincoln Rutter, a resident of Semiahmoo in Blaine, wanted to know what the candidates planned to do about the increase of traffic congestion in neighboring Birch Bay.

“Do you agree with the principle that developers should have to pay impact fees?” Rutter said.

All of the candidates agreed some form of traffic impact fee should be implemented, though some more adamantly than others.

The 2005 Whatcom County comprehensive plan requires that road improvements are made in concurrence with land-use developments and warns that congestion and inadequate road conditions can have hidden costs to taxpayers both in the form of increased traffic accidents and subsequent emergency services as well as potential lawsuits to the county.

Because Birch Bay is not an incorporated city, it has no way of charging developers impact fees traffic and other municipal services such as police and fire protection.

Caskey-Schreiber said the council approved a resolution that would implement countywide traffic impact fees several months ago but the county planning commission is still working on a proposal. Patience for that proposal is running out, she said.

“We have got to get traffic impact fees,” she said. “We basically sat down Hal Hart and said if we do not have traffic impact fees in six months, we are going to write our own initiative.”
Nelson agreed.

“Planning is under a lot of stress right now,” he said. “I empathize with them but there is no excuse not to provide service to its customers. We need a council that is going to be proactive. Waiting until the last minute to do impact fees is not planning.”

Candidates for Northwest Parks and Recreation District, a non-partisan board of commissioners, also presented their views on growth and its potential effect on parklands.

Jeralyn Smith, a fifth-generation Birch Bay resident running for parks and recreation commissioner, position 2, said opportunities exist right now to work with the developing community in an effort to maintain the area’s rural atmosphere.

She said she would like to work with those developers to acquire green spaces to connect new developments with existing green spaces, trails and other open areas.

“This corner of the county has been discovered by hundreds of additional citizens as you know and our sheer number demand immediate attention to a host of issues, not the least of which is the enhancement and preservation of our quality of life,” she said.
Smith’s opponent, Jere G. Hawn, was not present.

Ted Morris, a candidate for parks and recreation commissioner, position 4, and resident of Birch Bay with more than 30 years of experience working in state parks, agreed with Smith’s sentiments. He said he would like to see more of a planned approach to identifying future parks, trails and open spaces that will be needed.

“As a geographical area, the Northwest Parks and Recreation District is rapidly becoming a favorite place to live, to retire and actually just to relax,” he said. “We all are feeling the effects of this growth as we share the roads, the parks, our beaches in Whatcom County with more people each day. Currently we’re not planning for the recreational needs for the district, we are reacting to development.”

He added that he thinks the northwest district could be a leader in developing a recreational master plan for the Birch Bay and Blain area.

“We need to preserve our wildlife habitat, our parks and our beaches as a legacy to the next generation,” he said.