A proposal to change land use zoning in west Semiahmoo has some people waving their pitchforks.
Munger Farms, one of the largest blueberry producers in the country, has requested a change to the city of Blaine’s zoning text and comprehensive plan that would allow agricultural use on their property in west Semiahmoo.
Zoning texts define what can and cannot be done within certain areas of the city. The Munger Farms’ property is currently zoned as recreational/planned residential (RPR), which permits housing developments, single- and multi-family homes and community recreation such as golf courses. “It has limited uses right now,” said Blaine community planning director Michael Jones.
If adopted, the proposal would allow property owners with more than three acres of land to engage in silviculture, horticulture or viticulture, but does not permit the keeping of livestock. “Animals are specifically excluded,” Jones said. “We don’t want the odor or flies that are typically associated with the raising of livestock to be an issue.”
Munger Farms owns approximately 160 acres west of Semiahmoo Parkway, and an additional 120 acres in Whatcom County just beyond city limits. “Their thought in buying the Semiahmoo property in the first place was two-fold,” said Cascade Engineering’s managing principal Craig Parkinson, who filed the request on behalf of the farm owners. “They liked the Semiahmoo area and they thought it would be a good investment to develop as housing when the market is right for it.”
But since the housing market isn’t quite ready for development in that area, and possibly won’t be for years, Munger Farms is exploring the possibility of a blueberry farm on the parcel of land in the interim, according to Jones. “They have this land, and instead of letting it sit vacant, they want to farm on it until the market is right for development,” Jones said.
The county portion of the property is already zoned for agricultural use. “They could start farming blueberries tomorrow if they wanted to,” Jones said.
The request was submitted in December 2012 and was put on the docket for council’s review at that time. “They have to review everything,” Jones said. But before it was officially submitted to council, it underwent multiple reviews and changes by the planning commission.
“Anyone can apply for a zoning text amendment,” Jones said. “It’s just a request to change the rules. In this case, it was instigated by someone who wants to do agriculture. The planning commission spent hours and hours reviewing this and updating the wording of the proposal to something we were comfortable with. The wording is substantially different now than what was originally presented to us.”
The planning commission’s review process also included an environmental review that determined there would be no impact “substantially greater than a residential development would have,” Jones said. He added that it was a general review that did not take into account the specifics of the Munger Farms operation. “They haven’t submitted a proposal for a project,” he said. “Another environmental review might be required once that is submitted to address those details.”
Jones said that the planning commission also revised the text to limit the size of the buildings that could be built on the property and stipulated a minimum amount of acreage (three contiguous acres) on which commercial agriculture could take place. “We don’t want people farming on a single-family neighborhood lot,” Jones said. “The intention was to limit it so it would not have an impact on the existing community and provide a buffer.”
Parkinson said he and Munger Farms’ owners were pleased with the changes that the planning commission had made to their proposed amendment and applauded their process, but council and the unusually large crowd that gathered at the 5 p.m. study session on July 8 were not so satisfied.
Residents from Semiahmoo lined up to take the microphone and express their concern about the zoning text amendment. Questions ranged from, “What is the definition of agriculture?” to, “What are Munger’s protocols in terms of runoff and types of fertilizers used?” to, “Why wasn’t more notice given?”
Those questions that had readily available answers were addressed immediately, while some were tabled for the planning commission to review.
“What really disturbs me about this is that it was a big secret until two weeks ago,” said Semiahmoo resident Trevor Hoskins in an address to the council. “I’m very concerned about this project. I don’t know enough about it and I don’t think council knows enough about it to make a decision tonight. I want to ask that this never happen again.”
Jones said that public notices regarding the proposal had been placed in The Northern Light, The Bellingham Herald, on the city’s website and emailed to those on the Semiahmoo Resort Association’s email list.
City council member Paul Greenough, who represents Ward 3, expressed hope that the city will improve how information is dispersed to the community in the future. “The wording can be a bit opaque sometimes,” he said. “When I first saw this, I was thinking an acre or two would be developed for commercial agriculture. But this is 280 acres. That’s a honking big farm and a honking big building and a fair amount of machinery to go along with it.
“I think these residents are justifiably concerned. When they purchased their property in Semiahmoo, they agreed to the covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) that came with that purchase,” Greenough said. “The CC&Rs give them an expectation of what our future is going to be like in this area. These people are concerned that those promises won’t be honored if this happens.”
Hoskins concurred, saying he was very concerned about traffic and noise that a farming operation might bring with it, but found lack of communication the most disconcerting.
“I’m opposed to a project that I’ve only just found out about,” he said. “The planning commission has been working on this for a year, but the council was unaware and the residents were unaware.
“It was a big surprise and I don’t think it should have been. It’s important for citizens to know what is going on from the beginning.”