By Meg Olson
The deck at Brewster’s Fine Foods was packed with property owners for the Point Roberts Taxpayers Association annual general meeting. Mark Personius, assistant director of Whatcom County Planning and Development Services was the featured speaker at the July 22 meeting, explaining the different layers of county regulations and the process by which they evolve and are applied in communities like Point Roberts.
The county is currently in the midst of updating its comprehensive plan and critical areas ordinance. Personius said the county expects to complete them by next year, when they will turn to updating the subarea plans which outline more community-specific policies. “Is there anything new you want to see updated in your subarea plan?” he asked. Local efforts to revise the Point Roberts Character Plan, which is incorporated into the subarea plan, are currently wrapping up.
Permit center specialist Nick Smith joined Personius to field questions from the audience, which focused on code enforcement. “Nobody bothers to get a permit. A gas station sign goes up, someone puts in a new business, fills a wetland, all without a permit,” said Arthur Reber, former chair of the Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee, pointing out that efforts to craft codes and policies that reflect community priorities are only effective if they apply to everyone. “Without enforcement it all crashes and burns,” Reber said.
Smith said they were actively working on a number of code violation reports filed with their office. “It can be a lengthy process,” he said. “We grant people timeframes to come into compliance. There are appeals, there is due process.” Personius added that while they had a number of tools at their disposal, including the ability to levy fines for code violators who don’t come into compliance, all enforcement action stops if someone appeals.
“That’s why we try and work with people to come into compliance voluntarily,” he said.
Several audience members expressed frustration with toothless enforcement:
“You reward bad behavior on a regular basis,” Annelle Norman said.
“They put in a business that shouldn’t exist, that is not allowed in the zone and you don’t seem to be able to stop it,” Reber said.
“It’s a problem,” Personius admitted. Smith and Personius both said they were working to take wiggle room and dead wood out of zoning codes to make them more succinct and enforceable. “One of my priorities is to update and overhaul our zoning code,” Personius said. “We’ve been putting Band-Aids on it for decades.”
Another request from the audience was for clearer communication, including community notification of new applications or proposed code changes, and better access to documentation that accompanied them.
Smith said work was underway to increase the documentation available on the county website, which already has links to major permit application materials and county codes including the Point Roberts subarea plan and character plan. Judy Ross suggested they put in place a push notification system, in common use with other regulatory agencies, that would allow interested parties to sign up to get an email of new applications or regulatory changes.
Smith and Personius agreed to look into the possibility, as well as to send legal notices to the All Point Bulletin and Point Interface. Currently they send notices to The Bellingham Herald, which the county has contracted to be the legal publication of record for the Point. Taxpayers association president Mark Robbins pointed out that it was not available for sale in Point Roberts, making the Herald ineffectual in that role.
“If you want a paid newspaper for sale in Point Roberts, you’ll need to look at the Vancouver Sun,” he said.