Planning Commission recommends character plan changes

By Meg Olson

With some reluctance, the Whatcom County Planning Commission voted to recommend county council approve a proposal to take the meat of the character plan and move it to the zoning code.

At their April 13 meeting in Bellingham, commissioners voted unanimously to accept a staff proposal to amend the Point Roberts Subarea Plan, part of the county’s comprehensive plan, removing the character plan from that document. Simultaneously, the Point Roberts Special District, part of the county zoning code, would be amended to turn portions of the character plan into the Point Roberts Design Guidelines.

“Essentially what we’re doing is taking the character plan out of the comprehensive plan,” said senior county planner Cliff Strong. “The reason is because if anyone wants to change the character plan as it is now it constitutes a comprehensive plan amendment and can only be done once a year.” Zoning text amendments can be done at any time.

Whatcom County Planning and Development Services (PDS) proposed the change in response to a request from the Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC), formalized in a motion at its March 14 meeting, to “harmonize and update” the character plan and the zoning code. A primary goal of the committee in making that recommendation was to “reduce restrictions, simplify the permitting process while retaining desired esthetic and environmental protection.”

Strong said the proposed changes would incorporate basic development standards from the character plan – such as height, landscaping, PRCAC review and parking – directly into the zoning code. The architectural design guidelines in the character plan would be converted to the Point Roberts Design Guidelines, which would be adopted as an addendum to the code. “Getting them out of the subarea allows us to modify them anytime,” Strong said.

Commissioners spent as much time discussing the lack of adequate notification as they did the issue itself. “A lot of people don’t have any idea what’s going on tonight,” said local resident and former planning commissioner John Lesow.

Notice of the meeting was published in the Bellingham Herald but, though staff stated they sent notice to the All Point Bulletin, none was received. After receiving the information through Lesow, the All Point Bulletin published the meeting notice in the electronic edition the day of the meeting.

“This is the second issue of poor notice in as many months,” said planning commissioner Natalie McClendon, suggesting they not take action until the community had received adequate notice.

PRCAC chair Joel Lantz urged commissioners to not delay their decision so his committee could get to work immediately on changing development guidelines, rather than have to wait for next year’s window for comprehensive plan changes. “None of the character plan is going away,” he said. “That’s what we will be working on as a community for the next six to eight months.”

Lesow urged commissioners to step back. “I don’t want to see any of the good parts of the Point Roberts visioning statements lost,” he said. Strong told commissioners he was trying to incorporate as much of that language as possible into the guidelines that would be folded in to the zoning code.

The public still has opportunity to weigh in on the proposal, which will now move to county council for final approval. It will be introduced at the May 2 council meeting, and will likely move on to a public hearing on May 16.

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