Speak your piece or forever hold your peace

By Meg Olson

The Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC) is asking community members to come up with a list of what is wrong, and what is right, about local zoning.

“We will have a series of these meetings so this is certainly not your last opportunity to share your thoughts,” PRCAC chair Linda Hughes told a sparsely attended meeting on March 9 intended to gather community input as the committee moves into a five-month review of Title 20.72 of Whatcom County zoning code: the Point Roberts Special District.

The special district is an overlay zone “which imposes additional controls and creates opportunities not available in the underlying zone districts to fit the needs of Point Roberts. This district is designed to protect the rural character of Point Roberts while allowing opportunities for community growth and self-reliance,” according to the code. It covers everything from tree retention to building setbacks and height restrictions.

PRCAC has been talking about updating 20.72 for several years as an extension of their work to eliminate the character plan and incorporate its design guidelines into the Point Roberts Subarea Plan, which was done in 2017.

The remainder of the subarea plan was last revised in 2001, when the “Small Town Commercial” (STC) designation along Gulf Road was put in place, as well as the new “Transitional” residential zoning under which the Cottages at Seabright Farms was developed.

The current push to modify 20.72 was sparked by public concern over code enforcement action. Most recently on February 6, county planning and development services put enforcement action for code violations at 1480 Gulf Road on hold for a year to give time to consider changes to land use rules. The county had given property owner Lorne Nielson until February 13 to remove all vehicles parked unlawfully on the property. Current county code prohibits vehicle storage in the STC zone along Gulf Road. The large parking lot at that address has been used by The Potty Wagon to store their vehicles when not in use, and by local resident George Wright to park containers for storage.

PRCAC chamber of commerce representative David Gellatly had previously recommended striking all prohibited uses from the STC zone along Gulf Road, including mini-storage, animal kennels, vehicle equipment storage and repair, as well as additional RV parks. In February the board of the taxpayers’ association voted to oppose striking prohibited uses until a comprehensive review was undertaken.

“We have five months,” Hughes said, to make recommendations in time for code changes to be in place before enforcement action on the Gulf Road property resumes. “An outdated 20.72 has created a code violation nightmare.”

Wright said the subarea plan already had the broad community vision they needed, but that the accompanying zoning was for a vision of Gulf Road that wasn’t realistic. “Ninety-five percent of this is spot-on,” he said. “We really don’t have to do very much.”

Ken Calder said most of the changes needed to address land use in the STC zone, but that the Point did not have a mix of permitted land uses to accommodate the services the community needed, such as storing heavy equipment needed for construction and septic services. Calder said he felt the zoning overlay was unfairly restrictive. “They bought the property and if it’s allowed under county code it should be allowed.”

Heidi Baxter and Steve Wolf said they felt it was appropriate to limit some uses. “I don’t want to see more storage units. We have enough,” Baxter said. Wolf added he didn’t think the community wanted to see a proliferation of RV storage businesses and industrial uses along Gulf Road.

“We want it to look nice,” he said, “but we know we need more room for industrial uses.”

“The zoning overlay doesn’t support the vision in the subarea plan,” said Allison Szabo. She added the Point Roberts Registered Voters Association would be holding educational sessions in the coming months to educate the public about the planning documents relative to Point Roberts. “What does 20.72 actually say, and if it doesn’t address something specifically what does the county code say?”

PRCAC member Stephen Falk said that, while he acknowledged the need for periodic code revisions, he did not like to see the process rushed to save one property owner from enforcement action. “I think it’s an odd thing to be driving systemic change to an entire zoning system,” he said. “We should be trying to do what’s best for the entire community.”

Hughes said the code violations might have triggered the push to revise 20.72, but the revision was long overdue and the code violations seemed to have galvanized community interest. “Before it was just an idea and maybe it takes more than just an idea to bring people to the table.” Changes they recommend to the county by the August 31 deadline to work through county approval this year may not be all that’s needed, but it would be a start that can be regularly revisited, she said.

Hughes said they had received two comments to date at comments@pointrobertscac.org and hoped to receive more. “Let’s make a list of all the shortcomings people might see and start from that,” she said. “We need to ask the public to find these documents, find what’s important to them.”

The Point Roberts Subarea plan is available at bit.ly/2WsgbHU.

The Point Roberts Special District zoning overlay (20.72) is available at bit.ly/2uw06VJ.

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