Zone 9 from Outer Space

Previously on Integral Permaculture…

Could Our Obscure County Election Change the Planet?  This post linked to a National Journal article which pointed out that our upcoming County Council election could be crucial to the decision that ultimately decides whether the Gateway Pacific Terminal (aka “the coal port”) gets built or not.  And Why You Should Care About the Growth Management Act if You Live In Whatcom County discussed another reason to pay attention to the County Council election – because poor land use planning is eroding our ability to be resilient, and because we are currently out of compliance with state law, which is costing us $$$.

I’m also using this series of posts to promote the Candidate Forum on Growth and the Environment (Aug. 1, 5pm at Bellingham High School), hosted by RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and Futurewise Whatcom (and numerous other local orgs participating in the info fair before the forum, including Transition Whatcom).  I’m hoping these posts will prepare you to participate more fully and get more out of this forum.

Today’s post, and the one following has the goal of getting you to take some time to read some of the excellent columns over at Cascadia Weekly – specifically Tim Johnson’s column, The Gristle.  We’re continuing to consider the Growth Management Act (GMA), and specifically looking at the idea of zoning.

In Permaculture, Bill Mollison’s  fifth principle, Energy Efficient Planning, deals with zones:


The key to efficient energy planning (which is, in fact, efficient economic planning) is the zone and sector placement of plants, animal ranges, and structures…

Zone planning means placing elements according to how much we use them or how often we need to service them. Areas that must be visited every day (e.g. the glasshouse, chicken pen, garden) are located nearby, while places visited less frequently (orchard, grazing areas, woodlot) are located further away.

from Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison with Reny Mia Slay


It’s a similar concept with county wide zoning regulations. One of the issues that’s been on the Whatcom County Council agenda in the last few months has become an election issue.  The County Council is considering a Planning Commission proposal to rezone all 88,000 acres in agricultural land to permit slaughterhouses. In a column published on in Cascadia Weekly on 5/28/2013 (The Gristle: Slaughterhouse Rules), Tim Johnson wrote:

Zoning we might define as the art and science of placing things a community needs in places neighborhoods don’t want, balancing the unpleasant against utility. Zoning provides predictability in land use (when developers rage about the need for predictability, they are almost always seeking a change to existing zoning) and serves to protect certain land uses from the encroachment and conversion by competitive, incompatible uses.

Frankly, few things are more unpleasant than a slaughterhouse, animal butchering on an industrial scale, in terms of odors, noises and biohazard wastes produced. And few things require protection from encroachment and conversion more than Whatcom’s dwindling supply of ag land.

Spot zoning, placing things piecemeal where they encounter paths of least resistance, is an abdication of police powers; a blanket upzone, such as council is contemplating, represents a diametric abdication of their responsibility to carefully weigh and balance competing concerns. The abdication simply permits a use without deeply contemplating the potential impacts of that use.

It turns out that two of the folks from the Planning Commission who are closely tied to this proposal (Ben Elenbaas and Michele Luke) are now running for Council seats, which is just one reason this has become an election year issue.

The odd thing is, there seems to be broad “bi-partisan” support for the idea of one or two appropriately sized slaughterhouses that could be sited on, as Johnson puts it, “otherwise unproductive ag land.”  We could all get behind the idea of local processing for local farmers providing local food. There’s lots of room for compromise, but unfortunately it seems that all of the proposals considered by the Council thus far seem to be widely missing the mark of reasonableness.  Admittedly, the strident tone of some that have been speaking in opposition has not always been helpful.

Johnson again:

The chasm is analogous to asking for a small glass of water and being instead knocked down by a battalion of firehoses; and the fact that significant numbers on council evidently cannot perceive the scale and scope of the chasm suggests something deeply troubling about Whatcom County Council.

Johnson’s column then helpfully outlines “how we got here.” (it morphed into a “property rights” issue – worth reading – check it out).  He concludes with this wise advice:

The Gristle’s advice to County Council is simply this: Since this mess was created by the planning commission, and two planning commissioners (Elenbaas and commission chair Michelle Luke) are running for election to County Council, why not put off this decision until November? The election itself should serve as a unique public referendum on what is being proposed.

In a more recent column last week (The Gristle: Red Meat), Johnson updates his Slaughterhouse discussion.

More than anything, the ordinance in front of council fails to do what the council has everywhere failed to do, which is plan for and encourage development in areas best suited for that development, whether that planning considers ag and water resources, energy and transportation resources, or urban resources.

In approving slaughterhouses everywhere throughout the Ag zone, council plans for them nowhere, in an abdication of the very purpose and definition of zoning, which is—textbook—to prevent the impacts of new development from interfering with existing residents or businesses and to preserve the “character” of a community. And few things are as “impactful” as slaughterhouses. The abdication is deliberate.

Again, worth reading in its entiretyThe Gristle concludes with important context – how are the current council’s actions impacting farmers and farmland?

All this is of course done as a gesture to the agricultural community, to demonstrate county support for farmers. The idea that the hundred hours council has wasted arguing about slaughterhouses is their best gesture to the farming community is both laughable and sad at the same time, hours that have not been spent trying to quantify and clarify water availability for agricultural use or trying to lift state orders of invalidity that paralyze large sections of the rural county until they’re resolved.

It’s instructive to trawl the work sessions of neighboring agricultural counties—view the painstaking hours spent to preserve farmland for farmers, to reduce the regulatory burdens of farming endeavors, encouraging land use practices that improve crop yield and profitability—and realize that Whatcom County spends most of its time mucking around with the Last Harvest, trying to figure out shortcuts so ruined farmers can parachute out of the business, trading one way of life for another—screwing around with parcel reconfigurations so farmers can get the hell out that way; or proposing new business models or uses in the Ag zone so farmers can get the hell out that way; on and on. It is truly sad; and it is without end, until the last farm is shuttered. Or this council majority is defeated.

At this point you may be wondering about the significance of the title of this week’s post. Zone 9 from Outer Space? I was trying to come up with a clever title related to zoning when that title popped right out of Angela’s mouth.  The reference is, of course, to the notable ‘worst movie of all time,’ Plan 9 From Outer Space. In Permaculture, the furthest out zone is Zone 5, referencing The Wild Zone.

Zone 9 is even further out, I imagine. It is so hard to make sense of the current zoning practices in our county, it seems they could only have come from outer space.


Being that all of this is written out of concern for a resilient future for our community, we’ll close with one of the famous lines from the movie, intoned by The Amazing Criswell:

We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.


2 comments on “Zone 9 from Outer Space

  1. […] our County back into compliance with state laws on growth management, and most likely to reverse a new policy on slaughterhouses…have apparently […]

  2. […] history of the space you are designing new systems for. The next step is to consider Zone Planning. Zone Planning is where you assess the usage and care of the plants you are planting. High use plants are placed […]

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