Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lake Whatcom: Valuable Real Estate for Whom?

Some things have been bothering me about what keeps happening in the Lake Whatcom watershed.

Despite the fact that the waters of our Reservoir rightfully belong to the citizens of Washington.

Despite the County downzone that was well-intended but botched to the point it actually encouraged rapid build-out, during which the County allowed the BIA to dictate clearing and grading policy for 18 months.

Despite the well-intended boating regulation that was so easily sabotaged by property rights advocates, and even undermined by the County Council itself.

Despite the DNR Landscape Plan that was so skillfully gutted after the State Legislature directed that a stakeholder committee produced recommendations to tighten Forest Practices.

Despite the talk about a County-led Phosphorus reduction program that turned out to be just talk.

Despite the use of Conservation Futures funds to buy down lots in Sudden Valley to further that community's voluntary density reduction program, and to acquire other watershed property for conservancy.

Despite all that, plus the City's efforts to set more stringent watershed development regulations, preserve watershed property, provide more stormwater facilities, educate citizens in Lake-Friendly practices and the like.

The 'Lake' is still being used and sold as just another amenity to sell real estate at jacked up prices.

This watershed is not affordable real estate! It is being marketed as a prime property for mega-homes for the wealthy, and the rules are being bent at will to accommodate this frenzy.

Why? Because some folks have found out they can do it without being challenged, and there is big money to be made doing it. It's just that simple.

And, the Water Districts aren't much of a help either, because they think they have to mindlessly say 'yes' to every applicant for water or sewer that applies. That's much easier than raising rates on their existing customers to pay for adequate maintenance of their facilities - which do leak with regularity directly into our water supply reservoir.

And, because some folks were smart enough to vest their properties to insure they could build, and because neither County nor City is particularly good at enforcing their regulations with consistency.

And, because the 'Growth Machine' is much better at what they do than any local government has been at doing what they should be doing to protect our public water supply!

Some very obvious, in-your-face, symptoms of what's going on include the slick, glossy brochures and ads being paid for by the Realtors, the BIA and others that actively promote 'business as usual' even in our Reservoir's watershed.

For example, I got a brochure delivered directly to my City Council address that asked:
'What is your community doing about the housing crisis?'

It then went on to list a seemingly innocuous list of 'policies' that local governments can adopt to increase housing availability and affordability. That list was OK, but it did subtly ask for a number of general things, without regard for critical and sensitive areas that require special protection.
Maybe not so subtle?

Then, the glossy, upscale 'Whatcom Magazine', published monthly by the Herald for its affluent advertising clients, touting waterfront property [you pick the water body and shoreline] appealing specifically to Californians, with messages like:
'This doesn't exist in California. And if it did, I couldn't afford it in 10 lifetimes."

That particular 'op-ad' featured Semiahmoo, but others targeted Lummi Island, Lake Whatcom, Edgemoor, Boulevard Park and the San Juan Islands. In short, every shoreline is being promoted as if there is no tomorrow, and for some, tomorrow is already here.

What does this expensive, targeted ad campaign do to our efforts to limit sprawl and protect shorelines? The answer is absolutely nothing! In fact, just the contrary. But, hey, this is America and people can live where they can afford, and trash the environment as they will.

Maybe the Real Estate people are right, we all need to get all that we can now, and the sooner the better.

Forget planning, forget protecting salmon and the environment, forget the impacts unbridled greed has on others who live here, forget this type of promotion never pays its way, except for the money-changers.

Heck, why not forget everything. If we just decided to that, we might relieve growth pressure sooner, because trashing this place would render it much less appealing in the future. Remember the Real Estate Mantra 'Location, location, location'?

That's a really grim thought, but it seems to be happening despite the good efforts of many good people.

Washington State attracts people because of its beauty, but also because it has no State income tax. Think about it. Wealthy people come here partly because property is less expensive - and also they get to pay less taxes on their wealth than say - California. Bingo!

Since our esteemed Legislature would rather touch a third rail of some thing big and electrical than address income taxes as the fairest form of tax, we get to reap the 'rewards' in the form of wealthy folk who come here to enjoy what we have, and have us subsidize them to boot. Not so smart I think, but that's just my opinion!

One afterthought: maybe another 1/4 percent Real Estate Excise Tax [REET] would help to pay for essential facilities?

Or, maybe impact fees in the unincorporated areas to help pay for the inefficient roads servicing sprawl? Nah, the County wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole!

How about a Real Estate Transfer Fee to help finance stormwater facilities in the Lake Whatcom Watershed? You know, have buyers pay 1% for the privilege of living there and knowing it is a special place, with special rules?

Hey, these folks can afford it! And we do need the money, don't we?