By Kirk Johnson
The Planning Commission plays a fundamental role in land use planning in Skagit County. But many county residents are unfamiliar with that role and with the series of misguided recommendations the Planning Commission has made – and the Board of County Commissioners has summarily accepted – over the past decade. This article seeks to bring that process and history to light and suggest reforms that would help make the Planning Commission a more constructive part of Skagit County’s planning process.
Role of the Planning Commission
According to the Skagit County Planning Commission website,
“The Planning Commission is the County’s principal citizen advisory body on land use policy and regulations. The Washington State Planning Enabling Act directs the Planning Commission to ‘assist the Planning Department in carrying out its duties, including assisting in the preparation and execution of the comprehensive plan and recommendations to the department for the adoption of official controls or amendments…”
The Planning Commission consists of nine members appointed by the Board of County Commissioners. Three Planning Commission members are appointed to represent each County Commissioner district to ensure countywide geographical representation. Terms on the Planning Commission last four years and members may be reappointed to serve multiple terms.
In its advisory role, the Planning Commission weighs in on three types of proposed amendments to:
- Comprehensive Plan policies that provide the broad framework for land use planning in Skagit County
- Development Regulations, such as the zoning code or the critical areas ordinance, that implement comprehensive plan policies
- Skagit County Land Use and Zoning Map, which governs which types of land use activities may occur on a particular parcel or area of land
The Planning Commission does not review specific development projects, such as permits for single family residences which are issued by the Planning Department, or special use permits which require a public hearing before the Hearing Examiner.
Planning Commission Review
Proposals come before the Planning Commission through a formal “legislative review” process dictated by County code. Typically, the Planning Department develops those proposals at the direction of the Board of County Commissioners. Proposals may also come before the Planning Commission through the annual Comprehensive Plan and Development Regulation amendment process, whereby members of the public may request a change to a comprehensive plan policy, a development regulation, or a land use/zoning map designation.
The Board of County Commissioners serves as the gatekeeper for determining which proposals advance through the planning process. If the Board directs a proposal to move forward, the Planning Department develops necessary documentation and analysis, releases the proposal for review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), schedules the required public comment period and hearing before the Planning Commission, and issues a staff report including recommended actions or alternatives.
The Planning Commission then holds the public hearing, and reviews written comments from the public. It is expected to review the entire record before it, including the staff report and any documentation submitted by a proposal applicant or state agencies.
Based on that record, the Planning Commission then deliberates: that is, it discusses the proposal, considers motions to amend, approve, or reject it, and formulates “findings of fact” in support of its final recommendation.
County Commissioner Final Action
The Planning Department writes up the Planning Commission’s recommendation in the form of a “recorded motion” which then moves to the Board of County Commissioners for final action. The Planning Commission’s recommendation is advisory only; the Board can choose to accept it, reject it, modify it, or remand the proposal back to the Planning Commission with specific instructions for further consideration.
An important feature of Skagit County’s legislative review process is that the Board rarely holds its own public hearing on a proposal that the Planning Commission has already reviewed. [In some jurisdictions, like the City of Mount Vernon, the city council holds its own public hearing, allowing it to hear directly from the public.] It is therefore critical that the Planning Commission thoroughly and objectively review all the materials submitted to the public record, and incorporate factual information into its recommendations and findings of fact.
A Broken Process
Unfortunately, for the past decade or so, the Skagit County Planning Commission process has been broken. Often, the Planning Commission has failed in its responsibility to be an objective, fact-based deliberative body and sounding board for the Skagit community as a whole. Instead, based on a pattern of appointments made by the County Commissioners, the Planning Commission has been shaped by an extreme pro-property-rights, anti-government, and anti-planning perspective.
Over this time, a handful of influential Planning Commission members have exerted undue influence on Planning Commission discussions and deliberations, sometimes establishing a hostile and confrontational attitude toward applicants whose proposals they oppose and toward Planning Department staff working to advance proposals authorized by the Board of County Commissioners. In so doing, the Planning Commission has failed to carry out its responsibility under the Planning Enabling Act to “assist the Planning Department in carrying out its duties.” 1
Most disturbing are the numerous instances where Planning Commission members have ignored the bulk of public comments, the detailed documentation presented by the Department, and scientific information submitted by state agencies or other authorities that is supportive of a proposal. Instead, they have inserted their own conclusions based on anecdotal information and internet-based “research” to create “findings of fact” that in reality are opinions contradicted by the bulk of objective facts contained in the public record.
This is a particular problem because the Board of County Commissioners often takes refuge behind the Planning Commission’s recommendations, contending that the Planning Commission is the body tasked with listening to the public and therefore the Board is almost duty bound to follow its recommendations.
Commissioner Ron Wesen recently invoked this argument in voting to reject a proposal to provide greater protections for Great Blue Heron nesting habitat. The proposal was supported by the Planning Department, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the vast majority of public comments submitted to the Planning Commission.
Yet Commissioner Wesen said the following in voting to reject the proposal,
“The reason we have a planning commission is to hear comments and talk to people in the community and come to a recommendation. They said there aren’t any pressing issues with blue herons in this area. March Point rookery is one of the biggest on the West Coast. We have a beautiful area and seem to have quite a few (herons) in the area.”County commissioners decide on comprehensive plan amendments, Skagit Valley Herald, December 22, 2020
One pressing issue the Planning Commission and Commissioner Wesen failed to acknowledge was that in 2017, hundreds of herons abandoned Skagit County’s oldest and second largest nesting site – and their helpless chicks- due to a combination of disturbances in the area. Also, the growing concentration of heron nests at March Point, while in some ways a positive development, also runs the metaphorical risk of putting nearly all of Skagit County’s heron eggs in the same basket. In reality, this emphasizes the need for stronger habitat protections around that increasingly important site.
Wesen’s vote and his statement above came after he appeared to indicate just a few weeks earlier he would support the proposal, based on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s testimony indicating the added protections were necessary to match requirements in state law.
“I agree with Commissioner Janicki; we need to do something….”
Wesen said at a November 24, 2020 County Commissioner work session where he and Commissioner Janicki indicated their support for the heron proposal.
“I don’t see how we can not follow the state laws. I mean, is there any way we can not follow the state laws that WDFW has? So we have to do that. Isn’t that correct?”
Commissioner Janicki, the only Commissioner who ended up voting for the proposal, said during that session:
“This is a critical-point decision about protection of Great Blue Herons and I think doing nothing flies in the face of the science that’s there and really our responsibility to protect this species…”Record of the Proceedings, Work Session with Planning and Development Services Re: 2019 Docket, November 24, 2020, approx. recording time 1:15:00
Here are some examples of the Planning Commission’s most flawed actions and recommendations over the past decade.
In 2011, under the direction of its chair, the Planning Commission refused to make a recommendation on a pipeline safety ordinance sent to it for consideration by the Board of County Commissioners. Instead, the Commission used its recorded motion to call for an investigation of the Planning Department. In doing so, it amplified baseless claims from a few members of the public that the Department had fraudulently obtained and managed a federal pipeline safety grant.
The Planning Commission’s action occurred after Skagit County’s Prosecutor, who is independent of the Planning Department and the Board of County Commissioners, told the Planning Commission chair that the Planning Commission’s sole role is to make recommendations on proposed legislation, not to investigate county departments.
An independent legal analysis commissioned by the County Administrator found no basis to the allegations against the Department but concluded the Planning Commission had acted inappropriately and outside the scope of its authority by focusing its deliberations on the allegations while failing to deliberate on the pipeline proposal itself. 2
The incident had heavy political undertones. The Planning Commission chair at the time worked as the lobbyist for the North Puget Sound Association of Realtors; was an activist with the Skagit County Republican Party; and had political aspirations of his own. The Skagit GOP, then as now 3, was known for its hard-right, conspiracy-laden ideology. The members of the public who alleged fraud against the Department were affiliated with the Skagit Tea Party. And one of those members has served on the Planning Commission since 2014, recently as vice chair, and has been instrumental in many of the episodes discussed in this article.
In 2013, the Planning Commission recommended that the one chapter of the 12-chapter Skagit County Parks and Recreation Plan dealing with wildlife and habitat conservation be removed from the plan, asserting that the chapter put wildlife above people:
“Emphasis seems to be placed on habitat and wildlife conservation, whereas more emphasis needs to be focused on public use of those lands where people and wildlife are using those lands together.”Planning Commission Recorded Motion, p. 4
This was despite the fact that the remaining eleven chapters of the plan addressed human use and enjoyment of the 2,400-acre parks and recreation system; and that the County’s own Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, which has more specialized expertise in the subject, had unanimously approved the plan including the wildlife chapter. The Planning Commission member who offered the motion to remove the wildlife chapter was a forester with Sierra Pacific Industries, which has a reputation for aggressive forestry practices, especially in its home state of California. 4
In 2015, a group of Fidalgo Island residents proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Plan and Development Regulations to better protect Fidalgo Island’s rural character. In part, the proposal would have eliminated 17 commercial special uses allowed in the Rural Reserve zone which many residents felt threatened the island’s rural residential character. The group worked closely with the Planning Department to modify the proposal to address legitimate concerns raised through public comments. Apparently indicating its support, the Board authorized the revised proposal to continue moving forward through the planning process.
By 2018, as many as 350 Fidalgo Island residents had signed a petition supporting the proposal. However, the tenor of the debate changed when a California Super PAC founder who owns property on the island worked with property rights extremists from throughout the county to oppose the proposal employing an aggressive misinformation campaign.
Despite the Planning Department’s development of multiple options for Planning Commission consideration, the Planning Commission voted 6-1 to deny the proposal outright. The Board of County Commissioners followed suit. A more responsible Planning Commission could have further modified the proposal where it felt necessary – embracing its responsibility to assist the Planning Department and the Board – rather than essentially throwing three years of staff and community work in the trash can. 5
In 2016, the Planning Commission recommended removing all bicycle and pedestrian transportation projects from the County’s Transportation Systems Plan, in response to comments from a few members of the public who have a long-standing, ideological objection to any such projects. They did so even though state law requires non-motorized projects to be included in the transportation plan and these projects are very popular among the broad public. Following a large, and civil public outcry, a majority of Planning Commission members later reversed their recommendation and voted to reinsert the non-motorized projects into the plan, although two commissioners stuck with their original, illegal-under-state-law recommendation.
In 2020, following its recommendation to deny greater protections for Great Blue Heron nesting habitat, the Planning Commission censured one of its members, Mark Lundsten, for requesting that his minority opinion supporting the heron protections be included in the Planning Commission’s recorded motion. The censure asserted that Lundsten had violated language in the Planning Commission by-laws about “losing gracefully” – even though such language doesn’t actually exist. Three of the Planning Commission members who voted for the censure also contributed to the re-election campaign of Commissioner Ron Wesen, whose seat Lundsten was running for, suggesting that for some, the censure was a partisan political act. 6
Skagit County Prosecutor Rich Weyrich highlighted the inappropriateness of the Planning Commission’s censure when he issued a memo to the County Commissioners concluding that the Planning Commission’s sole responsibility is to make recommendations on land use matters. 7 Weyrich wrote that the Planning Commission has no authority to censure one of its members and that Lundsten’s request that his minority opinion be provided to the Board of County Commissioners was entirely consistent with the Planning Commission’s responsibility to provide land use guidance to the Board.
This episode’s similarity to the Planning Commission’s misguided 2011 call for an investigation of the Planning Department on the pipeline matter – also against legal guidance from the Prosecutor – is sad and striking, and raises the question: why does the Board of County Commissioners continue to tolerate such behavior?
If the Planning Commission is broken, can it be fixed?
Fortunately, there are many ways to improve the Planning Commission’s composition and performance. However, they all require the Board of County Commissioners to exert leadership rather than acting as if the Planning Commission is an independent and co-equal body which it most definitely is not.
Broader Planning Commission Representation
The first and most important step is for the Board to appoint Planning Commission members who more broadly represent the Skagit community. This was the case in the mid-2000s when the Skagit County Comprehensive Plan and Development Regulations violated the Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA) on more than 200 specific issues. The Board appointed a more balanced Planning Commission that worked cooperatively with the Planning Department, serving as a genuine sounding board for the community and helping to refine and improve proposals before they moved to the Board of County Commissioners for final action. By the end of the decade, the County had achieved full compliance with the Growth Management Act and boasted a plan and development code that other counties sought to emulate.
In more recent years – as in the pre-GMA period – the Planning Commission has been dominated by certain interests, including real estate agents and developers, farmers and commercial foresters; not to mention extreme property-rights advocates and conservative ideologues. While it is important that some of these interests be represented – specifically those knowledgeable about the natural resource industries that are significant to the county’s culture and economy – they should not represent the only or even dominant interests on the commission. By contrast, the Planning Commission historically has suffered a shortage of Planning Commission members knowledgeable about and supportive of sound land use planning, and environmental, open space, and wildlife conservation. Also valuable would be representatives of information-based industries that are increasingly important to Skagit County’s economy, and who may have a greater appreciation for the non-extractive values of the county’s natural resources and environment.
Of course, it is easier for the County Commissioners to appoint a broad array of commission members if they have a diversity of applicants to choose from. When there is an opening on the Commission, the Board of County Commissioners issues a public notice seeking applications. Applicants then submit a statement of interest and supporting information, often including a resume and letters of support. Top candidates participate in an interview with the County Commissioner making the appointment. At least two of the three County Commissioners must approve a nominee in a formal vote to add that person to the Planning Commission.
More Public Oversight
The general public can significantly influence Planning Commission decisions through its active participation in the planning process. This includes participating in public hearings and comment periods, observing Planning Commission deliberations, and informing the Board when the Planning Commission’s recommendations don’t accurately reflect the public process that preceded it. Such participation helped convince the Planning Commission to restore non-motorized projects to the Transportation Systems Plan in 2016, after some 45 county residents attended the next meeting and (politely) expressed their frustration with the Commission’s action. Members of the public expressed similarly strong support for the heron habitat proposal, although that was perhaps less successful because the Planning Commission’s meetings were held virtually at the time.
At the same time, the Planning Commission chair needs to maintain order during public comment periods and meetings in general, making those who provide comments to the Planning Commission feel welcome. On more than one occasion, applicants or members of the public speaking in support of a proposal or answering questions from the Planning Commission have felt disrespected by Planning Commission members themselves. This should never happen in front of a body whose main job is to listen to the public.
Hold the Board Responsible
The public needs to hold the Board of County Commissioners ultimately responsible for its planning decisions. The Planning Commission makes recommendation to the Board, but the Commission is only advisory in nature. The Board has the responsibility to make final decisions. The Board should not be allowed to hide behind the Planning Commission’s recommendations based on the assertion that the Planning Commission is the body tasked with listening to the public. That only works if the Planning Commission truly does listen. Planning Commission members are appointed by and responsible to the Board and the public that elects the Board, not the other way around. If they conduct themselves in ways that repeatedly distort the public process and violate the public trust, they should be replaced.
Empower Staff to Speak Up
The Board needs to encourage and empower planning staff to speak up and defend good planning practices and principles when the Planning Commission shows disrespect for members of the public, distorts the public record, or seeks to include factually unsubstantiated conclusions in its findings of fact.
One option is for the Board to specifically authorize the Planning Department to offer an addendum to Planning Commission recorded motions when the Department believes those motions omit or distort key aspects of the public record, county policy, or state law – as is specifically authorized by the Planning Enabling Act. 8
Planning Commissioners are volunteers who commit large amounts of time to commission business. Like all volunteers, they need to be recognized for their efforts. The Board already does a good job acknowledging their volunteer contributions. But sometimes, the Board’s express encouragement of the Commission can lead certain strong-minded Commission members to run roughshod over staff or cause staff to feel disempowered to speak up. Remember, the Planning Commission is tasked under the Planning Enabling Act with
“assisting the Planning Department in carrying out its duties.”
Planning staff are professionals who dedicate their time, energies and expertise to enacting good public policy. They need to know they have the Board’s support, especially when some members of the Planning Commission exceed or misuse their authority.
Kirk Johnson worked as a land use planner for Skagit County for 18 years, from 1998 to 2017. Throughout that time, he worked directly with the Board of County Commissioners, the Planning Commission and the public as they considered amendments to the Skagit County Comprehensive Plan, Development Regulations, and Land Use and Zoning Map.
- Planning Enabling Act, RCW 36.70.040
- Summit Law Group Memorandum, September 26, 2011, see pages 8-9 in particular
- “County Republican Party shares right-wing theories of Capitol violence,” Skagit Valley Herald, January 13, 2021.
- “A Billion Dollar Fortune From Timber and Fire,” Forbes.com, May 14, 2018
- This matter was discussed in greater detail in an earlier Skagit Scoop article
- These contributions are documented on the Washington Public Disclosure Commission (PDS) website
- Memo to Board of County Commissioners from Richard A. Weyrich, Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney, Re: Planning Commission Censure of Planning Commissioner Lundsten, January 28, 2021
- “To this end, the planning commission shall conduct such hearings as are required by this chapter and shall make findings and conclusions therefrom which shall be transmitted to the department which shall transmit the same on to the board with such comments and recommendations it deems necessary.” Planning Enabling Act, RCW 36.70.040, bold emphasis added.