Comment: Cherry Point code must balance environment, jobs

With Whatcom County considering regulation changes, its council should respect the public process.

By Stacy Martin / For The Herald

The Cherry Point Industrial Zone, northwest of Bellingham, is one of the most effectively regulated, environmentally sustainable, and best-managed industrial areas in the world.

It has driven huge financial benefits for Whatcom County in the form of jobs, tax revenue and investment, and has helped its workforce bring home annual wages at nearly double the rate of the rest of the county.

Despite these facts, the Whatcom County Council has been working for almost five years to re-regulate Cherry Point under the Comprehensive Land Use Plan and County Code.

The Whatcom County Council’s effort to reregulate Cherry Point had questionable value and has caused serious concern since its emergence. With stakeholders raising alarms even in good economic times, the changes are a source of even greater concern as we enter the uncertainty an economy devastated by a global health crisis.

No one needs to be reminded that the process of adjusting from the pre-pandemic boom times to today’s fraught landscape is very much a work in progress. Whether it is children navigating virtual classrooms, workers spending all day on video conference calls, or essential workers working to protect community health as they do their jobs, everyone is facing change. This is also true of the economy itself.

There are still many things we do not know about our economic future. But what should be obvious, by now, is the fact that our elected officials must exercise great caution when moving forward with policies that effect our jobs and the businesses that provide them. Nowhere is that truer than in Washington’s rural economies, especially in Whatcom County.

One important lesson we learned from previous recessions is that rural economies recover much slower than urban economies. For example, Seattle bounced back quickly after the last recession, but Longview’s recovery remains a work in progress. Once jobs, companies, and industries that pay living wages leave rural communities it is significantly more difficult to replace them.

We do not have to look far to see the type of uncertainty this can bring to a community. In Whatcom County, the recent closure of the nearby Intalco aluminum works is slated to cost about 700 jobs; twice that if you consider indirect jobs.

Cherry Point is already regulated by some of the strictest and most comprehensive environmental regulations in the world. Cherry Point is the economic foundation of Whatcom County, an engine that creates huge direct and indirect impacts. The Whatcom County Council needs to be mindful of these impacts, aware of our current landscape, and very careful that it does not regulate Cherry Point away from Whatcom County.

The good news is that a clear path forward — with strong community guidance and input — is on the table. A year after the initial amendments were submitted, the county planning commission had its final public hearing on the Whatcom County Council Cherry Point amendments. After working with all stakeholders, the commission made important recommended changes to the the council’s amendments, changes that more accurately reflected today’s realities. A joint proposal was submitted by Cherry Point companies and RE Sources, a Bellingham-based environmental group that claims over 20,000 supporters in Northwest Washington.

Public input like this is the key to understanding and adapting to our future. The Whatcom County Council must adopt the planning commission’s recommendations and continue the its open, transparent and collaborative process before it takes a vote on the amendments.

The County Council has an opportunity to balance environmental stewardship with the economic needs of Whatcom County. Now more than ever it is crucial that they seize this opportunity.

Stacy Martin is the business manager and secretary/treasurer for Washington Laborers Union 292, based in Everett.

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