When Lewis County changed its land use code last year to allow for “standalone food or beverage manufacturing” in rural areas of the county, the move was intended to encourage mom-and-pop wineries and vehicles for “agritourism.”
What it got instead is what several people at Tuesday night’s Lewis County Planning Commission meeting deemed an “unintended consequence” — a proposal from water bottling giant Crystal Geyser to build a 100,000 square-foot facility on a rural Randle property pending exploratory drilling for wells, and an uproar from local residents.
While the problem was created with a simple oversight, it has uncovered inconsistencies and poorly-defined sections throughout the county’s land-use code.
“It has revealed … a lot of cracks in the code,” said John Kliem, a consultant long-range planner for Lewis County. “We need a little bit of time to study this a bit more.”
The Lewis County Board of Commissioners on Monday ratified a six-month moratorium on businesses extracting water for sale, with some exceptions. The moratorium can be extended in additional six-month intervals. The planning commission intends to discuss the relevant sections of county code at a special meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Lewis County Courthouse.
On Tuesday, the planning commission heard primarily from Kliem, who advises them on several matters, Lewis County Civil Deputy Prosecutor Eric Eisenberg and Craig Jasmer, a representative of Randle residents opposing Crystal Geyser’s proposed facility.
Jasmer spoke first, suggesting several changes to the county’s code, including adding a section to its general land use standards — which apply to the entire county — that would prohibit “uses that intend to aid the extraction of public groundwater for sale as a principal goal, including but not limited to commercially producing bottled water and other beverages, in excess of five thousand gallons a day.”
Jasmer, speaking for the group of residents, also suggested restrictions for land use requiring special use permits, including capping such facilities at less than 10,000 square feet and prohibiting excess nighttime traffic, noise and light.
He also suggested adding definitions of terms including “bottled water” and “standalone food or beverage manufacturing,” for the sake of clarity. He noted the current code uses the second term but does not define it in any way or limit its scale.
“We understand that these things may all be addressed through a (State Environmental Policy Act) process but that SEPA process doesn’t necessarily prevent it,” Jasmer said. “We don’t necessarily think we got it right when we looked at these codes … There seems to be a wide variety of methodologies when it comes to writing code. Really my intent here was to just start the conversation. Hopefully we can be helpful along the way.”
While Kliem didn’t endorse all of the residents’ suggestions, he said that a number of important definitions were missing from the county’s codes and agreed that the code doesn’t adequately address the scale of a proposed project.
Kliem gave the commission two options. The quickest route, he said, would be to define a “standalone food and beverage manufacturer” as an “isolated small business.”
The second and more complicated option would be to reexamine the county’s land use code as a whole, fixing this issue more completely as well as catching other problems with definitions and intentions. He also recommended examining a portion of the county code on maintaining “rural character.”
“People keep talking about this area like it’s an industrial site,” said Randle resident Don Welever. “It’s not. It’s our neighborhood. It’s an 8-mile loop and it’s right at the start of our National Forest.”
The planning commission cannot take summary action, Eisenberg explained. In this situation the commission must propose changes to the code, hold a public hearing and then refer their decision to the county commission for action.
Eisenberg told the board they had time to consider the issue.
“There’s no clamor to lift the moratorium and solve this problem tomorrow,” he said.
The planning commission members briefly discussed the options and suggestions presented to them. Commissioner Lee Grose said he felt Jasmer’s suggestions went too far, particularly in limiting facilities subject to special use permits to 10,000 square-feet.
“I think the special use permit process with the public hearing requirement allows for enough public comment,” he said. “I won’t say, ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on bottled water. I’m not there yet. … Living in East Lewis County I’m very concerned about water facilities … but these additions to the special use application process are very unnecessary.”
Eisenberg and several commission members were careful to note that while members of the public were most concerned specifically about Crystal Geyser, the planning commission can’t consider the effect of the code on one particular company or project.
“What I see is your personal feelings wrapped up in this interpretation,” Commissioner Bill Marshall said. “As a planning commission we have to look at a broader scope. Any adjustments we have to make have to be acceptable in all parts of the county.”
Grose echoed that later in the meeting after the testimony of several Randle residents.
“We’re getting the cart way, way before the horse. We’re not talking about this plant right now,” he said. “We’re talking about revisions on the code for the whole county.”
Though Grose is correct, the Randle residents in attendance, many of whom now count Crystal Geyser as a neighbor, have a personal stake in the matter.
“I had ancestors who were very busy in this area, so that is a concern,” said John O’Brien, who identified himself as a member of the Cowlitz Tribe and a Randle resident. “I would say we do not oppose other … opportunities for growth in East Lewis County. I don’t have any suggestions on how to rectify this … conundrum, I guess, of how the code reads now, but thank you for your consideration.”