Hearing Examiner Process

Filing an Application

An application for a land use permit is filed with Planning and Development Services. Review by that department follows a standard pattern within a time frame dependent on the complexity of the project. After that review, the staff of Planning and Development Services prepares a recommendation (referred to as a staff report) to the Hearing Examiner.

The staff report, application, comments from other county and state agencies, site plans, maps, public comments and other relevant documents are then submitted to the Hearing Examiner. The Hearing Examiner is not bound by that staff report but gives it weight appropriate to an expert recommendation.

Before a Hearing

Once received in the Hearing Examiner's Office, an application is placed on the hearing calendar and reviewed for notification requirements. Upon request, the Hearing Examiner will send any member of the public a written Notice of Hearing three weeks prior to the hearing date. Hearing notices for preliminary plats, major development permits, planned unit developments, and shoreline matters are also published in the official county paper (currently the Bellingham Herald).

All forms of notification encourage interested persons to review the file to learn which documents are in the record and to gain understanding of the proposal. The file can be reviewed on our Agenda Center, which contains an agenda for upcoming hearings.  All agendas are linked, so you can click on the particular file number and be directed to all exhibits in the file.  Specific questions regarding this proposal should be directed to the appropriate technician or Planning Staff at the Planning Department. Anyone may request paper copies at a per-copy cost. Interested persons are also encouraged to submit written comments or concerns for inclusion in the pre-hearing record.  Those comments can be mailed to the Hearing Examiners Office, 311 Grand Ave. Suite 105, Bellingham, 98225 or emailed to us. Written comments mailed to the Hearing Examiner must be received prior to the date of the hearing to be included in the record.

The Hearing Examiner's Office can provide a copy of the Business Rules (Rules of Procedure) which outline the hearing procedures.

Anyone can attend a hearing.  All hearings are currently being held virtually via zoom.  Visit our Hearing Examiner Virtual Meetings page for information on how to join.  

In accordance with the Hearing Examiner's Business Rules, it is mandatory that the applicant or an authorized representative, be present at the time and place of the scheduled public hearing or open record hearing. If the applicant is not present, the representative must submit a letter of authorization. Failure of the applicant or representative to appear will result in dismissal of the application. In addition, if the applicant is not the property owner of record, written authorization must be provided to the file by the applicant prior to the hearing.

The public hearing or open record hearing will be conducted in accordance with the Business Rules of the Hearing Examiner and in a manner somewhat less formal than a court.

Business Rule 1.5.A prohibits any communication with the Hearing Examiner regarding this proposal outside of the public hearing.  

Hearing Procedures

The Hearing Examiner is a “quasi-judicial” officer, not a judge, and formal courtroom rules of evidence do not apply. However, Washington State law requires local government to regulate land use and development proposals with Constitutional safeguards, much like a court. In fact, the term "quasi-judicial" means "as if judicial." That is why public notice of the Examiner's hearing, the Examiner’s written rules of procedure, and a semi-formal hearing are all provided. The Hearing Examiner process also provides a meaningful opportunity to be heard, impartiality, a publicly available written decision with the Examiner’s reasoning, and an appeal opportunity.

Any party who has reason to doubt that the Hearing Examiner would be impartial in a given matter has a right (and, in fact, a duty) to raise that issue at the very outset of the hearing.

Applications

A permit application hearing typically begins with a presentation of the staff report and recommendation prepared by Planning and Development Services, followed by a presentation of the proposed project by the applicant, and then testimony from the general public in support of the application, and finally testimony with concerns, questions or opposition to the proposal.

Appeals to the Hearing Examiner

An appeal hearing typically begins with the appellant’s presentation of argument, followed by the County’s response and/or any opposing party’s response.

Testimony

Speakers are typically asked to respond only to specific issues previously mentioned. No time limit is imposed upon relevant testimony that is not repetitive. A focused sense of relevance is the best tactic in support of a development proposal, in defense of a development proposal, or in opposition to such a proposal.

Testimony Under Oath

One of the constitutional safeguards is to require that testimony be taken under oath or affirmation of truth. It is important that participants not be intimidated by the fact that they must speak under oath and it is also important that participants understand that testimony at the hearing is intended to present facts rather than philosophical viewpoints. Every speaker must be willing to respond to questions about the statements made.

Testimony is usually not formal, but the Examiner can permit cross examination, usually when the witness is a qualified expert witness. Generally, a person with an interest in the case may ask questions.

It is not necessary to submit the written text of verbal testimony. Often, a person will speak briefly to highlight or summarize a more detailed, written statement and then offer the document into the record. Copies should be provided to opposing parties so the Examiner does not need to halt the proceeding while opponents read the single copy in order to decide if they object to its admittance into the record.

At the close of the hearing, participants are advised that a written decision will be issued within ten working days. Once the hearing is closed, no further testimony (written or oral) can be accepted and, again, the Examiner is not permitted to have communication with anyone about the merits of the matter. The Examiner may leave the record open for a short time for submission of specific additional evidence he requests or allows.

After a Hearing

The Hearing Examiner is required to complete and publish the written ruling within ten working days of the close of the record, which is usually 2 weeks after the public hearing.

A prompt decision promotes fairness because, when a citizen (or business) needs a government permit, delay can hinder or halt the project or dream of the citizen. However, a permit issued in haste can hamper the quality of life for a neighbor or a future generation. Thus, a good balance between thoroughness and speed is important.

Major Development Permits and PUDs

For applications involving a major development permit or a planned unit development, a written recommendation is made to the Whatcom County Council. The County Council must meet to consider the Hearing Examiner´s recommendation and decide the matter according to procedures in Whatcom County Code 22.05.120.