The Gristle

Deflating Expectations
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DEFLATING EXPECTATIONS: What a difference an economic downturn makes!

Bellingham City Council this week listened to extensive public comments but took no immediate action on estimating growth in the city’s population and employment over the next 20-year planning horizon. Staff presented four potential scenarios for City Council to debate, settle upon and forward to Whatcom County planners later this year.

Under the state’s Growth Management Act, counties and their cities are required to forecast growth within a bracket of numbers the state provides—a high, a low and a mid-range option. It’s a guessing game; and it’s also a spinning and ginning game. Skagit County, for comparison, takes their numbers right out of the box the state provides, choosing a low-growth forecast for rural lands and a mid-range forecast for its cities. Skagit’s guesses over the years have proven eerily accurate. Whatcom County, by contrast, runs their numbers through an added spin cycle, paying consultants with extensive ties to the building industry and construction lobbies many thousands of dollars to second-guess the state’s numbers. The accuracy of numbers run through the consultants’ tumblers are unreliable, but always inflated. The industries who profit from growth show up early and ardently in the planning process to pump for the highest range. The public shows up much later with barbs and needle-like logic to puncture the claims, or at least let some air out of the over-inflated tires.

So overblown and hyper-inflated were county and city growth forecasts in 2006, and so bruised were those estimates by the economic downturn of 2007-08 that stalled growth to a fraction of estimates, that the county and its cities might easily just update those 2006 numbers. Instead, planners initiated another round of the pump-and-dump.

Once upon a time, the Bellingham Planning Commission was an early and important gateway for those seeking entry into public service and higher office, a classroom in some of the most critical and arcane subjects a municipality encounters. Today, it’s more like a club for those who profit from growth—developers and brokers—or predominantly share values with others who do.

Commissioners did a lot of nodding at those values throughout the spring and selected a high-growth forecast in their recommendation to City Council. If adopted as policy, their recommended forecast would require the addition of two new urban growth areas north and south of the city that would cost taxpayers as much as $117 million to supply with roads, sewer, police and fire protection.

Fortunately, cooler heads in a reorganized and revitalized city planning department have presented Council with two forecast alternatives that require no additions to the city’s UGAs. Both use mid-range growth forecasts. One, favored by staff, would reclassify a portion of the property north of the city as a UGA Reserve Area, a precautionary placeholder for an area that could receive future growth. A third alternative would bring that portion of the northern Caitac property fully in as a UGA, an action that would trigger public investment in that area of around $30-$40 million over the 20-year planning horizon.

This third option serves as conceptual middle ground between the more modest forecasts of city planners and the hperventilated expectations of planning commission recommendations. The option would also ignite certain public infrastructure investments that would open other adjacent properties north of the city to more dense urban development.

“The implications of selecting a growth forecast that is either too high or too low can be significant,” planning staff reported to Council. “Picking a number that turns out to be too low may result in a significant lag between when capital facilities and public services are needed and when they can be provided by the city. Public capital projects such as road improvements, fire stations and new parks take years to fund and complete. For example, the recent Post Point Wastewater Treatment Plant upgrade took seven years to complete. Hiring and training additional city staff such as police officers and firefighters takes time and resources. Playing catch-up with capital facilities and services is not a good position to be in.

“Likewise,” planners cautioned, “selecting a growth forecast that is too high could result in allocating resources unnecessarily (oversizing of facilities, for example), or in the wrong location. A related concern would be the designation of a UGA that is larger than needed, prematurely expanding the footprint of the city. Oversizing new facilities or focusing spending on capital projects in the unincorporated UGA takes time and resources away from other in-city projects,” staff warned.

Frankly, the latter concern is understated. Annexations and greenfield developments can procedurally crowd ahead of existing neighborhood plans. The consequences of the hyper-inflation of 2006 served to stall out neighborhood plan updates for nearly a decade. And releasing pent-up demand on the city’s fringe serves to reduce pressure on broad city goals of infill and revitalization of older, underutilized sections of Bellingham like Old Town and Samish Way.

A breather on the fringe would help deflate the inflation of 2006 and allow the city to concentrate limited public resources on parks, a new library and other capital facilities and public amenities.

At the start of their public hearing, Bellingham City Council announced they planned no action that evening, and took no action. At the end of the hearing, most speakers (the overwhelming majority of whom urged a more humble and circumspect approach to growth) filed out; and yet the building industry, property brokerage and construction lobby lingered on, seemingly stunned, drumming their fingers as if they expected something they’d worked to achieve might happen. Nothing happened, no further drama; yet they lingered, long after the session closed and Council had moved on to other topics.

Perhaps that’s model and metaphor for what should happen in this planning cycle.

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