The Gristle

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FORECAST CLOUDY: Generating heat without much light, it is the issue that undergirds most public policy discussion in the Fourth Corner and delivers the bulk of its rancor, forecasts of future population growth. The Whatcom County Planning Commission received mixed comments last week from city and county planning directors regarding that anticipated growth. The commission will assemble those reports along with recommendations to Whatcom County Council early next year.

Population projections are a crucial component of municipal planning and the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA). Forecast too small, and a community will fail to plan and provide for the infrastructure and pubic services a growing population requires. Forecast too large, and a community will plan for too much infrastructure and services, usually at a cost to taxpayers and the environment. County officials, in consultation with professional planners and the public, must set a planning target from a range provided by state number crunchers, the Office of Financial Management. That OFM range is hugely variable, and includes everything from low (the addition of a few hundred people to the county each year through the planning horizon of 2040) to high (a more than doubling of county population through the same period). Public debate is pushed at one end by developers and their consultants, who represent a “build it and they will come” pro-growth viewpoint, and pulled at the other by protectionists of varying sorts, who believe that artificial restriction of infrastructure and services can constrain growth. Both views rely on myth to form their core concepts, and both in their extremes are probably wrong. The best forecaster for the future is the past, and the best indicator for future population growth may be growth that has already occurred.

But where does one fix that marker? In the 1990s, when growth in this area was surging, largely as a result of a bubble economy inflating in California and the Southwest? Or in the past several years, when growth has been sluggish in a collapsed bubble? The average annual growth rate between 2008-2013 was just .8 percent, according to county data.

And it is not simply a matter of being “realistic” or “flexible”: The county has real public policy goals it can achieve by directing growth where it belongs.

Uncertain, the county and cities jointly commissioned an independent analysis and report by BERK, strategic planning consultants in Seattle. BERK based its population model around an average annual growth in the area over the past 50 years, which at 2.1 percent is a more robust increase than the state average of 1.7 percent. This set the BERK range at the high end of the planning ranges outlined by OFM (and double the growth seen in the county in the past five years).

Pro-growth advocates follow these matters early and closely. Protectionists arrive belatedly and often underprepared. The general public awakens hindmost.

Since early March, the county and her cities have been holding meetings on these numbers as part of the update of comprehensive plans required under GMA. True to form, the advocates for growth have had their early way with the numbers. Of two dozen comments submitted to the planning commission so far, only two have urged a more circumspect approach to growth. The rest press for the median of BERK, which is nevertheless at the higher end forecast by OFM. In this way are averages skewed and “reasonable expectations” inflated.

Always an instructive contrast, Skagit County eschewed the consultants and set their targets for county population growth at precisely the midline between OFM medium and low ranges. Skagit’s cities adopted OFM medium growth projections. Together, these work to coax growth into cities and away from resource land. Skagit’s forecasts from 2003 are spot on; and their public policy goals are being met.

Whatcom’s city planners arrived last week to deliver their own reports to the planning commission. With the exception of Bellingham, their forecasts were overcast with the gloom of a bad economy.

Ferndale, in particular, was much humbled in modest forecasts, compared to earlier projections and updates. Part is related to the loss of potential commercial real estate at Slater Road, as Lummi Nation moves to turn fee land at this crucial interchange into non-taxable trust land. The loss is only worsened by the city’s brisk growth in residential neighborhoods, with their higher costs to deliver community services capped by levy lids on property tax. Frosting this ashen cake is the certainty no assistance will arrive from state or federal funding sources.

A similar crisis in this jobs-to-resident ratio was noted to varying degrees by Whatcom’s other smaller cities, as each struggles to recover from a still-sluggish economy.

The notable exception in hubris was, of course, Bellingham, which in the second quarter of 2013 posted taxable retail sales in excess of $573 million, or about 67 percent of all taxable retail sales in Whatcom County for that period. Bellingham, too, chooses the high-end BERK midline for their estimations of future growth.

In 2006, the City of Bellingham produced a lamentable Land Capacity Analysis that, through creative min-maxing of its assumptions, projected a land supply crisis. The min-maxing and crisis was, of course, ginned up by developers seeking annexations or expansion of the city’s urban growth areas and the easy cash that flows from an up-zone. Bellingham City Council in 2009 unwisely chose to simply update their comprehensive plan, knowing their LCA was both flawed and fraudulent, and with it reincorporating all those flawed and fraudulent assumptions—garbage in, garbage out.

The numbers game is the most important debate that will play out next year.

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