The Gristle

Double-Jointed, Part Deux
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DOUBLE-JOINTED, PART DEUX: Bellingham City Council recently sat through two joint meetings with other governmental entities. The first, as we noted last week, was the stakeholders that form the Joint Policy Group to adopt the work plan for Lake Whatcom for the next five years. The second joined Council’s planning committee with the Bellingham Planning Commission to coordinate the recommendations the city must provide the county regarding the city’s urban growth areas (UGAs), future areas where the city might expand. Both the Council and the Planning Commission reported back on their joint meeting.

As we noted, these efforts intimately fuse city planning efforts with those of Whatcom County government (the county, for example, must consider the city’s UGA requests as part of the overall update of the Comprehensive Plan for growth the county must complete by the end of the year) and, as such, are not entirely within the control of COB policymakers. They’re also two topics where COB policymakers have not shown themselves particularly gifted, making faltering headway against years of policy blunders.

As an aid to planning, the state provides (free of charge!) a range of numbers counties may use to forecast population increases—a bracket that describes a universe from steady-state to Big Bang expansion. Skagit County has taken these numbers right out of the box and used the bottom bracket to describe expectations for rural growth, and the mid-range numbers to describe the growth of cities. Skagit has forecast their growth with eerie precision. Whatcom County pays extra to grind their numbers through expensive consultants with allegiances to the construction lobby. Bloat is baked into the numbers. Historically, Whatcom’s forecasts have proved inaccurate—another example of the county paying more to achieve less. But importantly—the consultants’ mid-range is always higher than the state average, and that’s before negotiation over a reasonable compromise even begins.

So overheated were the city’s bloated population projections in 2006 and so underperforming was the actual growth the city experienced when the housing market imploded in following years that policymakers today could easily make no adjustment whatsoever to Bellingham’s population projection update. Over the past seven years, city population has grown by about a third of what was projected in 2006.

There are strategic reasons to make the adjustment, however.

One reason involves a commitment by all of Whatcom’s seven cities to receive larger portions of growth to help remedy the county’s disastrously bad decision, in a fit of reactionary anger against state growth laws, to upzone vast swaths of resource land to residential development, essentially permitting the population of seven cities the size of Blaine to spill into county greenfields. Frankly, the county’s action should have been met by a class-action lawsuit from all the cities who would suffer the loss of construction revenues, property tax and real estate excise tax revenues, but it has been met instead by the accommodation of elevated population projections in each city—which, absent responsive policy from the county, simply exacerbates the problem: The UGAs of Whatcom’s smaller cities are already oversized.

Bellingham’s UGAs are not oversized, according to the city’s capable and committed Planning and Community Development Director Rick Sepler. But under state growth laws, a city either uses them or eventually loses them, another reason to push for a more robust growth estimate. UGAs allow the city to better control what happens on its edges, he explained.

A third reason to seek a mid-range growth projection, Sepler explained, is to preserve a certain nimbleness to city planning. Infrastructure can take ten years or more to plan, fund and construct, and infrastructure investment is based on population projections.

The city’s current forecast projects 36,000 new people, or about 48 percent of total countywide projected growth, and represents a slightly greater share of that total growth than the city has taken in the past. Despite this, planners believe that about 90 percent of that forecast growth can be accommodated within existing city zoning, using infill as appropriate.

In a refreshing evolution from past planning, the city has initiated a study of wetlands in the urban growth areas that may receive the 3,000 projected residents who cannot be accommodated within existing zoning. Those spread like a vast band across the UGAs north of the city. To the east, population growth is constrained in part by concerns for the health of the Lake Whatcom watershed. Growth to the south is blocked by mountains and the city’s commitment to preserve a vast (and enviable) forested greenbelt.

Essentially, the city is left with two areas that hold promise to receive the projected growth that won’t fit inside current zoning—the Caitac property to the north and the Yew Street Road area above Lake Padden in the south. The challenges that face the latter property, in particular—including costs to provide urban levels of fire and emergency service, as well as threats to the integrity of the Padden watershed—prompted city policymakers to declare the UGA “a study area” in 2011 as a precursor to perhaps removing it from the city inventory. Now south Yew Street is back with a vengeance in planning commission discussions.

City Council and its planning professionals are trying to get to the right side of a public discussion the city has long been on the wrong side of, and never more so than in 2006. They’re making progress. A great deal of the problem remains rooted in Whatcom County policy, however, which needs to claw back overheated assumptions about growth.

Part One


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