Wednesday, April 3, 2019
EDGE CITY: On the first day of this month—yes, April Fools’ Day—the City of Bellingham got bigger. And will get bigger still. No fooling.
Nearly 250 acres has been be added to the City of Bellingham through a series of planned annexations.
The first is the 75-acre Mt. Baker Highway/Britton Road annexation area, north of Barkley neighborhood above Dewey Valley. This is a relatively straightforward annexation, primarily intended to extend better police and fire service to a growing residential neighborhood near Northern Heights, an area surrounded and well serviced by public schools.
The second, potentially more fraught annexation is 174 acres near Birchwood neighborhood west of Interstate 5, an area bounded by Bennett and Bakerview roads and Airport Drive. This is a comparatively poorly serviced area for fire support, but represents a significant and needed addition to Bellingham’s industrial and mixed-use land supply. This annexation’s two significant challenges are the continued northward creeping encroachment on Ferndale’s planned Urban Growth Area (hello, Ferndallingham!), and the uncertain future of Bellingham International Airport (BLI). Both challenges may be exacerbated by the very sizable annexation of 802 acres proposed just to the west currently under study and review by COB—the so-called Alderwood annexation.
As the city describes in its press release, “Annexation is the procedure for bringing unincorporated areas of a county into an adjacent incorporated city. If an area is annexed, the city becomes the primary provider of local government services. In order to be eligible for annexation, the subject properties must be located within the city’s Urban Growth Areas (UGAs), which have been designated by Whatcom County as appropriate for annexation and urban development.”
They also, as in each of these cases, needed to be supported by a petition and consent of a majority of property owners in the proposed annexation area. Cities can’t just glom on to the adjacent fringe without consent; and the petition process reserves additional rights and benefits to the property owners.
It’s likely, for example, that residents of the relatively simple Mt. Baker Highway/Britton Road annexation could actually see reductions (or at least efficiencies) in costs of existing sewer and water service as they are brought into the city limits.
Since 2009, the city has approved eight annexations, taking in 1,370 acres. This increased the size of the city by 8.2 percent and brought about 1,400 new residents into the city limits. These annexations added more than 1,200 acres of residentially zoned land and 609 existing housing units.
The simple math is that the service requirements for industrial annexations are less costly than those for residential, and there are a greater number of taxing instruments to finance and maintain them. On the other hand, the city needs strategic residential land supply very badly.
Each time a new area is annexed, the City of Bellingham is required to prepare a population census of all the residents living in that area. In the coming weeks, census takers from the Planning and Community Development Department will be visiting the annexed areas to obtain population and housing counts. The population count is added to the city’s total population and allows Bellingham to receive a share of state revenues based on the city’s population. These revenues are used to provide municipal services throughout the city.
The primary challenges with the Airport Drive annexation in tandem with the proposed Alderwood annexation are that the areas are underserviced by urban levels of police and fire. Residential areas to the west are also desperately starved of parks and green spaces. A heavy residential component in Alderwood means those services will be expensive to obtain, and could impose a geometric cost burden on the city and its ratepayers.
“In general, the outlook on city revenues and expenditures is not good,” city planners confess in their strategy document for annexations. “This is the result of a number of factors. Property taxes, sales taxes, business and occupation taxes from commercial and industrial development generally exceed the cost to provide the full range of urban services. However, the opposite is true for residential development, especially for low-density residential development,” they reported.
The airport, too, represents a significant unknown factor, as the Port of Bellingham commissioners continue to study its operations. In February, the commission received a report on the elusive, mercurial market of BLI in comparison to other airports. In short, it is difficult to make regional airports profitable in the modern era; and perhaps that land is better suited for a higher economic purpose.
The city has historically annexed the revenue-producing business properties, but for many years allowed the extension of utilities without requiring annexation. This resulted in entire neighborhoods growing up around the edges of the city, many clamoring for better public safety and public works.
“The bill to provide urban level services (especially emergency services) would come due were the city to annex the residential areas,” planning staff ominously confessed.
The 2019 annexations are the first sizable additions to the city’s urban boundaries in a decade—the housing market collapse, the cratering of the public finance and resulting implosion of municipal revenues have made city planners more circumspect and cognizant of the structural challenges of paying for growth and urban levels of service. City leaders have meanwhile done a fair job of managing the expectations of property owners who want to crowd in annexations of their gruesome piecemealed subdivisions.
A coming election portends a major shift in Bellingham city government, and it’s critical this institutional memory is not lost.