Wednesday, July 3, 2019
DUE EAST: Bellingham City Council continues their discussion of annexations, these in the hills and dales above Lake Whatcom.
In June, City Council received a report from a team of graduate students in the UW Masters of Urban Planning program. The students conducted a series of outreach efforts to gauge interest in annexation from residents in the eastern portions of Bellingham’s urban growth area.
As detailed in the report, researchers surveyed households in Geneva along the lake’s near south shore and Northern Heights and Hillsdale neighborhoods above the lake’s northern shore. They also surveyed residents in the more distant neighborhoods of North Yew Street, perhaps reawakening the chimera of development of the vast greenbelt that borders the city to the southeast.
“It’s interesting,” commented COB Assistant Planning Director Greg Aucutt, “that the Yew Street UGA is really the only one of these with any real development capacity. Our land supply analysis shows capacity for about 900 additional units in this Yew Street area. Not much in the Geneva or Britton Road areas.”
“Hillsdale, Tweed Twenty, and Northern Heights UGA sub-areas expressed the highest level of positive opinions towards annexation,” the researchers reported. “Some residents also stated that they felt more connected to the City of Bellingham than the county, and that they would like to have better infrastructure and infrastructure management in their neighborhood.
“Property owners in the Geneva area generally oppose annexation,” researchers reported.
“These are preliminary recommendations in terms of work that needs to be done to validate appropriate ways to bring the properties, should they desire, into the city,” COB Planning Director Rick Sepler explained to Council.
Notably (but not surprisingly), property owners were more favorable to annexation if the action was accompanied by a reduction in their service fees and utilities. That accompanying reduction is not implausible, as those areas are brought into the city limits and served by city fire and police, as well as water and sewer service. Many city residents bordering the Britton Road area pay less for their services than neighboring unincorporated areas.
“Based on assessed interest from residents in Northern Heights and Tweed Twenty, the UW team recommends that the City of Bellingham dedicate resources to a potential future annexation of these areas,” the researchers concluded in their report. “Assessment results indicate Britton Road area UGA property owners generally have a favorable view on potential annexation.”
The conversation evokes a tragically lost opportunity some years back, as city policymakers discussed merging and absorbing the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District into Bellingham Public Works, as a means to better control costs and service infrastructure, as well as give the city more granular control over urban levels of development on the reservoir’s near shore. Mayor Dan Pike had sought to exercise more control over Whatcom County Water District 7, which was extending water service to residential developments along the north shore, an area that was technically closed to additional well withdrawals. When the mayor lost interest in pursuing that particular thread, talks between Public Works and LWWSD commissioners (who provisionally favored the idea) evaporated. Which is a shame, as the merger would address water and sewer improvements along the south shore to Sudden Valley—including the Geneva area.
The predicament of the county’s myriad water and sewer districts is difficult to resolve but easy to explain: The only way you can improve pipes and sewers and septics without raising rates is to increase the service base—in this case, through continued buildout of Lake Whatcom.
The problem is more easily resolved through a municipal utility like COB Public Works, which can more efficiently distribute utility costs across a much broader service base. Shorn of a requirement to sprawl in order to recover costs, the city might better control extension of services to additional residences in the watershed.
Annexation of these neighborhoods is a slower, more selective means to achieve those ends, as the built environment of Lake Whatcom is drawn increasingly under the control of the City of Bellingham.
The rubric of Lake Whatcom is this: 90 percent of Lake Whatcom development is in Bellingham or near Bellingham; whereas 90 percent of the lake itself is outside Bellingham—and Whatcom County has its attention to water problems spread thin.
County Council is slowly at work on the details of a stormwater service area for Lake Whatcom that would create a special purpose taxing district to generate replenishing funding for efforts to clean up and protect this drinking water reservoir for 100,000 people. The Gristle’s hunch is the county will ultimately attempt to precisely match COB’s water and sewer utility rate plus the city’s surcharge for residences in the watershed, and they’ll exempt or rebate any properties that are within COB’s utility service area. This would mean that all properties in the watershed would pay roughly the same cost for the restoration of Lake Whatcom, whether or not they receive municipal water from Bellingham. For neighborhoods like Geneva, Hillsdale and Northern Heights, annexation might essentially be a wash in terms of utility rates—what they don’t pay in the city, they will pay outside the city.
City Council’s discussion drifted afield of Lake Whatcom, as it so frequently does, but we’d recommend they refocus their priorities on what best serves the reservoir. Its restoration is a $100 million project, and these built neighborhoods are central to its success.