Due East II
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
DUE EAST II: City planners took their roadshow across the street last week, briefing Whatcom County Council on a series of annexations the City of Bellingham is contemplating in coming years.
Planners outlined an ambitious strategy of annexations planned for the city’s northwest corner—the 720-acre Alderwood area—that could add more than 1,000 dwelling units and 2,200 new residents to the city’s service area. They also sketched, as a lesser priority, potential annexations in the eastern portion of the city around Lake Whatcom. The presentation served as an initial step in the update of interlocal agreements between the city and county intended to ease bringing these areas into the city.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the information exchange was the unfamiliarity of County Council members with even the most rudimentary aspects of the procedural evolution of urban growth areas under GMA, a central pillar of the state’s 30-year-old growth management laws. Several appeared astonished to learn of the much wider range of levels of services and utilities a city can offer (along with the variety of financial instruments to pay for them), and the much greater capacity for urban densities, in comparison to county unincorporated areas. The county’s most aggressive residential zoning can accommodate a density of just 24 dwelling units per acre—with limited water and sewer, and more and more tenuous police, fire and emergency medical services.
“These areas are characterized by urban growth, they have higher densities than can be accommodated in county unincorporated lands, and we have provided urban levels of service to these areas,” COB Planning and Community Services Director Rick Sepler explained. “The social contract is that we should never have extended services and allowed for urban densities in areas that we don’t want to take in. That’s contrary to good planning, and it is contrary to the Growth Management Act.
“So since we have, we have an obligation to carry forward,” he said.
Planners sketched the voluntary and cooperative means by which the city and county have historically approached annexations—with the residents and property owners within the study area actively petitioning to be brought into the city limits.
But in the annexations contemplated around Lake Whatcom, perhaps that loose and voluntary approach to annexations should be replaced by a more formalized plan that addresses water quality concerns in the city’s drinking water reservoir.
Like their counterparts on Bellingham City Council when presented with similar information a few weeks ago, Whatcom County Council failed to ask a single question about how the Lake Whatcom management plan may be impacted or assisted by these proposed eastern annexations. It’s really the central question, whether the extension of the full array of city services and more direct control by the City of Bellingham of these urbanized areas around the lake could play a beneficial role in the 50-year plan to restore Lake Whatcom. If so, why should the city and county adopt a passive and piecemeal approach to these neighborhoods becoming part of that solution?
The fact this central question apparently hasn’t occurred to what is effectively the core of the Lake Whatcom Joint Policy Group—elected officials from the city and the county—is discouraging.
Seemingly unaware of how these issues might intersect, in their evening session County Council resumed their glacial approach to the establishment of a funding mechanism for stormwater improvements around Lake Whatcom. Ten years in the conception, two years in the drafting, their proposed ordinance finally takes a stab at a fee schedule for properties around the lake with impervious surfaces and attendant stormwater runoff. The utility is intended as a replenishing fund for stormwater improvements in the watershed.
Council included language in the county’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan to look at a fair and equitable funding mechanism to protect and restore Lake Whatcom from excess stormwater pollution from the increasingly urbanized watershed. The dedicated fund is designed to replace cash calls to the county’s overburdened flood control taxing districts.
When fully implemented, the fee schedule proposes an average charge of about $10 per month to county residents in the watershed. The charge mirrors Bellingham’s utility surcharge for residents living in the Lake Whatcom watershed.
How the county intends to spend the generated revenue remains a contested policy issue, but the public’s attitude appears clear and consistent. Indeed, a recent COB survey found 81 percent of city residents consider it very important for local governments to prevent further development in the Lake Whatcom watershed
“Now as a solution you propose to mimic the god-given systems that Mother Nature affords with concrete catch basins, electric pumps and filtration systems. Techno-theism and a bit of salal cannot replace what you have allowed to be paved over,” North Shore resident Art Hyatt observed.
“The city has bought up hundreds of acres in the watershed to protect water quality,” he summarized, “while you both foster its deterioration. And now you want to trade tax revenues for technological fixes. This is a lose-lose situation.”
“Vast numbers of people have expressed the desire for quicker, bolder action on Lake Whatcom,” Krista Rome noted. As an organizer for RE Sources’ Clean Water Program, Rome conducted scores of interviews for the public policy group last year. “They want to see both the city and the county spend more money on prevention so that we do not have to keep paying higher and higher costs for higher tech water treatment solutions. This is a very common sentiment out there in the community—it’s more expensive in the long run to do the treatment than the prevention.”
There’s not much potential for development in the eastern areas Bellingham proposed for annexation, but there are a variety of control instruments COB might employ as it considers bringing these watershed neighborhoods into the city limits.