The subject of population growth is usually good for getting people hot under the collar in this town.
There seems to be a general sentiment in places where the quality of life is high that now we are all here, we should close the borders and not let anyone else in. We like the way things are, thank you very much, and we don’t want anyone else moving here. This isn’t California, after all.
Of course this is ridiculous. We have no control over whether people move here, and if we tried to prevent it, all we would do would make housing prices so high that only the rich could afford to live here — and few of us want that.
So if we cannot close our borders, and people from all over the world want to move here, then how do we grow in a way that preserves our quality of life? That is the question currently on the table for the county.
Whatcom County has two main questions before it: How many people do we think are going to move here in the next 20 years, and where do we want to put them?
As to the first question, all we can do is use historical trend data to come up with our best guess. Do we think that the county will continue to grow as it has in the past several decades? Barring any unforeseen disaster or other mitigating factor, the logical conclusion is yes.
The second question is trickier. The state’s Growth Management Act dictates that as we grow, we should make cities denser and preserve farmland and rural areas as much as we can, but it leaves it up to the individual counties to figure out how to do that. As the county’s largest population center and primary business core, however, it makes the most sense to allow most of the growth to be centered around Bellingham.
This is not necessarily popular with everyone. First, there is the infill issue, and neighborhoods seem terrified that if they have to take more people inside their borders it’s going to ruin the flavor of our community. Second, the only direction Bellingham can expand is to the north — Bellingham Bay is to the west, the Lake Whatcom watershed is east and the Chuckanuts are due south. But the land north of Bellingham is far from ideal for building. It is riddled with wetlands and is encroaching on those very farmlands we are trying to protect.
But what choice do we have? Do we want to build in Ferndale, Birch Bay, Custer and Everson instead? There are farms and wetlands in those communities, too, and all it will do is clog I-5 and the Mount Baker Highway with commuters. Bellingham will continue to be the commercial center for the county, so it would just set up those areas to be bedroom communities for Bellingham.
This goes contrary to the goals of planned growth. It increases traffic and sprawl, does not concentrate growth inside the main cities, and does not protect our farms.
We have no control over people wanting to move here — we need to accept that. And then we need to expand Bellingham’s borders to create enough room for most of the people who will be living here in 20 years. We might not like it, but it’s the best option we’ve got.
by Rik Dalvit