Lance Henderson and Isaac Bonnell
After years of debate, the City of Bellingham and the Whatcom County Council are now in agreement over the expansion of the Urban Growth Area. However, the current peace between the two governing bodies is leading them in different directions.
The County Council is now facing a battle with Caitac USA Corporation, the owners of the Larrabee Springs development. On March 12, roughly one month after the County Council approved the 268-acre Urban Growth Area (UGA) expansion, Caitac filed an appeal for review with the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board seeking to reverse the resolution and further expand the UGA.
Meanwhile, the city is preparing to launch a planning academy focusing exclusively on urban infill, which is based on the idea of developing within the current city limits as opposed to expanding out into the county. The planning academy is the next step in realizing Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike’s no-growth platform.
“Basically, the [city’s] UGA resolution was tied to my belief that we can accommodate growth through infill, and the planning academy is a means to achieve that,” Pike said. “I anticipate that we will have neighborhood folks and folks who are active in development talking about these issues.”
As the city moves ahead with the current UGA resolution and the county is preparing for a battle over the same issue, the question of growth in Bellingham is still on the table.
City leads discussion on infill
In January, the City Council approved a resolution to align itself with the County Council’s plan to add 268 acres to Bellingham’s UGA. Shortly thereafter, Pike appointed a nine-member “code and character” task force to begin outlining strategies for infill.
This task force began meeting in March and will provide the basic curriculum for the upcoming planning academy.
The academy will consist of four free workshops during which attendees will work toward providing a toolkit for building medium-density housing projects in existing neighborhoods, said Nicole Oliver, the project manager for the planning academy.
“We want to provide ways that people can build townhouses and cottages and detached units,” Oliver said. “We’re not trying to say that these things will be allowed in each neighborhood, but we want to provide a way to build these types of homes without changing the character of the neighborhood.”
Oliver said she is expecting about 80 people to attend the workshops.
The first Bellingham planning academy was hosted by planning director Tim Stewart in October 2006. The event focused on updating the neighborhood plans to better reflect the City Comprehensive Plan.
Now the drive for a planning academy is centered on updating the city’s zoning to allow for infill. Under current zoning laws, medium-density infill projects such as townhouses and cottages aren’t possible without first receiving several variances.
“We have a pretty restrictive code,” Oliver said. “We need to change the rules so people can build these types of units.”
As the planning academy moves forward, Pike said he is hopeful that changes to the city code will be made within the year.
Caitac vs. Whatcom County
While the city is embracing urban infill, the county is facing opposition to its charted course.
Caitac USA Corporation is challenging Whatcom County’s compliance with the Growth Management Act (GMA) before the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board in a pre-hearing on April 10.
The act states that state and local governments are required to manage Washington’s growth by identifying and protecting critical areas and natural resource lands, designating urban growth areas, preparing comprehensive plans and implementing them through capital investments and development regulations.
In the appeal filed on March 12, Caitac complained that Whatcom County:
- Missed its deadline in May 2007 to review and update its Urban Growth Areas (UGAs), which need to accommodate growth for the next 20 years;
- Failed to publish their UGA resolution when one was completed in February; and
- Failed to make any revisions to its comprehensive plan based on the UGA review results.
County Council member Seth Fleetwood said that the UGA review was a long and complicated process and that the council tried to do the best they could given the circumstances.
“This challenge will help establish to what extent the local vision for land use planning will be honored by the courts,” Fleetwood said. “Our aim was to express a land use ethic in our decision — to convey our recognition that perpetual expansion of the growth boundaries at every review will urbanize the entire county.”
For Ted Mischaikov, Caitac’s Larrabee Springs project manager, the complaint is centered on the overall process of reviewing the county’s UGAs.
“The whole process just wasn’t done professionally,” he said. “There were many oversights and a lot of required work swept under the carpet.”
Mischaikov said the county has been vague and evasive on the issue of the UGA update process, but this appeal will force the county to respond to Caitac’s questions on a detailed level.
He said the City of Bellingham did years of work to calculate the city’s growth needs, but the county dismissed this work as incorrect without performing its own investigation.
“How does one group of people decide another group is wrong with no analysis?” Mischaikov asked.
Robert Tull, an attorney for Caitac, said Bellingham’s growth analysis produced a comprehensive plan that did not overstate population projections and did not understate land supply. So Tull said the 2,128 acres requested in the Bellingham comprehensive plan was reasonable.
“It was a very conservative request, which the county disregarded with no analysis of its own,” Tull said.
Tull said growth politics often shift toward attempts to stop growth rather than to manage it responsibly, which the 581-acre Larrabee Springs development tries to do.
“We’re prepared to set a very, very high standard,” Tull said.
Now that the county’s compliance to the Growth Management Act is under fire, the city may find itself going back to the drawing board to define the boundaries of the UGA.
In Pike’s memo proposing to mirror the county’s growth strategy for Bellingham, he wrote “any changes to Bellingham’s Comprehensive Plan or to development regulations would be considered after the county’s final decision has been adopted and determined to be compliant with the State Growth Management Act.”
When asked to clarify, Pike said “The [city’s] resolution was predicated on the county being upheld.” If the county was found in violation, “it would make our resolution moot.”
Planning Academy 2008
What: Green Bellingham: Achieving infill, enhancing character. The first in a series of four workshops focusing on urban infill strategies.
Where: 1308 Cornwall Ave.
When: Wednesdays April 30, May 7, May 21, May 28
Time: 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Contact: Nicole Oliver at the City of Bellingham at 778-8353 to register.