If anything was clear from the County Council’s Aug. 7 public hearing on expanding Bellingham’s urban growth areas, it’s that the community is divided.
More than 40 people spoke to the council at the hearing, and their stories ranged from old timers who didn’t want to see their farms disappear to city dwellers who couldn’t afford a house. There were lawyers and developers, school representatives and single moms, planners and farmers — and the opinions were as diverse as the speakers.
Some felt that Bellingham is short on land, which is driving up housing prices. Some argued that once we expand our borders, we can never get back that undeveloped rural land.
One of the most hotly contested subjects was Larrabee Springs, which is owned by Caitac. This 580-acre proposed development, outside the city’s current UGA and located on the corner of Meridian Street and Smith Road, north of Cordata, was included in the city’s recommended UGA plans, but not in the county’s. Larrabee Springs has been taking out full-page ads in The Bellingham Herald attacking the council for its position.
Plenty of people spoke to the issue at the public hearing. Ironically, both proponents and opponents claim sprawl-prevention in their arguments. Several Caitac representatives and consultants claimed it is a well-planned project that will prevent sprawl by bringing people closer into the city rather than sending them out to the smaller cities and the county. Others contended the project is unnecessary and would eat up the surrounding green areas.
The second area contested at the hearing was land around King Mountain, which was included in the county’s plan. Several property owners came forward in support of inclusion — naturally, anyone who owns 40 acres out there would stand to gain substantially from inclusion in the UGA.
When the time came to debate these issues amongst themselves, the county council members were as divided as the community. The council passed their resolution, which calls for a compromised 10 percent "safety" factor to expand the urban growth areas, by a slim majority of only 4 to 2.
While this editorial board is almost as split as the council on the issue of UGA expansion, it’s clear that this issue needs to be resolved and decisions need to be made. Failure of the public process to regulate our urban boundaries will inevitably lead to what everyone is trying to avoid — sprawl and the disappearance of farmland.
Some of the most astute comments to come from both the public and a few members of the council addressed the need to enter into this next phase with an open mind. Now that the county has adopted its proposal to only increase Bellingham’s UGA by 10 percent, as opposed to the 25 percent that the city recommends, they will need to try to reconcile with the city.
To reconcile means to "restore to friendly relations," and I hope both sides take those words to heart. This is the time for city and county to put aside their differences and enter into these negotiations ready to listen.
If they do that in good faith, then the public can rest assured that they made the tough decisions with an open mind and the community’s best interests at heart.