Three recommendations differ on how to manage Bellingham’s urban fringe
|Hal Hart, the county’s outgoing planning director, here shown with county planner Cathy Craver, said the state’s Growth Management Act mandates to first grow inside a city before looking at new areas for growth. The County Planning Commission and county staff assert that while infill policies are present in Bellingham, the city hasn’t done enough to encourage it.|
Bellingham’s comprehensive plan update is in its final round of consideration, and the ball is in the Whatcom County Council’s court.
After five years of intensive study, analysis and many heated public hearings, the County Council is set to make its long-awaited decision to determine the future shape of Bellingham.
Washington state’s Growth Management Act requires Bellingham to accommodate 31,601 new residents between 2002 and 2022. As part of the process to accommodate the new residents, the city’s planning department performed a land-supply analysis to examine how much of this growth could fit into the city’s current boundaries and urban growth area (UGA), and how much outside land should be added to accommodate the rest. Last spring, the city decided it needed 2,200 additional acres to accommodate growth.
That number has been the source of many disagreements ever since. The arguments often instigated spouting off about sprawl, safety factors, infill and densities. In fact, the only thing anyone seems to agree upon is how divisive the issue is.
The City of Bellingham sent its council-approved comprehensive plan update recommendation to the county last spring. The Whatcom County Planning Commission, as well as county planning staff, have also made recommendations to the Whatcom County Council about the city’s comprehensive plan — known to county planners as the “urban fringe sub-area plan.”
It is now up to the county to make a final recommendation to the state, and County Council members must decide what the city will ultimately look like, using all or parts of each of the three recommendations.
The city’s recommended 2,200 acres are made up of several five-year review areas outside the city’s UGA, including Caitac’s property known as Larrabee Springs — an approximately 580-acre proposed mixed-use development (only about 200 acres of which would be developed) at the corner of Meridian Street and Smith Road — and King Mountain — also a proposed large, mixed-use development — as well as the Queen Mountain and Bear Creek five-year review areas. The acreage also includes additional light-industrial land around Meridian Street. The recommendation excluded the Toad Lake and Padden Village five-year review areas.
The County Planning Commission has quite a different view of the city’s needs. The commission contends that the city’s 20-year population growth can be accommodated within the current city limits and UGA areas, and therefore none of the 2,200 additional acres, including the five-year review areas and light industrial land near Meridian Street, are necessary, although it made an exception for the Queen Mountain five-year review area.
The commission’s recommendation will be consolidated into a final document and is scheduled to be presented to the County Council on June 8, although a summary was presented to the council at a May 22 planning committee meeting.
The county’s divergent viewpoint stems from two key issues: whether or not the city has done enough to encourage infill, and the city’s use of a “safety factor” in the land-supply analysis.
The Growth Management Act mandates to first grow inside a city before looking at new areas for growth, said Hal Hart, the county’s outgoing planning director. The County Planning Commission and staff asserted that while infill policies are present in Bellingham, the city hasn’t done enough to encourage it, Hart said.
In fact, the land-supply analysis mentions the city is “under built” by 15 percent, meaning building in some areas has not achieved the maximum density zoning allowed, said county planner Cathy Craver.
Tim Stewart, the city’s planning director, said the city’s recommendation is a balance of infill and expansion, achieved after a long and difficult debate.
“Infill is appropriate and possible if it’s done carefully,” he said. “We have to make sure we don’t do harm to existing neighborhoods when we infill. We have to make sure it provides quality of life for the community.”
Many neighborhood associations have stressed they don’t want increased density, and the city has identified several Bellingham areas to develop as high-density urban villages, such as the New Whatcom waterfront site, Downtown, Old Town, the Lincoln Street-Lakeway Drive area and Barkley Village.
But not everyone is going to want to live in high-density urban areas, Stewart said.
“The other part of this equation has to do with not only the number of housing units, but the type of housing units,” he said. “There is still a need to provide for single family units, and if we don’t accommodate that, it is likely people will squirt out into the county.”
Ted Mischaikov, development manager for Larrabee Springs, agreed.
“Where are the high rises that are going to provide these densities? They are very hard to develop. Where are these projects?” he said. “Where are the families going to live? Families will choose to live in the county or in other towns. This is why the city has not met its infill strategies.”
The 18-story Morse Tower and 23-story Bay View Tower, however, are slated to begin construction downtown this summer.
Mischaikov said by including Larrabee Springs in the final framework, the County Council would avoid sprawl into the county by providing more residential space near jobs in Bellingham, specifically in the Meridian area.
“We’re pushing people out into the county while we cry about sprawl,” he said. “This decision to expand the UGA is obvious to the most casual observer.”
Hart, however, said because the infrastructure for growth already exists within the city it is better to maximize what is already in place before growth encroaches into the county’s “forests, farmlands, salmon-bearing streams, valuable water resources, gravel resources and other important assets.”
The safety factor
The city’s land-supply analysis uses what is known as a “safety factor” — a discretionary cushion that provides a percentage of land, in excess of the amount of land needed, to account for uncertainties in future development, such as property owners who decide not to develop land and unforeseen market drivers.
City planners used an 18 percent safety factor, whereas the County Planning Commission, after reviewing the city’s analysis, recommended a 0.0 percent safety factor, thus excluding the five-year review areas.
The commission instead recommended using a land-supply monitoring program that would more aggressively observe land supply in the city every six months, instead of every five to 10 years, and take in land only when needed.
The new program would require an unknown number of city and county staff members and funding, and would be modeled on a similar program used by six other counties in Western Washington, according to Craver.
“Our assumption is we use a smaller safety factor and we build in other tools to ensure that when the UGA builds out, we can maximize those densities,” Craver said.
Another issue that has arisen with the land supply analysis is the growth projection for the former G-P pulp-mill site, which several County Council members questioned at the May 22 meeting.
The city’s land-supply analysis accounted for an estimated 1,225 housing units to be built on the waterfront site — the number that was available from the Port of Bellingham at the time — but in September the port put that number at about 3,000 housing units when it presented its initial draft framework plan for the waterfront. This means that if development happens as planned on the waterfront, 1,775 extra housing units will be available that were not included in the city’s projection of how much land will be needed to accommodate future growth.
To deepen the issue further, the county planning staff has come up with their own recommendations and suggestions for the council separate from the County Planning Commission’s recommendation.
County staff recommendations
County planners recommended the council adopt a safety factor of 13.5 percent, and provided options and scenarios, advantages and disadvantages, as to what areas to include, as well as suggesting the council use the land-supply monitoring program to determine when to bring areas in.
County staff also recommended the council use certain tools if they decide to bring in any five-year review areas in order to mitigate impacts on the county. These could include interlocal agreements between the city and county, developer agreements tied to five-year review inclusion, revenue sharing agreements, and transportation and impact fee agreements.
For example, staff recommended using these tools if the council decides to include Larrabee Springs, which, according to the county staff’s analysis, will have regional and possible long-term fiscal impacts on the Meridian School District and county and city transportation patterns, as well as being surrounded by rural land. The county staff also recommended inclusion of King Mountain.
Mischaikov urged the County Council to accept the city’s land-supply analysis and safety factor, saying the city’s analysis is exhaustive and highly detailed, and believes it is the only comprehensive analysis done on the issue.
“It’s important to note that the people making these decisions are not pro-development, pro-sprawl entities,” he said. “They’re not cavalier about growth and development, quite the contrary, but they have voted that this is the best course of action.”
The council’s court
The council has been reviewing all of the information that has been presented to them and will vote on what safety factor to adopt no earlier than June 19, which will then determine which, if any, of the five-year review areas to include in the final framework, according to County Councilman Seth Fleetwood, who chairs the council’s planning committee.
After the safety factor is adopted, the council will vote on a non-binding resolution on what the final comprehensive plan, or sub-area fringe plan, will look like, including zoning maps, land use policies and boundaries.
If that resolution contains differences from the city’s recommendation, the city and county will go through a reconciliation process to resolve differences. If those cannot be resolved, there will be a public hearing, and then the council will make its final vote adopting the plan of its choice, he said. Fleetwood said he hopes this final vote will come in July or August.
For the next few weeks, council members have a lot to consider, and the pressure is on — the issue was supposed to be resolved by May 21, per the GMA Hearing Board, and the county could potentially face a lawsuit for noncompliance. There is also the concern about staff turnover, as Hart left his post at the beginning of June and no new county planning director has been named.
“We need to dedicate a considerable amount of library time to examining this issue and determining what a sensible position is. This is an immensely, politically hot issue, and an enormously large amount of money is at stake for these land owners,” Fleetwood said. “We politically are feeling a lot of heat from different groups who have very divergent viewpoints of what we should do, and in that context we’re having to do what we think is right.”
How to annex
If the five-year review areas are accepted as part of the comprehensive plan, there is a process each area must go through to become annexed into the city.
• The county and city must agree on which areas will be included in the UGA (the current process).
• If accepted, the area becomes part of the UGA.
• The city and county sign an interlocal agreement regarding the area’s potential annexation.
• Property owners initiate annexation and a developer agreement is signed with them.
• The area is annexed into the city.
Currently, several UGA areas are in the process of annexation, including the Aldrich Road UGA and the James Street Road UGA.
|This map shows the current boundaries of the city limits, UGA and five-year review areas. The city recommends 2,200 acres to be slated for future growth or review, including several five-year review areas outside the city’s UGA, such as Caitac’s property known as Larrabee Springs, an approximately 580-acre proposed mixed-use development (only about 200 acres of which would be developed) at the corner of Meridian Street and Smith Road, and King Mountain, also a proposed large, mixed-use development. The recommendation also includes the Queen Mountain and Bear Creek five-year review areas and additional light-industrial land around Meridian Street. The recommendation excluded the Toad Lake and Padden Village five-year review areas.|