County races to meet growth deadline

Population numbers, UGA on the table for discussion


Courtesy of Whatcom County Panning Department


What will Whatcom County look like in 2031?

While the jury is out on flying cars and space-age cities in the sky, the one thing everyone can agree on is that there will be more people.

Currently, Whatcom County is peering into its crystal ball in an attempt to determine just how much growth the county will see and what steps should be taken to make sure the county adequately accommodates that growth, while meeting the needs and desires of county residents.

In 2007, Whatcom was supposed to finish its 10-year review of the 1997 comprehensive plan and revise all the urban growth areas (UGAs) for all the cities in the county, as required by the Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA). However, those goals were never met.

First, the county was hauled to the Growth Management Hearings Board, the state entity charged with encouraging wise land use and planning, because it had not yet begun this review. Then, last year, the county was again taken to the hearing board because petitioners felt the land supply analysis was not done adequately.


David Stalheim

David Stalheim, the new county planning director, said the main issue petitioners had with the county land supply analysis was that the county was basing its data on ideas of what might happen in the future instead of what has traditionally happened in the past.

“The board upheld that the county had the right to be prospective looking forward and not retrospective,” Stalheim said. “So that was a clear indication from the hearings board that taking that approach is appropriate, but it still has to be balanced with the interest of the cities and the public.”

While the hearings board sided with Whatcom County, the county was given a strict mandate to finish the 10-year review — now looking into the future to 2031 — by June 30, 2009.


A tight timeline

Since the county’s 10-year review was due in 2007, Whatcom County is currently out of compliance with the GMA, which carries some penalties with it.

Cathy Lehman, director of Futurewise Whatcom, a local land use advocacy organization, said the county’s being out of compliance with the GMA is a big deal.

“The legal ramifications of that make it pretty darn important,” Lehman said. “The county is also ineligible for certain grant funding, which could really help in these uncertain times.”

Stalheim also said the county could lose the ability to collect development impact fees.

“We have been working with the school districts of Bellingham, Ferndale and Lynden to have development impact fees for them, so there is a possibility that we would be delayed on collecting those fees if that is true,” Stalheim said.

Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen said while time is of the essence, the county is up to the task.

“It’s a very compressed timeframe,” Kremen said. “We are working extremely hard to achieve that aggressive timeframe and we are working with the community and all the municipalities so that we will be able to meet the deadline.”


The tricky business of projecting populations

In late January, Whatcom County released population projections for Whatcom County and its cities.

Stalheim said the county is using that information to look back at land supply analyses, environmental reviews and population allocation strategies. The county then makes presentations to the Growth Management Coordinating Council, which is a board of elected officials and representatives from the county’s various municipalities.

“There is some initial public outreach that is being done and we’re concluding a big push on the technical side, so we are ready to go back out to the public to talk about some of the initial technical results that we have.”

Currently, the county has two population projections for each city. Bellingham, for example, which had an estimated 89,284 people in 2008, is projected to grow to 116,204 people based on historical statistics or to 123,963 based on the current county comprehensive plan.

Whatcom County has the ability to choose a projection above or below these numbers, which would determine how many people the city is planning for and how much the UGAs will grow.

Lehman said that continued growth of the Bellingham UGA will have a significant negative impact on the rural areas of Whatcom County.

“UGAs are a critical tool to keep urban-style development out of rural areas,” Lehman said. “Making sure they are sized appropriately is the best way to make sure we are not spilling and sprawling out into the county.”

Lehman said Futurewise Whatcom supports choosing a population projection on the low end of the spectrum, because it would bring less land into the Bellingham UGA and preserve farmlands, which are a local economic engine.

She said the county is planning so far in advance that if they adopt a low population projection and find more people are coming, they can make adjustments at the next review period.

“We can review and revise,” Lehman said. “It makes sense for us at Futurewise to plan conservatively and adjust frequently.”

However, some feel that under-planning for projected growth has led to rural areas absorbing nearly 20 percent of county growth over the past 10 years.

Stalheim said the county should adopt population projections that are the most likely scenario for what is going to happen.

“I don’t think, from a planner’s perspective, that we should be going to artificial numbers that can’t ever be implemented,” Stalheim said.

Greg Aucutt, Bellingham city planner, said the county should adopt a projection in the middle because there is less risk.

“If you forecast too low, the worry is that you will get unplanned growth and the cities won’t have enough capacity to accommodate what is actually occurring and it will bleed into the rural areas,” Aucutt said.

Jack Petree, local growth consultant and analyst for Public Policy Perspectives, said now is a critical time for growth planning

He said for the past 10 to 15 years, a relatively small generation, Generation X, has been coming through and settling in the recreational areas around Bellingham, such as Birch Bay and Sudden Valley.

“What we have done by not allowing growth in Bellingham has been to force growth out, so people have gone to where they can get a serviced lot for $25,000 and put a home on it,” Petree said.

Now that those buffer areas around Bellingham are dwindling and neighborhood lots are scarce, Petree said the next generation, known as Generation Y or the millennials, who are thought to outnumber the baby boomers, are graduating from college and entering the home market.

“So all of the land buffers are gone at a time when the largest generation in history is coming through in the next 10 years,” Petree said.


‘It’s not nuclear physics’

With a 10-year review, Petree said the county is supposed to look at how growth was projected and managed in the 1997 comprehensive plan, take a snapshot analysis of where the county currently is and then use that information to determine how to accommodate the growth of the next 20 years.

Petree said that often these growth reviews become overly complicated.

“If we would restrict ourselves to only what we are supposed to do, this could easily be done before the deadline,” Petree said. “I mean, it’s not nuclear physics.”

Aucutt said the city has been working with the county since the city’s seven-year comprehensive plan update in 2004 and has been impressed with the county’s work so far.

“I think the county is doing an amazing job of trying to sift through a tremendous amount of information and get public input in a very short period of time,” Aucutt said.

However, he has his doubts about it’s being done by the deadline.

“From the perspective of our involvement, it seems very unlikely that they will get it done by [June 30],” Aucutt said.

Some agree more time might be needed. Stalheim said that at a recent meeting of the Growth Management Coordinating Council, some members motioned to approach the hearings board for a six-month extension.

“It’s up to the board,” Stalheim said. “We entered into an agreement with the parties that challenged the decision, so they have a say in that as well. Part of our priorities is trying to get the work done, so that we are GMA compliant.”

Lehman said she sympathizes with the county, because they have a lot to do in such a short time, but she also said she wouldn’t be completely against an extension.

“That’s a tough one,” Lehman said. “No one wants to see this drag out forever, but do you want to do it right or do it poorly and have to do it again later?”

Kremen said he would like to push on to meet the June deadline, but agreed that if more time would yield a better plan, it could be a good idea.

“It is important to make sure we do this right,” Kremen said. “I don’t want to add six months just to add six months and put off tough decisions because that really doesn’t accomplish a whole lot. Now if we extend it and we wind up having a discernibly better product, then it would be worth the extra time.”

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