Is Bellingham short of industrial space?

Much of city’s industrially zoned area is almost impossible to build upon

Bellingham’s industrially zoned areas are shown above in various shades of gray. Much of the large block to the northwest is taken up by the airport; the chunk centered on Iowa Street is used almost exclusively by commercial businesses suchas the street’s many car dealers.

Dan Hiestand
   Bellingham is a growing city with growing pains. Residential and commercial development is booming, and real estate prices continue to soar. The city is continually re-defining itself, its population and its future.
   Industrial land development is an issue the city continues to grapple with — and it’s an issue loaded with questions. Is there enough industrial land in the city? What are some of the challenges the city must overcome to address the availability of industrial land? Furthermore, Bellingham must ask itself how much of an industrial town it wants to be, and what does it want to look like?
   The answers to these questions are complicated, according to Ken Oplinger, president/CEO at the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Oplinger came to Bellingham in October 2003 from Visalia, Calif., a growing farming community in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.
   As the president of Visalia Chamber of Commerce, Oplinger was actively involved in industrial development issues there. The approach to development, Oplinger said, is not a “one-size fits all” solution.
   “Every so often, as (Visalia) started to feel like it was filling up a bit, the city would buy the next one-mile block of land in the industrial area and re-zone it and have it ready to go,” Oplinger said. “We were able to make those jumps out because we had flat, arable land without any trees on it.”
   For Visalia, the solution to the industrial growth question is much less complicated than Bellingham’s, mostly because the physical landscape in particular was conducive to that sort of development. Dry farmland — already sectioned in huge chunks and relatively free of environmental constraints — is easier to develop, Oplinger said. In Bellingham, the situation is much more complicated, in large part because of what makes it so irresistible to its residents: a fertile area dotted with wetlands, rivers and creeks.

Zoned doesn’t mean ready
   The Port of Bellingham’s “Whatcom County Industrial Lands Study,” published in August 2003, was a fairly exhaustive look at the state of industrially zoned lands countywide, including figures on job market trends, current and forecasted population counts, the current and predicted amount of industrial lands in the county and its cities, and whether local planners were meeting industrial zoning needs.
   The report made important distinctions between “unconstrained lands,” or lands devoid of environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands, and “constrained lands,” regions that contain critical or environmentally sensitive areas.
   According to the report, of Bellingham’s 4,430 acres that were zoned for industrial use in 2002 (a figure that places them second countywide behind Cherry Point with 6,406 acres), 1,884 acres — or 42.5 percent — was deemed to be constrained, or containing wetlands, stream buffers or flood acres. And that number, said Chris Behee, a geographic information systems analyst with the city of Bellingham, is still not the most accurate indicator of how much land is realistically available. Site access, size and utilities all have roles in determining whether land is usable.
   “Industrial and commercial development comes in so many flavors and shapes and sizes and different space needs,” Behee said. Even though land may be dry doesn’t mean it’s usable, he said, citing a stretch of light-industrial property off Pacific Highway as an example.
   “The whole center of (the Pacific Highway zone) is all a long, interconnected system of wetlands that tie into the Silver and Bear Creek headwaters. There are pockets of upland in there, and really there is no physical way to get to them.” Behee said he believes the trapped pockets available there may not be big enough to justify the costs of building infrastructure in those areas.
   “I think we’ve kind of reached the end of the easily buildable land,” said Oplinger. “The land that is left I wouldn’t even say is marginal.”
   The study also examined other factors, including industrial property proximity to railroads, Interstate 5, truck routes, water service lines, primary and secondary roads, sewer lines, gas and oil transmission lines, gas service lines, electric transmission lines and fiber-optic cable. All of these are contributing factors to what would make a property ready or not ready for industrial use, Behee said.
   In addition, the size — or lack thereof — of industrial-zoned parcels in Bellingham play a role in determining what sites will be developed, and by whom. For example, according to the report, the city had 1,019 parcels of industrially zoned land less than one acre in size, and four parcels of 20 acres or more.
   In comparison, at the time of the report, Cherry Point had 33 parcels at 20 or more acres, and unincorporated Whatcom County, third in industrial land behind Bellingham, was listed with two parcels at that level. Both Ferndale and Lynden didn’t have any in the 20-acre category according to the study, although Ferndale now has one and Lynden has six.
   However, the six Lynden parcels were filtered out of the 2003 study because the property owners were participants in Whatcom County’s open space agricultural taxation program, said Amy Harksell, planning director for the city of Lynden. The program allows property owners to hold land under an agricultural zone tagging — which costs property owners less in taxes compared to industrial zoning — and then sell it as industrial land.
   “We don’t have a huge amount of environmental constraints because we are on farmland,” said Harksell. “It’s sandy soil that drains well. It’s suitable and ideal for building on.”

White collar or blue collar?
   The city of Yakima is slightly larger in population than Bellingham, and, like Bellingham, it is growing. Dave McFadden, president of the Yakima County Development Association, said his city has also dealt with the growth issue through extensive planning.
   In 1999, Yakima looked at the industrial-growth issue, and estimated a need for 600 additional acres over a 10-year period. Currently, Yakima has approximately 300 acres of land ready to go for industrial use — including access to utilities, said McFadden.
   In contrast, 75 percent of the 374 usable acres of industrial land in Bellingham is in parcels less than 10 acres in size — and a good portion of that land is more than a quarter of a mile from arterial streets and utilities. The city forecasts it will need an additional 180 acres of usable industrial land by 2022. Further complicating things, Bellingham is constantly faced with requests to re-zone areas from industrial use to other uses — such as the 166-acre Georgia-Pacific site — subtractions that further reduce industrially zoned land size.
   Also, some city areas are zoned industrial yet have commercial development, such as the string of car dealerships along Iowa Street. These commercial outposts further reduce the amount of industrial development that can occur in the city, Behee said — and some industrial development opportunities can be lost.
   “(If someone comes) to our permit center and says, ‘I’m looking for a 15-acre piece with services X, Y, and Z … If we don’t have those ready to go, they drive to Ferndale, and then they drive to Blaine and check, or see what Cherry Point has,” Behee said. “If we don’t have those sites ready or an adequate supply of that kind of land, then (companies) go where it is first.”
   However, this is not always such a bad thing, Oplinger said.
   “A 100,000-square-foot, big-box distribution center (in Bellingham) is probably not the right thing for us,” Oplinger said. “(A place like Yakima has) the land for it, and they’ve got the unskilled labor force to step right into it.” In contrast, Bellingham’s workforce is among the most educated in the state, and he said a better fit would be a skills-based industrial job, such as a metalwork shop.
   Commercial real estate developer Ron Bennett said more industrial land is sorely needed in Bellingham.
   “Of all the zonings that we have, we are really desperate for light industrial,” Bennett said. He said he would like to see more mixed-use facilities that combine commercial and industrial — as in a retail store up front and a manufacturing warehouse in the back.
   “We got to see more of those (developments),” he said. “Business people like to have their products out back.” He doesn’t think the city should restrict any kind of development if it can be shown to improve the area – including bigger industrial warehouses.
   In the end, according to Oplinger, zoning and planning for the future comes down to issues of communication, hopefully in the form of a community summit that would include input from members of the business community, neighborhood associations, environmental groups —”the broadest base we can get,” he said.
   “We are well-positioned (in Bellingham) to see industrial growth on a smaller scale.”

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