New county planning director steps up

David Stalheim takes on the challenge of county planning


Whatcom County’s new planning director, David Stalheim, said he is trying to recruit new staff to the planning department, but it’s a tough job in the face of competition from private firms.


Whatcom County’s new planning director has a lot on his plate.

After working as a community development director for less than a year in Ashland, Ore., and the previous eight years in Wenatchee, David Stalheim arrived on Nov. 5 at a time of turmoil in Whatcom County.

With a recent smattering of staff resignations and a controversial urban growth area decision, the county is in need of some committed leadership.

The BBJ recently sat down with Stalheim to find out if he’s up for the challenge.


BBJ: Why was your tenure in Ashland so short?

Stalheim: For many reasons. I really missed Washington. There are other issues behind it, too, but I had been here since 1980, went to college here, and my whole professional career was here. My knowledge of land-use issues is really tied to Washington.

I felt lost. It was a big challenge.

[Ashland] was a very small community and a challenging environment. You couldn’t go anywhere. When I announced my resignation it was headline news and then they had a four-part series in the paper about the loss of a planner. Your life becomes so focused because the community is looking at you, and I have a young son — he’s 10 years old— and I really wanted to have an opportunity to be somewhere and stay there through his high school graduation.

So the decision was largely for personal, family reasons.


BBJ: What are your goals and priorities for the county’s planning department in the near future?

Stalheim: The main goal is for me to get a handle on what’s going on.

First, there are a lot of requests for work from the council and the community in terms of a long-range work program, so I’m trying to understand what those are and what kind of resources we have to assign to them.

Organizationally, there’s a lot of new staff within six months of employment here and there’s been a lot of turnover in the department. So I’m trying to learn the strengths and abilities of folks in the department.

I’m starting to work with other departments to make sure we’re addressing their issues and we’re working well together.


BBJ: If you were here at the time, would you have supported the County Council’s recommendation to allow expansion of Bellingham’s urban growth area (UGA) by only about 250 acres rather than the city’s recommendation to include approximately 2,200 acres?

Stalheim: I came in and looked at the numbers and I’ve done quite a few UGA analyses.

I think — it sounds like a political answer — the city and county both did a good job. I think the city followed what state guidance was and I think the county did a good job in saying ‘Well, there’s a lot of factors added into the city’s analysis that are basically cushions, and if we take some of these variables out, some of these safety factors, out at the end, there’s still plenty of cushions in the city’s analysis.’ So I think the end result of where things are right now is a fairly good position.

But we actually need to start the next round of review of UGAs and comprehensive plan updates right now, because under Growth Management Act (GMA) rules, we need to review every seven years. We have a 2011 mandate to review our plans. So when I started backing up and asking about all the things that happened [during the last review], that means we’re starting in 2008.

So part of the message is, it really doesn’t matter, because we have a whole new population allocation and we need to really wrestle as a region with some of the issues of infill, transportation, where should growth occur within regards to agricultural lands and natural resources.


BBJ: Do you anticipate any lawsuits will be brought against the county if it decides to limit Bellingham’s UGA growth to 250 acres, instead of the almost 2,200 acres the city recommended? And if so, how are you preparing for those lawsuits?

Stalheim: I have heard people say that we’re probably going to have a challenge in front of the Growth Hearings Board. By who, I have no idea. It depends on what the decision is. So the way we’re preparing for it is we’re reviewing the case and documenting it accurately and adequately.

As to the issue of urban growth and urban form, as long as you’re meeting the required mandates of the GMA, I think you’re in a very good position to defend that action. You are more at risk if you have a larger UGA with the growth hearings board than a small one.

Interestingly, people say, ‘Welcome to Whatcom County,’ because I tell them I’ve never been to the Growth Hearings Board.


BBJ: Within the past year a number of county planning staff have left the department for jobs elsewhere. What are you doing to hire and retain staff?

Stalheim: We’re having a hard time recruiting for positions. I know I’ve got at least five (positions) — three senior planner positions and two planner one positions and a planning technician position.

We’ve interviewed for several of those and we have some potential for filling them, but I want to look at the organization and make sure we’re hiring the right skills and putting them in the right place, because one of the things I’m seeing is people doing their own thing and the coordination and communication among folks is really important.


BBJ: Why are you having trouble recruiting staff?

Stalheim: I think that pay could be an issue. Some of those positions … are out of adjustment with comparable counties and so there is an effort to bring some of those positions closer to the market.

With a lot of development pressures there’s a lot of other market forces for our services. There are a lot of folks competing from cities, ports, tribes, all the public agencies … and private consulting firms are being able to compete and steal the cream of the crop.


BBJ: How do you envision the county’s agricultural protection program moving forward in the next few years?

Stalheim: First we need to get a staff person assigned to the agriculture program. The person who was doing it [planner Craig Olason] transferred over to public works about a month and a half ago. We do have one person working part time on the purchase of development rights program.

We signed a contract with Farm Friends to work on public outreach to the farm community. That was part of trying to keep the agriculture program going with education. Also we need to work on the transfer of development rights program and agriculture program in terms of UGAs, trying to set some standards of when are we going to allow some encroachments within the agriculture lands for urban growth area expansion.


BBJ: What is your vision of how growth will occur countywide in the next 10 to 20 years?

Stalheim: It’s really too soon [to say]. I’m still just learning the names of the communities.

The vision of growth that’s outlined by the Growth Management Act is urban development in urban growth areas. That’s a proper vision for most of the communities. From a land-use pattern, it’s making sure we honor and protect that, and encourage infill and development in cities.


Bio: David Stalheim

Name: David Stalheim

Age: 49

Lives in: Bellingham

Hometown: Menomonee Falls, Wisc.

Alma Mater: The Evergreen State College, 1982

Family: Wife, Celia, and son, Ben, 10

Favorite place in Whatcom County: (So far), Mt. Baker

Word that best describes you: From his kid’s perspective — “oldy”

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