by J.J. Jensen
Two words in recent months have been motivation for residents to, among other things, shout down the mayor, form community groups and consider lawsuits – Fairhaven Highlands.
As evident by emotional public meetings, letters to newspaper editors and messages to city officials, many in the community oppose the proposed 85-acre, 739-home development, located just south of Fairhaven Park, in a forested area known lovingly to neighbors as the “100-Acre Wood.”
“We’re watching our neighborhoods just change so fast right now,” said Thom Prichard, 54, who lives near the proposed development and serves as president of his neighborhood association, Fairhaven Neighbors. “One thing that’s nice about Bellingham is that everyone is protective of their neighborhoods. Watching all this growth happen is having people say, ‘step back.'”
Indeed, the proposed development, which calls for a mix of single-family houses, townhouses and buildings as tall as 10 stories, has rallied south-end residents around an anti-growth banner. And, as of last week, said Dana Lyons, an advisory board member with the recently formed Responsible Development!, a community group that opposes the Fairhaven Highlands project, it appeared there may be a chance the developing parties, Horizon Bank and David Edelstein, would entertain offers for public purchase of the land.
But whether Fairhaven Highlands is built or not, growth and development is coming to Bellingham. Lots of it. And to just about all areas of the city.
While it’s southside residents who are currently confronting and coping with this reality, few community members in the coming years will be able to escape it in their neighborhoods.
Just how many people are coming to Bellingham?
Between 2002 and 2022, according to Bellingham Planning Director Jorge Vega, the Bellingham City Council and Whatcom County Council predict 31,601 new residents will move to the city.
“The reality is the reality,” he said. “We can’t bury our heads in the sand. The bottom line is people are coming here. What you have to do, under the urban growth areas, and common sense, is be ready for that growth. If you ignore, it willswallow you up, but if you plan for it than you can make sure it’s not going to surprise you, and you can manage it.”
How does the city plan to address the growth?
Bellingham is currently updating its Comprehensive Plan, as required by the state’s Growth Management Act, adopted by the legislature in 1990 as a way to require cities to plan for projected population growth. That plan, last updated in 1995, will establish the goals and policies that will guide development over the next 20 years.
The previous Comprehensive Plan, along with the 1992 “Visions for Bellingham” report, called for infilling, or maximizing density within areas of the city where zoning and infrastructure allows for it, as the primary way to reduce and slow sprawl. Examples of infill include the Harris Square and Fairhaven Harbor developments in Fairhaven.
“Those two developments are going to house around 293 people,” said Vega. “If you built single-family housing units it would require 117 single-family units (for the same number of people) but it would take up 29.25 acres as opposed to 1.95 acres. If you go from two acres for the same number of people vs. almost 30 acres, that’s what the sprawl issue is all about.”
Where will infill occur?
Infill most likely, and probably soonest, will be in Fairhaven, downtown, Barkley Village, the waterfront, including the recently acquired Georgia-Pacific site, and Old Town.
“Those are areas that come to mind right off the bat because you know you can increase the density and because the infrastructure’s there,” Vega said.
Will infill be able to accommodate all of the city’s projected growth?
Infill alone will not be able to solve Bellingham’s projected population boom.
“In order to avoid spreading out, you have to go taller but there’s a limit to how tall one can go,” Vega said. “Given that restriction, and concerns that our neighborhoods want to maintain character – which is a very critical component of our Comprehensive Plan – it’s very important we look at what are our real land-supply capabilities, what we can do realistically from an infill capacity.”
Given the amount of developable land within city limits and in the Urban Growth Area, it’s likely the city will need to annex additional land.
According to 2003 figures from the city planning department, there are only about 1,000 net developable acres for residential development. In addition, of the approximately 7,340 acres in the UGA, only about 600 acres can be developed for housing, given wetland, zoning, infrastructure and other restrictions.
“We’re in the situation where we really don’t have enough land, that’s why we’re looking at areas that would be appropriate to add, so we can add to the land supply,” said city planner Greg Aucutt.
What property may be annexed next?
Annexation is essentially controlled by property owners. To annex into the city, property owners must already be included in the city’s UGA. Property owners who own at least 60 percent of the land area in question have to agree, by petition method, that they want to annex.
The City Council then decides whether or not to let them in.
“We believe as a city, certainly as a department, that we are going to need some adjustments to the urban growth area,” Vega said.
Land that could likely be included in the city’s UGA, and eventually city limits, Vega said, are some areas that are already in the city’s five-year review plans. Areas already identified by the city and county that may soon be added to the UGA include:
* Cordata North/Caitac 5-year Review, on the west side of Guide Meridian, between city limits and North Bellingham Golf Course.
* Bear Creek 5-year Review, outside the city’s northwestern limits, between Northwest Road on the west, Slater Road right-of-way on the north, Cordata PUD on the east and existing UGA on the south.
* Stuart-Smith 5-year Review, east of the Guide Meridian between the southeast corner of the Guide Meridian and Smith Road intersection and city limits just south of Stuart Road.
* Queen Mountain 5-year Review, about 40 acres of land north of Irongate Road.
Once included in the city limits, developments could move rapidly in the Cordata North/Caitac, Stuart-Smith and Queen Mountain areas.
“Big tracts of those areas are owned by single entities and they’re wanting to come into the city and be annexed and meet the density requirements, design requirements and stormwater requirements the city would need to have met,” Vega said.
Aucutt said property owners in Cordata North/Caitac have discussed residential development on approximately 600 acres, while property owners in the Stuart-Smith and Queen Mountain areas have talked about developing around 200 and 40 acres, respectively.
Because of wetland, topography and other challenges, two locations in the UGA that may see the least amount of future growth and development are the Geneva and Britton/Hillsdale areas, which lie within the Lake Whatcom watershed. In the 5-year Review areas, Bear Creek and Toad Lake have similar wetland and topographical challenges.
In the city, where are residential housing developments likely to go?
While there’s not an abundance of land available in the city for residential development that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
Areas in the city with the most vacant land include the Samish, South, Meridian and Whatcom Falls neighborhoods, Aucutt said.
When will development happen?
Ultimately, developers and property owners will make the call on when to begin projects. However, given Bellingham’s current demand for housing, it’s likely to come sooner than later.
“There’s just no way to know when developments will happen, it’s totally up to the property owners. They decide when they’ll come to the city and apply for permits,” Aucutt said. “It can take years to get from raw land to the point where someone can build a house on a lot, but there’s real strong demand right now for single-family housing. There’s a lot of people who are working real hard to bring some lots on line.”
What is Bellingham’s current housing situation like?
Right now, the demand for housing greatly outstrips the supply.
“The current housing situation, in a one-word characterization, I’d call it ‘crazy,'” said Graham Youtsey, a loan consultant at the Washington Mutual Home Loan Center. “People can walk into a house and sellers will increase the price while they’re in it.”
With Bellingham’s current amount of housing, he said, it’s young families and first-time home buyers who are having the most difficult time buying.
“People who do not own a home right now can not save enough money a month to make up for the appreciation that’s occurring in the housing market here,” Youtsey said.
In the current housing market, he believes it’s the sellers and developers who are benefiting the greatest.
“As fast as they can build ’em, they can sell ’em,” he said.
Developers are definitely taking notice of Bellingham’s situation. Last month, America’s largest homebuilder, D.R. Horton, purchased 34 acres at the north end of Cordata Parkway and announced it plans to build 300 to 325 homes there, possibly breaking ground as soon as this summer.
Growth is expected throughout Whatcom County, why is Bellingham’s role so important?
While major developments will also get underway in Blaine, Birch Bay, Ferndale and elsewhere in coming years, city and county planners have projected that the majority of new people and jobs coming to Whatcom County will land in Bellingham.
“If we’re not successful in increasing the supply of residential land (in the city), we’re afraid a lot of the people who are going to move here anyway will move out into the rural areas of the county,” Aucutt said. “That would be a problem because Bellingham has 65 to 70 percent of the county’s total jobs so even if people live all over the place they’re still going to be driving into town in the morning and driving out at night. There are lots of examples of cities that have let that happen, and their transportation systems are a nightmare.”
How can community members, city officials and developers work together?
Inevitably, as with neighbors of the Fairhaven Highlands proposal, not everyone is going to be happy with growth and development in their backyards.
“Change is scary, there’s no way of getting around that, and large developments are always going to be controversial,” Aucutt said.
Community members need to be active in their local neighborhood associations and stay abreast of developments in their part of town, said Prichard, the Fairhaven Neighbors president.
Ted Mischaikov, who has proposed developments in Fairhaven and in the Cordata North/Caitac Five-year Review area, said community members can play a great role in developments – when they stay accurately informed.
If residents don’t want growth and development in their neighborhood, he said, the most effective way to stop it is to go the route of Lyons and Responsible Development! – buy the land themselves.
“For those who would like to slow down projects, simply put, purchase the property,” he said. “If people want to effect planning policy then they need to participate in an organized and informed manner continuously and not from time to time as growth policy rears itself as a current event.
“The goal, in my opinion, for this community, should be planning far into the future and providing site-specific infrastructure and site-specific design elements so that the community, defacto, controls the manner in which growth is manifested.”
Aucutt agrees that getting involved in neighborhood associations now can help shape what the community will look like far into the future.
“The stuff that’s happening now in Fairhaven is stuff that was discussed 20 years ago,” he said. “What we’re talking about now – with the City-wide Comprehensive Plan and UGA plan – is what’s going to happen over the next 20 years so it’s absolutely the right time to get involved.”