As cities expand, combining environmental concerns and builders’ needs can be a tough task
As Whatcom County continues to grow, the pressure is building when it comes to managing development effectively and responsibly. Finding the balance between nature and development is a constant concern.
For Analiese Burns, this struggle — in part — has helped pay the bills.
Burns, 29, is an environmental consultant who started working in Bellingham six years ago. She said her job has gotten much more complicated since she first started working nearly a decade ago in the Seattle area.
“The regulations have changed dramatically since I’ve been involved (as a consultant),” she said. “If you talk to people who have been in consulting for 20 years or more, they see a dramatic shift from basically people being able to do whatever they wanted to do (to a far more regulated situation).”
A major part of her job is helping developers sort through many of the issues that go along with development from an environmental standpoint, be it planning a building that most effectively meets a customer’s needs or interpreting regulations.
Regulatory system can present challenges
Burns said she empathizes with developers, as she knows the sheer number of environmental regulations can be daunting.
“The jury is still out on whether there are too many regulations (in my opinion),” Burns said. “I think how they are being implemented is when it’s difficult.”
She said many areas of Whatcom County face both a pressure to develop and to protect environmentally sensitive areas, citing parts of Birch Bay and the Lake Whatcom watershed in south Bellingham.
For example, she said, a common complaint for developers in Whatcom County concerns wetland mitigation — particularly the portion of the law that requires property owners to create a low-grade wetland in the general drainage basin of their property if they are developing over wetland.
“Maybe it doesn’t make sense to re-create what was there because what was there wasn’t great anyway,” she said. “It’s easier to just create a not-so-great wetland on your property, but it’s silly.”
Fairhaven-based developer Ted Mischaikov agrees. Some regulations make sense, while others seem to get lost in translation.
“We need to get to the point where if it makes sense, you do it, rather than jumping through these arcane hoops that really are not benefiting (the situation),” Mischaikov said.
That said, the former Trillium president believes the current system of regulations, while not perfect, is essential. Burns also believes that local governments are doing the best they can. In her opinion, the increased environmental regulation present today was implemented after many years of low-level governmental oversight regarding development.
“In my view, it’s a reaction to what happened before when people didn’t have many requirements and there was a lot of damage to the public resources,” she said. “Now people are extra sensitive about protecting those resources … maybe to a fault … but the intent is good, and that is to protect what we appreciate about this area.”
A good plan goes a long way
Burns said a little planning goes a long way when it comes to blending the environment and new development.
“One of the things that people need to do to feel proud about their projects is to make sure that it does serve the public need,” said Burns. “And the public need goes beyond the boundaries of their project. Everything interacts with each other. The air above the project is the same air the rest of Bellingham shares. Same with the water, same with the soil.”
Builder and contractor Travis Rohrer, of Topline Builders Inc. in Bellingham, said finding that balance is a constant challenge.
Solutions to issues such as controlling ground-source pollution can be found through a variety of means, including choosing longer-lasting materials or materials that emit fewer chemicals in the air. Also, an efficiently pre-designed building can help limit waste in the end. But all of it comes down to the customer.
“It’s all about consumer demand,” he said. “If the demand goes up and people realize some of the advantages of building in a more environmentally conscious way, such as reduced utility costs, there may be more of a demand. Then it will grab some traction. Otherwise, where is the incentive?”
On a larger scale, local government action is also imperative, Mischaikov said. The creation of the Park, Recreation and Open Space Plan is a step in the right direction.
“I think in 100 years, people will look back at this new critical areas ordinance and this park level of service ordinance (Park, Recreation and Open Space Plan) and say, ‘brilliant,'” Mischaikov said. “I think most of the people involved in the industry are pretty darn sensible, and want to make good decisions.”
Leslie Bryson is the design/development manager with Bellingham Parks and Recreation, the department that oversaw the development of the Park, Recreation and Open Space Plan. The plan recommended the city adopt a park impact fee to help offset growth, and that recommendation was adopted earlier this year. This type of action is important to area residents, Bryson said.
“People are really concerned about losing their quality of life,” Bryson said. “This is one way they see as protecting it, by protecting natural areas and having enough parks and green space.”
The impact fee mandates developers do one of two things to create open space: either pay an impact fee for a new development that would be used to buy new parks and recreation property, or provide land or property improvements that work into the adopted development plans of the parks and recreation department.
Critical areas, such as wetlands, would not normally count as usable land. The city began the process of adopting this plan into the city’s comprehensive plan in 2005 — although the Open Space plan was first created in 2002 but was not connected with the city’s comprehensive plan until last year.
She said the plan sets aside 42 acres of mixed parks and recreation land for every 1,000 people who move to the area — a ratio higher than the national average of 34 acres per 1,000 people. Furthermore, revenue generators such as greenway levies and real estate excise taxes go toward setting aside parks and recreation land.
“(Under the Park, Recreation and Open Space Plan), every skyscraper that goes down in Bellingham creates 20 acres of open space on the perimeter of town,” he said. “Then we have these incredible patches of green, which is the cornerstone of our livability which takes you all the way back to why people come here.”
And while Mischaikov likes the idea of driving density to create more open spaces — especially in the downtown sector — he said that is not always the answer to controlling sprawl, in his mind.
“(Driving density) only works if it’s in conjunction with good design, diversity of products (available in the area) and if it’s tied culturally and architecturally into the community,” he said. If that infrastructure — such as an efficient transit system — is in place, Mischaikov said, urban density development is a good option.
“One of the reasons we think we are so green is because when you look around you see green. That lends itself very well to mid-rise, high-rise (buildings),” he said. “When people get up there, they don’t really want to look at the vista of San Antonio, which is rooftops to the horizon.”
He also supports the idea of mitigation banks concerning wetlands, with the idea being to consolidate wetlands that are more successful while developing the wetland areas that are “low quality.”
“Make some of these drainages really work well,” Mischaikov said. “Make them preserves. But let the wetlands that are low quality, that aren’t really part of a working system, let those get developed.”
Burns echoed that sentiment.
“What if we combined a (particular) mitigation with something else that really would increase the value of a wetland or would create a new wetland that really meant something, that really served some purposes for our environment?” she said.
Overall, Burns said she thinks local governments in Whatcom County are doing a much better job communicating with the public about these issues, and hopes to see this continue.
“Hopefully the public can feel that they support the regulations and that they are not just being imposed on them,” she said. “That it is something that benefits the community as a whole.”