Whatcom County, cities, public seek common ground on growth

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 24, 2013 

Where will people live over the next 20 years, and where will they find work? The Whatcom County Council, coordinating with officials from the seven cities, will spend almost three years deciding how urban and rural areas will grow, and how much protection to give farmland.

This process, called the comprehensive plan update, isn't due until mid-2016. But the public will get an early opportunity to comment on growth in the county at a town hall meeting, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave.

When the public and the county Planning Commission meet on Thursday, they'll have a conversation starter in front of them: a report issued in July that projects population growth to 2036 and gives an idea of where Whatcom's newcomers might live.

State population projections vary, but the middle-of-the-road forecast calls for 273,911 Whatcom residents in 2036. The current population is 205,800.

Based on growth trends in each of the cities from 2000-2010, the report, prepared by the Seattle consulting firm BERK, projects that Bellingham will absorb 28,398 of the 68,111 new residents. That's more than what was anticipated by the last 20-year plan, completed in 2009. Other cities, including Blaine and Ferndale, would take in fewer residents than called for in the previous plan.

Debates about how much land to allocate to cities can be contentious. Council member Pete Kremen, during a council discussion of the BERK report on Sept. 10, noted that Ferndale and Blaine could be asked to reduce their growth estimates.

"We had intense meetings and discussions with both those cities," Kremen said. "They both actually wanted to be bigger, not smaller."

This time, the county and the cities - Bellingham, Lynden, Ferndale, Blaine, Nooksack, Everson and Sumas - will try to reach a nonbinding, working agreement early. Matt Aamot, senior planner for the county and the staff lead on the 2016 update, said this agreement should be done by the first quarter of 2014.

"We're trying to work together earlier in the process to try to develop joint proposals," Aamot said. "Of course the County Council will have to make a decision in the end on growth projections and urban growth boundaries."

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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