Whatcom County should plan for urban growth to prevent sprawl

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 12, 2013 

Whether they are born here or move here, we'll have between 56,000 to 86,000 new neighbors in 2036. Can't quite get a sense of how many people that is? It would be like five-to-eight new Ferndales popping up across the county. But where exactly will these neighbors-to-be live and work? That's exactly what our leaders are figuring out.

Over the next three years, the county and cities will work together to make a plan for all these new residents. They'll look at our existing plans and suggest changes to accommodate our growing population. Their first step is to figure out how many people we want to plan for. Picking a population projection may seem like a small decision, but all the decisions that we make over the next three years depend on the number of people we are planning for, and where we expect them to live. If we pick a number that is too high, urban areas may have to expand and consume more land for new residents that aren't coming. If we pick a number that's too low, our infrastructure, like sewer and water, may be undersized to provide adequate services. The consequences of picking the wrong number are many and can be incredibly impactful on our community.

Futurewise believes that we need to plan for a population increase that is most likely - based on our historical growth rates. This means we will be able to keep our urban areas at appropriate sizes that protect our natural resources and reduce unnecessary costs to taxpayers. Looking at the county's projections and our historical growth rates, we believe we should aim for a middle-ground population target of 68,000.

After picking a county-wide growth number, the county and cities will have to allocate that growth to each of our cities and the county's unincorporated areas. We should focus most of that growth into our existing cities because it best reflects the values and vision of most of our current neighbors.

In fact, just before the county's last review of growth in 2009, a survey commissioned by the Whatcom Legacy Project showed that 69 percent of respondents felt that focusing growth into cities and preserving farmland and forests was a good idea and 41 percent thought it was most important to conserve working farmland.

What's more, it's clear that directing growth to cities makes good fiscal sense.

A recent study from Smart Growth America ("Building Better Budgets: A National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Development," May 2013) shows that developing at higher densities within cities costs about 38 percent less for upfront infrastructure and saves communities about 10 percent on on-going services like fire, ambulance and police. And, this kind of development adds 10 times more tax revenue per acre than sprawl.

Indeed, focused growth matches our shared vision and reduces costs to taxpayers. In order to achieve this win/win, the county should also reduce its planned growth to areas outside of our existing cities. The preliminary numbers show nearly 25 percent of population will go to areas outside of designated urban growth areas. That's too much and will mean spending more taxpayer dollars to do something most residents disagree with.

We need to set a lower target for non-urban growth and adopt policies and regulations to limit rural growth and help us achieve that target. The current plan calls for about 14 percent of our growth to go to rural areas. This is better than 25 percent, but we need the county to take a harder look at the financial impact of providing services to rural areas and select an even lower growth rate.

This is the time for the community to start getting engaged in the discussion. A couple weeks ago, the Whatcom County Planning Commission held a town hall meeting about where growth should go. It was a great meeting, but it was poorly attended. They're continuing that discussion at a hearing in November and it's vital that the community show up share their vision for the future. Decision-makers won't know what we want our community to look like unless we tell them. It's time for all of us to get engaged so we can have a 20-year vision we all believe in.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Blystone is director of the Whatcom Chapter of Futurewise, the local chapter of a statewide land-use advocacy organization. Futurewise, futurewise.org/Whatcom, works to promote healthy communities and cities while protecting working farms, working forests and shorelines.

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