Bellingham's proposal to county: We'll grow faster if you slow growth

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 20, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - City leaders proposed a bargain with their counterparts on the Whatcom County Council: We'll accept a higher share of the population growth over the next 20 years, if you're willing to allow less growth in rural areas.

The stated intent of the City Council's exercise on Monday, Nov. 18, was to pick a population projection in order to begin a major countywide planning update. The numbers, once finalized, will help leaders decide how many police officers and firefighters to hire, how many new roads to build, and how many new sewer and water pipes to lay.

The decision was also a political stand by the council to reduce sprawl and intensify development in the city.

Council voted 6-1 on Monday to recommend a high population projection for Bellingham. Michael Lilliquist voted no. Council also voted unanimously to recommend the high-end projection for job growth in the city.

The high population projection, produced by the consulting firm BERK, called for an average of 1,562 new residents in Bellingham each year through 2036. That "high" number has been the actual trend from 1990 to 2010.

The high-end job prediction says 22,641 new jobs will be created in Bellingham in the next 20 years, a 44 percent increase from 2010.

Picking these numbers wasn't an academic exercise; it put a responsibility on the council, Lilliquist said.

"Predicting a high jobs number doesn't create jobs. You have to do something to bring that about. We need to do the planning and not just the picking of the number," he said after a Nov. 4 public hearing.

Also, growth comes at a price, Lilliquist said.

"When we pick high numbers, that means we need to build the bridges, we need to expand the sewer treatment plant," he said. "Your utility rates are higher because we were planning for people to show here. If we plan for even more people to show here, we may need to keep raising your utility rates."

The council can't concentrate growth in the city without help from the county. Hence the bargain to the County Council, attached to the City Council's population recommendation as a policy statement. In effect, the statement said, we'll go high if you go low.

Growth in the rural areas has been declining already due to market forces, said Greg Aucutt, Bellingham's assistant director of planning. But Lilliquist would like to see growth curtailed even more.

Aucutt highlighted how difficult that will be.

"There are thousands of vested lots in the rural areas of the county ... that are legal building sites, and so without some corresponding action by the county to address that issue, it's going to be very difficult to reduce rural growth," Aucutt said.

Some on the City Council said the chances of the County Council taking the bargain may have improved after this month's county elections. Two more progressive candidates unseated conservatives Kathy Kershner and Bill Knutzen, who have been strong supporters of property rights.

City Council member Seth Fleetwood said this city-county agreement to concentrate growth in urban areas was already tried without success in 2008, when he was on the County Council and that body was more progressive than it is now.

"Even with a decent configuration of councils, it's still hard," Fleetwood said.

Fleetwood suggested that people in cities often don't like new developments in their backyard, and rural property owners don't like their rights to build taken away.

Part of the reason Bellingham officials chose the high growth rate was to keep pace with the smaller cities, which are lining up to take a bigger proportion of the county's growth. Ferndale and Lynden councils voted to recommend the high-growth projection, planning directors in those cities said. The Blaine City Council will vote on its recommendation Monday, Nov. 25, said Michael Jones, Blaine planning director.

The cities' recommendations go to the county Planning Commission, which will hold a public hearing on Dec. 12. The final decision on how to distribute growth in the county is in the hands of the County Council, which is scheduled to pick preliminary growth rates in February.

Those numbers will be far from final and will only serve as a starting point for discussions. The planning update must be completed by 2016.

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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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