BELLINGHAM - Civic leaders have decided Bellingham should take some responsibility for preventing urban sprawl in the next 20 years, but some people question how many residents the city can attract.
In a preliminary vote, the City Council agreed last month to ask Whatcom County for a large share of the new population expected over the next 20 years.
The county is seeking preliminary agreement over how much population each city in the county will absorb until 2036. The agreement will be the starting point of a two-year effort to update each municipality's 20-year comprehensive plan.
Bellingham and its immediate surrounding area, which had a population of 93,000 in 2013, would grow to 129,000 by 2036. Instead of taking 42 percent of Whatcom's new population, as Bellingham did from 1990 to 2010, the city would absorb more than 50 percent of the new growth.
However, people in the building and real estate businesses aren't confident that Bellingham can attract more residents. Real-estate advocates say the city doesn't offer what people want - single-family homes with a yard.
Building permit data bears that out. More homes per capita are being built in Lynden and Ferndale than in Bellingham.
Through November, Bellingham issued 145 building permits for single homes in 2013, compared to 92 in Ferndale, according to documents both cities post online. In Lynden, "about 100" building permits were issued for houses in the same period, said Lynden Planning Director Amy Harksell.
Lynden and Ferndale have populations around 12,000, about seven times smaller than Bellingham.
Part of the reason that Whatcom's urban center doesn't compare well to the smaller cities is that much of the undeveloped land in Bellingham isn't suitable for building homes, said Greg Aucutt, the city's assistant planning director.
Also, since 2008, the City Council has favored urban villages that mix residential units and commercial spaces, often within the same building. The villages allow, but do not emphasize, detached homes that are closely spaced and within walking distance from stores and work places.
At best, the jury is out on whether people want to move into the high-density centers, which have been approved for Fairhaven, Samish Way, Old Town and the Fountain District.
The new plan for Bellingham's waterfront incorporates two urban villages, at the waterfront itself and the city core.
"At the same time that we were getting those plans down and the new zoning put in place, the economy went in the tank," Aucutt said. "We don't really have a good feel for what truly is going to be the market for urban village housing."
People in real estate have concluded the market isn't strong for urban-village apartments or condominiums.
"When you look at the urban villages ... they're relying very heavily on housing types that are difficult to build now and that are almost impossible to finance," said Perry Eskridge, government affairs director for the Whatcom County Association of Realtors.
He was speaking at a Dec. 12 public hearing of the county Planning Commission. At the hearing, the commission was considering 2036 population projections for the county and Whatcom cities, and will pick up where it left off at a meeting Jan. 9.
Eskridge said Bellingham is missing opportunities to make housing available. He mentioned Chuckanut Ridge in south Bellingham, which the city bought from a troubled bank that was going to invest in a subdivision, amid calls from neighbors to "Save the Hundred Acre Wood." The city is working to rezone those residential parcels as open space.
"That was a thousand units of housing gone, for a park, when they were already behind," Eskridge said. "And Bellingham just keeps going in the wrong direction."
The council also voted against allowing more homes in a proposed development between Interstate 5 and Lake Padden, called Padden Trails.
While there was opposition from neighbors to more homes in Padden Trails, a main reason the proposal was rejected was that the large subdivision wasn't designed for effective emergency response, with only one way in and out, Aucutt said.
Chuckanut Ridge, on the other hand, was a conscious decision to convert residential land to park land.
"The residents place a very high priority on our park and trail system," Aucutt said. "We're not going to apologize for that. We lost some (housing) capacity there. We're going to have to make it up somewhere else."
At the Planning Commission hearing, Aucutt conceded that will be difficult.
"Much of the land that's left in the city of Bellingham is difficult to develop, expensive to develop," he said. "It's on hillsides or it's in critical areas," such as wetlands.
Planning Commissioner Gary Honcoop told Aucutt that the limited amount of land available in Bellingham for single-family homes was out of balance with land for apartments and condominiums. Aucutt didn't argue.
"While there is a market for multi-family and has been and will continue to be, where we probably haven't done as well as we should is in the single (home) areas," Aucutt said. "We can't grow west, we can't go south, and we can't go east. So the choices are fairly limiting."
On the city's north end, two developers are building, or planning, more than 2,000 new homes.
Caitac USA, under the banner of Larrabee Springs, is selling homes on small lots for under $300,000 at the Reserve at Cordata, tucked into the corner of Cordata Parkway and Tremont Avenue. Thirty-five homes were sold at the Reserve this year, said Bob Carmichael, an attorney for Larrabee Springs.
The developer plans another subdivision farther north on Cordata Parkway with more than 400 homes, Carmichael said. To make room for population growth after 2016, Larrabee Springs proposes bringing land between the city limits and North Bellingham Golf Course into the city. That area would accommodate more than 500 homes, or more than 1,200 new residents, Carmichael said.
"To totally write off Bellingham as a location for single-family homes, and to say we just won't have any in Bellingham, we believe is a mistake," Carmichael said. "We believe this is a perfectly logical location to find those homes."
Ralph Black's company, Alliance Properties 2000, will add some 1,000 single-family homes to Bellingham's King Mountain neighborhood, in addition to apartments.
Black, too, questioned the wisdom of the city's emphasis on multi-story apartment and condominium buildings.
"They want more vertical, and the market definitely isn't calling for vertical," he said. "Single-family residential is still the biggest demand, even if on a small lot."
People in real estate have asked city officials to take the market into account as they plan for population growth through 2036. If not, home buyers will vote with their feet and continue to settle in Ferndale, Lynden and other places in the county, say people in the industry.
A lot of decisions will be made between now and the 2016 deadline for the planning updates, but Bellingham council member Michael Lilliquist said he already anticipates the city will take a balanced approach to residential planning.
"There's going to continue to be demand for single-family residences," he said. "Hearing from other people in real estate, there is sizeable pent-up demand for urban forms of development that will appeal to certain segments of the population," particularly younger people.
Apartment vacancy rates in Whatcom County dropped to 1 percent in 2012.
"If anything, we're underserving that portion of the population," Lilliquist said.
Council members are reluctant to increase the size of the city and erode the county's rural character. Any short-term option for adding houses that involves expanding the city limits is doubtful.
"In the longest run, the city will indeed expand further north," Lilliquist said. "But that's the longest run."