Whatcom should plan for growth with accurate population predictions

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 1, 2014 

Whatcom County has changed dramatically over the last four decades. We have transformed from a quiet county with a number of relatively small towns to well over 200,000 people with two of the formerly smaller towns growing into mid-sized cities.

People gravitate to our corner of the state for good reason. Whatcom County is a beautiful place with an amazing array of things to do. We have the Mount Baker ski area, plenty of golf courses, trails, restaurants, island getaways, boat tours, a growing agro-tourism industry and more. With all of these amenities so accessible, Whatcom County will, without doubt, continue to attract more people who want to live and work here.

This is also why accurately planning for future populations, and places for them to work, is so important. Whatcom County has lost enough "quality of life" over time. With reasoned smart planning and implementation, we can preserve most of what makes Whatcom County so desirable a place to live and visit.

Where you shop, how much traffic there is (or isn't), how much your housing costs, and where your job is located are all highly affected by centralized planning, as mandated by Washington state. Most counties and cities in Washington must adopt a detailed set of plans that cover when and how growth will occur for at least the next 20 years. All of the planning is based on two important numbers: population and employment.

You may have heard some advocate that we plan for fewer people to move here and work than are actually likely to arrive. On the surface, this is an attractive option to many, including me. In fact, this is exactly what Whatcom County has done every time it has updated plans during the growth management era.

Unfortunately, those wanting to live here may do so whether we have planned for them or not. By planning for fewer people than are likely to show up on our doorstep and less employment than will be needed by those people, we have only hurt ourselves and lowered our own quality of life. The next time you cross I-5 via the Bakerview overpass, think about all of those years of traffic jams that would have been avoided had that overpass been built adequately in the first place.

Inadequate and poor planning, when it comes to public safety, could cost you or a loved one their life. Bellingham has some of the most honorable and hard-working fire and police departments anywhere, departments hamstrung by poorly planned or outdated infrastructure and low staffing levels. For example, a look at the annual fire report reveals that Bellingham has a known problem with the location of their fire stations and has difficulties responding to much of Bellingham in a timely manner. It takes longer than it should to get help to you when time is critical. On top of that, as Bellingham densifies, it will only become more difficult for police, EMS, and fire responders to make it to calls quickly, unless we stay on top of things. Adopting a low population projection worsens the problem when roads aren't built to an adequate size and public safety staffing is not addressed ahead of time with a plan and corresponding funding. If you live outside of Bellingham, remember that Bellingham provides EMS service to most of Whatcom County so this issue may affect you as well.

I strongly believe we should use the information we have, and plan for what state planners tell us is most likely to happen when it comes to planning for future populations and for employment needs. According to county planning staff analysis, the state's most likely projection has been below actual growth every time this process has occurred in recent decades, so planning for what the state says will occur is actually planning conservatively for growth. Making matters worse, each time the county has used a number even lower than the state has provided! To put forward our best effort in protecting our environment, quality of life and economy, Whatcom County should use the state's most likely projected population to begin with and adjust slightly for the historic under projections.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Clayton Petree of Bellingham is a freelance journalist and community consultant, writing on topics from business and grant applications to biomass cogeneration and small-scale farming. The Bellingham Herald invited him to provide occasional opinion columns after an unsuccessful bid for City Council in 2013. Contact him by email at .

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