Whatcom population projections include plan for limiting rural growth

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 7, 2014 

After months of number-crunching, Whatcom County and its seven cities appear to agree on projections of population and job growth through 2036.

The County Council will bring the numbers to a public hearing Tuesday, March 11, with an added wrinkle introduced by council member Ken Mann. His proposal would have cities obtain development rights from rural areas if they ask for more urban growth area.

An urban growth area is former rural land slated for eventual annexation into a city. A transfer of development rights would ensure that the increased residential density allowed in the expanded urban growth area would be balanced by fewer homes allowed in rural or natural resources lands the county would like to preserve.

Increasing the allowed density of homes on a parcel of land is commonly referred to as an "upzone."

"If we're going to give these free upzones (by expanding urban growth areas) ... in exchange the county should be able to require those additional development units to be correspondingly retired from watersheds or other sensitive areas," Mann said.

The population projections coming to a public hearing reflect each city's forecasts and an overall growth in county population over the next 20-plus years of 74,781 people.

The state's mid-range forecast was 68,111 new residents by 2036, on top of the 205,800 who lived in the county in 2013.

The population and job estimates will be adjusted between now and mid-2016, when the county and cities must finish updating their 20-year plans.

"These numbers don't guarantee how many people do or do not come here, but it allows us to all at least have a very preliminary idea of how we expect the county to grow," Mann said.

The public hearing will start after 7 p.m. Tuesday at the County Courthouse, 311 Grand Ave.

Mann said the last comprehensive plan update was temporarily derailed in 2009 when the cities came up with population projections only to have the county reject them. The intent this time was to avoid a repeat of 2009.

After the county approves the population numbers, they will go to each of the cities for approval.

"This has been an attempt from the very beginning to depoliticize the selection of numbers," Mann said.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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