Bellingham continues to lag behind Whatcom County's small cities in population growth, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The federal government's population estimates for July 1, 2013, show that Lynden and Ferndale - the county's second and third largest cities, respectively - are growing at three times the rate of Bellingham.
Sluggish growth in Bellingham since 2010 underscores how difficult it will be for city officials to meet the ambitious goal they have set for growth over the next 20 years.
Bellingham slipped one place, to 13th in the state, with a population of 82,631 in 2013, according to the census numbers released May 22. Annexations and faster growth in Kirkland since 2011 enabled that city to pass Bellingham for 12th place.
Whatcom is firmly in ninth place among the 39 counties in the state, with a population of 206,353.
Among 281 cities and towns in Washington listed by the Census Bureau, Ferndale was the 15th fastest-growing city from 2010 to 2013, with 2.4 percent annual growth. Lynden maintained its small size advantage over Ferndale by growing almost as fast - 2.3 percent a year from 2010 to 2013. Bellingham grew 0.7 percent per year over those years.
Ferndale's rapid growth compared to Bellingham can be seen in the number of building permits issued for single-family homes. Looking at July 2009 to June 2012, to allow one year from start of construction to move-in, Ferndale issued 73 permits per year for houses, and Bellingham issued 77 per year. Those two numbers aren't close at all when you consider that Bellingham is about seven times larger than Ferndale.
More recent home construction figures in Bellingham look promising if the city is going to grow at a rate of 1.4 percent a year until 2036, as the City Council proposed in a resolution in April. Bellingham has averaged 132 building permits per year for houses since mid-2012.
Bellingham officials are aiming high in their growth goal because they would like to coordinate with county officials to limit growth in rural areas and encourage new people to move to the city.
If county and Bellingham officials pull it off, the change in the county's growth pattern will be dramatic. They are looking to add just 15 percent of the new population to rural or farm lands between now and 2036. From 1990 to 2010, 27 percent of the growth was in rural or agricultural areas.
Bellingham Assistant Planning Director Greg Aucutt acknowledged to the county Planning Commission in December that long-term growth in the city will be challenging. The best sites for subdivisions are in the north end of town, where about 2,000 new homes are being planned or built.
Other than that, Aucutt told the commission, "Much of the land that's left in the city of Bellingham is difficult to develop. ... It's on hillsides, or it's in critical areas," such as wetlands.
"We are looking forward to working with the Planning Commission, City Council and our residents to identify ways to achieve the approved (population) projection," Aucutt said on Friday, May 30, in an email to The Bellingham Herald. "The options for doing so will be identified as we work through the comprehensive plan update process over the next two years."
This update, to plan where new residents will live over the next 20 years, will be developed by the seven Whatcom cities and the county. State law requires that it be finished in 2016.
Populations of cities and Whatcom County as of July 1, 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, followed by state rank in parentheses.