The question of why Bellingham - Whatcom County's official urban center - is growing so slowly compared to smaller, surrounding cities becomes important as municipalities rewrite their comprehensive plans, a project now underway across the county.
In a June 2 Bellingham Herald story, "Census: Bellingham's slow growth not up to projections," Bellingham assistant planning director Greg Aucutt's comments about land availability cut to the heart of the matter. Aucutt has acknowledged that the best sites for subdivisions are at the north end of town. Otherwise, he said, "Much of the land that's left is difficult to develop. ... It's on hillsides, or it's in critical areas."
One key requirement of the Growth Management Act is that cities must demonstrate they have enough properly zoned, developable land to accommodate their projected 20-year growth. Bellingham has projected that it will take almost half of the county's growth in the upcoming planning period.
Bellingham remains in official crisis, however, over lack of affordable housing, a crisis declared when the Bellingham Home Fund tax was proposed two years ago. Affordable housing - homes available at prices that most people can afford - is a continuing problem.
A major determinant of a new home's price is the cost of land. Traditionally the measure has been that, for an affordable home, the lot represents no more than 20 percent of the cost. That used to apply in Bellingham, when you could buy a lot for $50,000. In the past few years, however, while construction costs have remained steady, the price for lots has jumped to more than $100,000.
Why? The city is running out of buildable land, as Aucutt reported. Theoretically, Bellingham has enough to meet its growth projections. But in fact, much of the land termed "available" in the last comp plan was never annexed (Dewey Valley, Geneva), was set-aside for use as a park (Chuckanut Ridge), was dropped from the city's Urban Growth Area (Yew Street Road area), isn't expected to be fully developed for decades (the waterfront), etc. Bellingham has significantly less usable land than the current comp plan suggests.
Now is the time to reconsider in practical terms how much "buildable" land the city actually has, in terms of infill and in its Urban Growth Area - our hats are off to Aucutt for bringing this up, and to The Herald for reporting it.
The city is using sound analysis methods, in determining "buildable" land citywide. But, is all the land in Bellingham's current urban growth area "buildable"? On how much of the urban growth area do steep slopes or wetlands preclude construction? Perhaps we need to shift the urban growth area's boundaries - to make certain the land that's officially targeted for future growth is physically able to support it.
Market factors are a consideration. City policy says growth will primarily occur in transportation corridors and eight "urban villages." The plan for downtown envisions highrise development with residential units above offices and retail space - that's the typical assumption for housing in an "urban village."
What's wrong with that? Nothing - if the public is willing to live there.
Bellingham currently assumes that 67 percent of its growth will go into such multifamily housing, and 33 percent into single-family housing. But national market trends show almost exactly the opposite. The National Association of Realtors' community preference survey (September, 2013, conducted by American Strategies in conjunction with Myers Research and Strategic Services) says 76 percent want a detached single-family home. National Association of Home Builders research has reached similar conclusions.
People are coming here, they're just not locating in Bellingham. Lynden and Ferndale are growing three times faster than Bellingham. Why? It's cheaper to build a single-family home there.
If Bellingham wants to capture growth, it needs to offer more housing options. It needs infill policies that can be used in every residential zone (the city's "infill toolkit," offering smart growth alternatives, can be used only in multi-family zones). It needs to reconsider fee rates and structures.
In Bellingham, it regularly costs $25,000 or more just to get permitted to build. City Council members rarely if ever consider cutting those permit fees or related requirements. But they have complained that unincorporated areas need to raise fees - so Bellingham will look better by comparison. How would raising fees elsewhere help make housing affordable?
Everybody wants a home they can afford. If land-use policies and permit costs raise the cost of housing in one location, people will look for alternatives. This is criticized as sprawl, but what, as a homebuyer, would you do? We hope Bellingham, our urban center, will institute policies that welcome new residents and accommodate their needs - making market affordable housing a stated goal.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Cleo Callen is president of the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County and Mark Schramer is chairman of the group's government affairs committee. For information about the group online, go to biawc.com.