Public asked to comment on Bellingham, Whatcom County long-term growth

The city and Whatcom County have more than a year to finish updating their 20-year plans, but the time for the public to get involved is now.

Bellingham is hosting an open house on its comprehensive plan update on Tuesday, March 17. The county is taking written comments on a 576-page environmental review of its update.

The 20-year planning document, or comprehensive plan, is government’s attempt to balance anticipated population and job growth with community values, such as neighborhood character and environmental protection. Officials started work on the updates more than a year ago, when the county and its seven cities agreed on projections that assume the population will increase about as rapidly as it had from 2000-2010.

For Bellingham, this means a population of about 93,000 in 2013 (including areas outside the city that are in line for annexation) would grow to about 129,000 in 2036.

The cities also agreed to take higher shares of the county’s incoming residents — 85 percent over the next 20 years, compared with 76 percent from 2000 to 2010. This would reduce growth in the unincorporated areas of the county.

These early assumptions gave the cities and county a baseline for starting their work. Now they are calling for another round of public input, before governments finalize their population projections, and before cities decide whether to expand into rural land to accommodate more growth.

Competing interests will weigh in during the process. Bellingham officials have been promoting urban villages — high-density housing in commercial areas — to help make room for the anticipated 36,000 new residents. People in real estate have urged Bellingham to plan instead for single-family homes because that’s what the market demands.

Environmental groups tend to prefer the urban villages as a form of “smart growth” that has less impact than the more sprawling subdivisions.

Bellingham’s next step, according to a timeline posted on the city website, is to decide whether or where to expand the city’s urban growth areas — those places where annexation is anticipated.

Deadline for all jurisdictions to complete their plans is June 30, 2016.