Officials facing a decision on the city’s growth rate for the next 20 years are being pressured by pro-development interests who want more growth and conservationists who want less.
On the eve of an expected vote by the Bellingham Planning Commission on Thursday, June 11, neither side is happy, according to written comments submitted to the city.
The more conservation minded have threatened a legal challenge against the city’s update of its 20-year comprehensive plan, which includes the projected growth rate.
Conservationists criticized how the city is handling public input, saying city officials haven’t acknowledged their comments. A group that formed several months ago calling itself the Association of Bellingham Citizens wrote a letter May 12 to the city Planning Commission warning that the plan update was likely to be challenged.
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The reason for the letter, the association wrote, was “to ensure the record is both accurate and complete if — and when — a petition is filed” against the update. The petition is a type of legal challenge that would go before the Growth Management Hearings Board, claiming the update violates state law.
Association member Larry Horowitz said in a letter he wrote to the Planning Commission on April 25 that the population growth forecast is the “single most import decision” in the plan update, which “demands the highest degree of public participation.”
“Many of us feel strongly that our input has not received the appropriate level of attention,” Horowitz wrote.
Heading into its public hearing on Thursday, the Planning Commission is leaning toward recommending population projections that are higher than what the association would like.
One proposal is to plan for 28,398 new residents by 2036, which would happen if the city continued to grow at its recent pace. Under this proposal, the city would not need to expand the area surrounding the city that is set aside for future annexation and development at city densities.
The other option being brought before the commission anticipates faster growth in Bellingham — 34,800 new residents. To make room for this many people, according to an analysis by city planners, the city would need to set aside more land for future inclusion into the city — specifically, 360 acres north of the city along Meridian Street.
Slow-growth advocates say the city is ignoring evidence that a lower growth rate is more justified, adding that multiple surveys have shown that the community believes the city is growing too quickly.
Horowitz said in his April 25 letter that by “community” he does not include people who represent “special interests,” who “have a financial incentive” or who “profit from growth.”
Even so, developers and real estate professionals have submitted their own comments on the growth projections. They called for higher growth than the two proposals now before the Planning Commission, with less emphasis on high-density “urban villages” such as Sehome and Fairhaven, and more space for single-family homes.
Limiting growth “is short sighted and will ultimately create a community where only the wealthy can afford to live,” wrote real estate agent Bill Henshaw in a May 8 letter to the Planning Commission.
City officials said it is important to make a population projection that isn’t too low or too high.
Picking a population number that ends up being too low can force the city to play catch-up with city services.
“Projects such as road improvements, fire stations and new parks take years to fund and complete,” a staff report to the Planning Commission said.
“Likewise, selecting a growth forecast that is too high could result in allocating resources unnecessarily ... or in the wrong location,” the report said.
The Planning Commission’s recommendation will be taken up by the City Council, which will then forward a growth projection for final consideration to the Whatcom County Council. The deadline for completing the update to the 20-year plan is June 30, 2016.