Politics Blog

Survey: Bellingham residents like in-city growth (but in their backyards?)

Results were released Monday, Dec. 8, of a survey conducted by the city of Bellingham, asking residents where and how the city should make room for the 36,000 new residents expected by 2036.

A press release highlighted certain results: 75 percent of respondents (1,202 responses total) said they wanted to encourage more “infill” development — if you don’t know the term, you should get to know it because you’ll be hearing it a lot more in the next 18 months. Infill is building on undeveloped or underdeveloped lots (e.g., putting an apartment building on lots occupied by single-family homes) in already-built areas within the city.

The other bit announced in the press release was that only 31 percent of respondents agreed that the city should expand its urban growth area, or the land around the city that is set aside to be annexed and built at city-level densities in the next 20 years.

In short, a resounding message has been sent by the survey participants: Bellingham should grow up, not out.

Or maybe the survey should have asked one more question:

Should the city of Bellingham encourage more infill development next to your house?

As popular as infill development appears to be on paper, according to the survey, it has proven time and again to be terribly unpopular in practice.

Witness two projects within the city limits that were fought by neighbors: The old four-acre Department of Transportation lot in Sunnyland; and University Ridge, a student-housing complex with 576 beds in the Puget neighborhood.

Both parts of the city are well established single-family-home neighborhoods. The idea of putting that many hundreds of college students on the hill above Lincoln Street and the WWU park-and-ride lot seemed excessive to the city hearing examiner, who rejected the developer’s proposal for four-bedroom units. The Georgia-based developer, left with a smaller number of students to fit into the project, backed out.

The infill proposed for the vacant space between Sunset Avenue and Illinois Street in Sunnyland included attached townhouses — not apartment density but still enabling more residents to fit into a given space. The difference between the neighbors’ proposal and the city’s was 28 homes versus 35.

The city stuck to its guns and rejected the neighborhood proposal. Council member Pinky Vargas uttered the word that likely was on the minds if not the lips of other critics of the neighborhood’s position.

“Every time the city tries to (create infill), we get, ‘hold on,’ ‘not so fast’ and ‘not in my backyard,’” Vargas said. “My plea to the neighborhood and the residents of Bellingham is to step up and be more open and inclusive to finding homes for all kinds of our citizens, and to look for ways to say ‘yes.’”

The city, the small cities and Whatcom County will try to come to terms with this dilemma — liking growth, as long as I don’t have to live by it — over the next year and a half, as they all try to reach agreement by the mid-2016 deadline on comprehensive plan updates that allocate population and jobs everywhere in the county through 2036.

If they will not create infill, then they could develop the rural areas. I’ve heard a third option proposed: downzone everything (reduce the number of homes allowed on lots) so eventually no new homes can be built. Once the county is full up, no one can move in until someone moves out. That option wasn’t included in the city’s poll either.

How do you want to see Bellingham and Whatcom County handle growth — really?

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