Preserving Bellingham’s unique sense of place

​Photo by AJ Barse

Memorable communities have a uniqueness that separates them from the cookie-cutter collection of spaces that characterize much of modern America. These unmemorable places are the areas you drive through in order to get to the place you really want to go. They are never the place that folks take you to when you visit them. Although these spaces might be convenient, their lack of authenticity makes them forgettable.

In comparison, Bellingham is blessed in that it has neighborhoods and commercial areas that are both unique and efficient. Moreover, these areas are situated in a spectacular natural setting and are interconnected with a green necklace of parks and trails.

The art of planning is to preserve, in the face of change, those special qualities that contribute to a community's unique sense of place. The art of the planner is to find ways to engage the community in a meaningful discussion about the choices that will need to be made to preserve and enhance what is special while still meeting State Growth Management Act requirements to plan for growth.

As a planner, I believe that no one knows a community as well the people who live and work there. The key is to identify the important questions that need to be answered by the community, collect the essential information necessary to answer those questions, and facilitate a fair discussion that leads to a conclusion. This is often easier said than done.

How do we plan for the future?

As your Planning and Community Development Director, my role (and the role of our department) is to provide structure to the discussion, facilitate the process, provide analysis and information, and make recommendations based on our technical expertise. However, it is the role of the community through their elected representatives, after careful consideration of public comment and a review of the record, to make the best decisions for Bellingham's future.

These decisions are summarized in the City's Comprehensive Plan. Similar to a business plan, a comprehensive plan provides the framework for how our community will grow. Also like a business plan, it evolves over time to reflect changing priorities and adapt to current and future challenges. The state Growth Management Act (GMA) requires counties and cities to conduct periodic updates of their comprehensive plan and development regulations. This mandatory periodic update takes place for most communities at least once every 8 years. In Bellingham's case, we are required to update our plan by June 2016.

How much do we need to update?

The GMA identifies a number of specific items that must be reviewed as part of this update:

  • Amendments to the GMA. The City will need to update the plan to reflect any changes to GMA regulations that have occurred since the adoption of the plan. Technical review has indicated that the current plan is largely compliant in this area.
  • Urban Growth Area (UGA) and Population Projections. UGAs are those areas where urban-style growth is allowed. Since the plan was adopted, the growth rate for Bellingham and Whatcom County has changed. The City will need to ensure that it is able to accommodate anticipated growth for the next 20 years. This may mean increasing allowed densities in some areas, expanding the size of the City's UGA, or both.
  • Review the Critical Area Ordinance (CAO) to ensure that it uses "best available science.” GMA requires that best available science be included in developing regulations to protect critical area functions and values. Technical review has preliminarily indicated that the City is largely in compliance with this requirement. However, the City will be seeking outside review of this preliminary conclusion before proceeding further.

What are likely to be the key challenges we will face in the update?

It is likely that determining how we grow will be the central issue for this update. Acknowledging this, when developing recommendations for accommodating future growth, the City will focus on opportunities to accommodate urban densities within the current City and Urban Growth Area and evaluate them against the following considerations:

  • Character constraints: In many cases, existing development patterns are successful and at acceptable urban densities. Increased density may not be appropriate for all areas of the City.
  • The appropriate mix of single-family and multi-family units.
  • Difficultly in providing services associated with higher densities to many portions of the City due to critical areas and other constraints.
  • Urban Villages: Urban Villages are mixed use centers with both residential and commercial uses. Several of the existing urban villages will not reach their full build-out potential within the next 20 years. As such, should plans for new urban villages be developed?
  • Challenge of UGA expansion: If the projected growth cannot realistically be accommodated within the current City and UGA limits, where might UGA expansion be appropriate?
  • Other considerations: Affordable housing; climate change; fuel and energy prices; public health and equitable outcomes; livable neighborhoods; the desire for multi-modal, mixed use communities; protection of natural resources and open spaces; demographic shifts (e.g. older, more diverse, and smaller households); economic shifts; and the cost of public infrastructure and services.

Next steps involve you

Planning staff will continue to assess what can reasonably be accommodated in the 20-year planning horizon within the current City and UGA. Once preliminary analysis is developed, the next step is to share this information with the community and develop strategies and options to address growth that cannot currently be accommodated within the City and the current UGA boundaries. We anticipate this to be a lively discussion! With the help of the community, we can craft an approach that maintains and enhances the qualities that make Bellingham special.

Rick Sepler is Bellingham’s new Planning and Community Development Director. Prior to joining the City, for the past 8 years he was the Community Services Director for Port Townsend. He is also an Affiliate Faculty member of the Department of Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington.

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