New UGAs may impact Blaine, Birch Bay
By Meg Olson
How much growth and where it should go? That’s the simple version of a complicated cluster of questions Whatcom County planners and stakeholders from the county’s cities are trying to answer as part of the ongoing review of the county’s urban growth area (UGA) boundaries, including those of Blaine and Birch Bay.
“The cities, the county, we all want to hold the line on growth, let urban areas be urban and rural areas be rural,” said Whatcom county planner Kate Koch.
Washington state law requires each county to establish and regularly review UGAs as areas “within which urban growth shall be encouraged and outside of which growth can occur only if it is not urban in nature.”
Cities cannot extend services such as sewer or water outside their UGA unless there is an imminent risk to public health. Higher density urban development is only allowed within a UGA.
Areas that do not include a city, but include a community “characterized by urban growth” can be designated a UGA, such as the Birch Bay UGA. In setting sizes and boundaries of UGAs the county is required to establish “areas and densities sufficient to permit the urban growth that is projected to occur in the county or city for the succeeding twenty-year period.”
The county has launched the “Whatcom 2031” process, a ten-year update to the county’s comprehensive plan scheduled to be complete by 2011. The review of growth projections and the UGA boundaries for the county will be one of the first components completed. County planning and development services director David Stalheim said they are aiming to complete the process by June 2009.
“The more people can learn the issues here the better the process will be,” Koch said. “You can get excited about the lines on the map but the lines on the map aren’t as important as the policies behind them.”
At a December 3 planning commission work session Stalheim said planners would take the work done so far by the Growth Management Coordinating Council (GMCC) to the county planning commission.
“We’ll review with them the feedback we’ve received during community workshops and survey questions,” Stalheim said.
Preliminary results from 372 responses to a survey about population growth show that 38 percent of respondents found that the preliminary population forecast chosen by the GMCC – 251,490 by 2031, representing 60, 490 more people or a 1.2 percent annual increase in population, was too much. Thirty one percent of respondents thought that rate of growth was about right and 18 percent thought it was too slow.
The county’s UGAs are currently sized to accommodate 234,000 people, Stalheim said, and the population today is 191,000.
In anticipation of a December 9 county council public hearing on the methodology used to forecast population growth and the area needed to accommodate it, Stalheim said they will look for input from planning commissioners on “how we determine the capacity of a UGA to handle residential and employment growth.”
In each of the county’s UGAs Stalheim said they would look at alternatives ranging from leaving the boundaries where they are, to growing or shrinking them. The planning commission could also accept the projections on population growth or select a lower or higher target. “The alternatives don’t have to be completely numbers-based,” Stalheim said. “There can be different ways of distributing the growth.”
A countywide environmental impact study will be undertaken to look at how population growth would affect different areas, including transportation impacts, water and air quality, and impacts on rural and resource lands. “If we make the UGA too small will the growth move to rural lands and impact agriculture?” Stalheim said will be one question to examine.
Birch Bay Steering Committee chair Kathy Berg said the impact of rapid population growth on services was a central question. “The county hasn’t really been good at following their vision with respect to putting growth in cities and urban areas,” she said.
One of the ways that is being felt in Birch Bay, which has experienced the highest growth rate in the county– 4.8 percent – from 2000 to 2007, is that fire services are scrambling to find ways to keep up adequate service levels.
At their December 11 meeting the board of Whatcom County Fire District 21, which serves the Blaine and Birch Bay areas, may adopt a “concurrency mitigation fee program” that would charge development for the increase in need for service it creates.
Berg said with regards to the size of the current UGA “Birch Bay expressed their values and concerns in their community plan, adopted in 2004, and our vision hasn’t changed. We’d like to see it implemented appropriately and it hasn’t been in a while.”
In Blaine, planning director Terry Galvin said the city’s capacity to provide urban services to a very large area, with limited growth in undeveloped areas, might mean it was time to trim their UGA.
“Because we annexed east Blaine in 1996 – 1,000 acres – we have that area, that capacity,” Galvin said. “We have a huge amount designated for a UGA and probably the numbers will bear out the perspective that it’s too big. Then the question is where should it be reduced.”
Stalheim said there were alternatives to reducing the Blaine UGA. “If they think the Blaine UGA is too large do they want to work to fill it up or do they want to scale back?” he said. County policies might play a role in how rapidly an area infills.
While Galvin was a member of the GMCC, he stressed the cities would not decide the new UGA boundaries. “That decision is the county’s,” he said.
Berg said the Birch Bay Steering Committee did not have a seat on the GMCC. “I am concerned Birch Bay and the foothills are both unincorporated urban growth areas and they aren’t at the table – yet.”
Stalheim said once county council had approved the methodology, city and county staff would prepare an analysis of land capacity.
“How much can our UGAs handle?” That information and population projections would be released to the public in January, prior to a series of public hearings, asking for input on matching growth to an area’s capacity.