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3 Fundamental Components to Growth Management

Land Use Planning and community development is a multilayered, complex process that when done well, creates a city that attracts long-term residents and businesses resulting in sustainable economic growth and vibrant public spaces. When cities don’t properly plan for growth, they are more prone to problems like housing shortages, displacement, homelessness, and sprawl.

There are many aspects of urban planning that depend on public participation. But, if you’re not familiar with the terminology or the state and local codes, it can be difficult for residents to provide meaningful input. In this article, we review three central components of public planning in Washington State in effort to provide a better understanding of how each contributes to the smart growth of a community.

The Growth Management Act & Comprehensive Plans

In 1989, 60 planning directors from different areas of Washington State met during a growth strategies conference to discuss a strategic approach to growth management. The planning directors agreed that at the time the current planning policies were disjointed, often conflicting and working against goals for coherent growth. Planning problems stemmed from the fact that, “Local governments in Washington worked under the weakest mandates for comprehensive planning of any state.”

The directors sought more uniformity in planning, realizing ‘present actions needed to account for interrelated decisions and long-term consequences.’ To resolve the inefficiencies, the directors proposed adopting all-inclusive planning that accounted for economic development, housing, the environment, education, transportation and more. During the conference they outlined nine points to be implemented into a new growth management state law.

  1. Establish a statewide vision.

  2. Set goals and policies, and as appropriate, minimum standards for issues of statewide significance.

  3. Require that state, local and regional plans be consistent with adopted state goals policies and standards and make sure those plans are mutually consistent.

  4. Require that regulations and capital budgets of state agencies and regional local governments be consistent with adopted state, regional and local plans.

  5. Recognized that regional issues should be resolved regionally (e.g., water quality and transportation) and local issues should be resolved locally (e.g., subdivision standards, most sitting issues).

  6. Establish in new state law that public facilities must be synchronized with growth. Needed facilities should be available or a financial commitment secured, prior to development permit approval.

  7. Provide carrots as well as sticks to assure compliance with state goals, policies, and standards.

  8. Recognize that state and local government decisions need to be made collectively at state level in order to achieve regional and statewide goals.

  9. Include an appeal process and provide for conflict resolution at the local, regional and statewide level.

These nine directives for planning were officially enacted into Washington State law in 1990, resulting in the Growth Management Act (GMA) which laid the groundwork for comprehensive planning.

The GMA has been amended over the years, adapting to become more inclusive of modern-day needs. Today there are 14 goals under the GMA that are intended to “be the basis of all comprehensive plans.”

  1. Concentrated Urban Growth

  2. Sprawl Reduction

  3. Regional Transportation

  4. Affordable Housing

  5. Economic Development

  6. Property Rights

  7. Permit Processing

  8. Natural Resource Industries

  9. Open Space & Recreation

  10. Environmental Protection

  11. Early and Continuous Public Participation

  12. Public Facilities & Services

  13. Historic Preservation

  14. Shoreline Management

These goals follow the central vision of the state legislature per RCW 36.70A.030. The Growth Management Act requires fast-growing cities and counties, like Bellingham and Whatcom County, to develop and follow a 20-year comprehensive plan that supports sustainable, long-term growth.

Comprehensive Plan & Population Growth

Population growth forecasts are the single most important factor in a city or county’s comprehensive plan. Under the GMA, cities and counties are required to use population projection data from the Office of Financial Management (OFM) to prepare for increases in population. Data is periodically updated, allowing community leaders to adjust their 20-year comprehensive plan every eight to ten years to ensure the plan is still relevant and on a trajectory that meets the GMA guidelines.

Under the GMA there are mandatory elements that must be addressed within a Comprehensive Plan. Mandatory elements include Land Use, Housing, Capital Facilities Planning, Transportation and more. Optional elements include Recreation, Solar Energy and Conservation. Economic Development and Parks and Recreation are also categorized as optional.

Land supply, housing, and capital facilities infrastructure like water, sewer and roads are the foundations of every community. In addition, communities also need essential services. City and county planners are responsible for providing levels of service that include transportation and may also include fire protection services, police, schools, parks, stormwater and solid waste services. Under the GMA, new development is contingent upon these services.

In keeping with the vision of the 1989 growth strategies conference, under the comprehensive plan, cities and counties are subject to RCW 36.70A.100 which requires bordering communities to coordinate comprehensive planning so it’s consistent with the regional and state vision for growth.

Urban Growth Areas Support Population Growth

When planning for a 20-year period of growth under the comprehensive plan, county planners must designate Urban Growth Areas (UGAs) outside of city limits but near existing facilities. According to RCW 36.70A.110 fully planning counties, like Whatcom County, must designate UGAs “within which urban growth shall be encouraged and outside of which growth can occur only if it is not urban in nature.”

A few of the deciding factors for designating UGAs are ease of access to public utilities, established transportation routes and traffic infrastructure, buildable lands and more. The GMA states that UGAs should be determined based on how much urban infrastructure already exists. UGAs are critical for preventing urban sprawl, ensuring residents’ basic needs are met, and minimizing the environmental impact and degradation. Growth is prioritized by areas that already “have adequate existing public facilities and service capacities,” where density can be increased while minimizing the investment for new public infrastructure.

Broadly speaking, UGAs lower public infrastructure costs and allow for a concentration of resources, like water, sanitation, and transit services, while helping to preserve greenspace. This helps cities plan for sustainable development, while supporting the demands of growth and bolstering economic vitality.

Urban growth tracking is not a static process. As populations increase, UGA designations change. Cities and counties must regularly assess growth patterns in these areas to ensure they offer adequate land supply that can accommodate a 20-year period of growth. Per RCW 36.70A.110, UGAs must host a variety of housing types, commercial, governmental and nonresidential services, as well as green space. Importantly their development must be consistent with the comprehensive plan.

Recent amendments to the GMA further clarify that cities and counties are required to plan for a variety of housing and also preserve existing neighborhoods:

RCW 36.70A.020 (4) Housing. Plan for and accommodate housing affordable to all economic segments of the population of this state, promote a variety of residential densities and housing types, and encourage preservation of existing housing stock.

These urban growth strategies for Whatcom County have been decades in the making. Whatcom County’s GMA strategies will continue to be works-in-progress, as the city and county’s needs evolve and new data sheds light on the best ways to balance growth and development. The GMA dictates future planning with change in mind, promoting proactive data collection and sustainable growth.

Whatcom’s next county-wide Comprehensive Plan update and UGA review is scheduled to completed by June 30, 2025. In the face of a current housing shortage, UGA assessment is particularly critical to accommodate the projected population increases for Whatcom County. A series of public events and public hearings will be held over the next few years, leading up to the adoption of Comprehensive Plan updates for Whatcom County and Cities within the County in 2025.

You can participate in the planning and development of Bellingham and Whatcom County by attending planning meetings and providing constructive input that will help contribute to a more vibrant and inclusive place to live.



Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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