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Need Housing? Reassess Bellingham’s UGAs

As of an April 2022 estimate by the Office of Financial Management (OFM), Bellingham was in the top 10 cities for numeric population change, coming in right behind Seattle. The increase in population and the lack of affordable and diverse housing is an issue that Bellingham is desperately working to address. Part of the solution requires Bellingham and Whatcom County to determine whether they are meeting the criteria to support sustainable urban development that can accommodate a 20-year period of growth. This review requires an evaluation of the existing Urban Growth Areas (UGAs).

Under the Washington State Growth Management Act, cities and counties are required to designate Urban Growth Areas (UGAs).

“The purpose of designating urban growth areas is to promote compact urban development; ensure efficient use of land resources; and facilitate the economic provision of urban services. Urban growth areas should include areas and densities sufficient to provide for the urban growth that is projected to occur in the next twenty years.” (Whatcom County Urban Fringe Subarea Plan, 2018).

One of the critical goals of UGA designation is to prevent sprawl and efficiently utilize land to support housing, industrial use and public facilities like schools, airports, transportation hubs and more.

The Annexation of UGAs into the City of Bellingham

Due to changes in population projections, under the comprehensive plan, the City and County are required to assess designated urban growth areas to ensure they are meeting a set of criteria before the UGAs can be annexed into the City of Bellingham.

This criteria is listed under the Annexation Phasing Plan (APP) which was first approved in 2009 by Bellingham’s City Council. “The plan establishes priorities for annexation commensurate with the City's ability to provide the full range of urban facilities and services.” The list of APP criteria helps planners determine the viability of annexing an area into the City. It also asks whether that area should remain a UGA. The considerations are as follows:

1. The presence of areas developed to urban densities.

2. The potential of the area to accommodate significant population and job growth.

3. The City’s ability to provide the full range of urban services and facilities.

4. The importance of the area in terms of key multimodal transportation or open space corridor.

5. The presence of significant critical areas/environmental constraints such that urban levels of development are unlikely.

6. The presence of designated transfer of development rights or purchase of development rights receiving zones.

7. Creation of logical city boundaries and service areas.

8. The level of support for annexation by affected property owners/residents.

9. The area’s importance in terms of it being a gateway to the city.

10. Consistency with the City Comprehensive Plan goals and policies, the Urban Fringe Plan, the County Comprehensive Plan and the City/County interlocal agreement for annexations.

Adding UGAs and annexing them into the city, when done thoughtfully, supports population growth, increases housing diversity and provides new areas for economic development. However, as noted in point (3) above, UGAs need urban levels of infrastructure and capital facilities or they won’t be able to efficiently accommodate compact urban development.

A Look at Bellingham’s UGAs

Bellingham has a number of UGAs that surround city limits. Currently, there are 15 UGAs, including Alderwood, Cliffside, Northern Heights, Geneva, and North Yew Street. There are also two urban growth area reserves, South Caitac and South Yew Street. An Urban Growth Area reserve is qualified by having the potential to meet the list of APP criteria.

According to the City of Bellingham’s 2018 Annexation Strategy, “there is limited residential development capacity left in the existing UGAs. These areas also present challenges to the City in terms of providing the necessary urban facilities and services.”

The document goes on to state that much of the developable residential land from UGAs has been annexed into the city, and estimates show that housing unit capacity in remaining UGAs is roughly 1,700. This would accommodate under 4,000 new residents, while estimates have total growth clocking in around 31,000 by 2036.

In 2022, there is still potential for small growth in the Alderwood Area (Area 1) and the North Yew Street area (Area 15). However, Area 15 is limited by challenging topography and lack of infrastructure. Additionally, many homeowners in the North Yew Street UGA do not wish to be annexed into the city which is part of the APP considerations for annexation.

Review & Reassess Bellingham’s UGAs

To accommodate new housing needed for projected population increases, it is important for the City and County to review the existing UGAs, remove those that are no longer viable for annexation, and replace them with viable alternatives, such as the UGA reserve areas.

The Whatcom County “vision” is as stated:

“Whatcom County is a place where urban growth is concentrated in urban areas, where there is a distinct boundary between urban and rural uses, where agricultural use is encouraged, and where resource lands and water resources are protected. Rural areas are peaceful and quiet with less traffic and congestion than in urban areas. There is low-density development with open spaces allowing for privacy. A sense of community is retained and local input is considered in land use decisions.” (Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan: Land Use Chapter, March 2022)

Achieving the above vision for our community requires reassessing Bellingham’s UGAs, planning and investing in capital facilities, and proactively supporting sustainable development in areas primed to support growth. Taking action today will ensure steady, measured growth that limits sprawl, creates economic vitality— and provides affordable and diverse housing for Bellingham’s residents.



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

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