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Can Cities Say No to Growth?

Map of Washington State

Over a million new people are projected to move to Washington in the next 20 years — can cities that are already feeling the squeeze say no to growth?

In short, no. The Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA) requires cities and counties to adopt a comprehensive plan to accommodate the predicted population growth. These Comprehensive Plans are now updated every 10 years to reflect an area’s housing and employment needs. Each county within Washington State is required to plan housing for a certain number of people, and then each city is required to plan housing for their fair share of that predicted population growth. Each city works with its county to decide what that share will be for the next planning period.

Per Washington State’s Growth Management Act (GMA), cities cannot put a moratorium on development unless there’s a legitimate concern for “public health, safety, welfare and property.” For example, city leaders can declare a moratoria on development because of the need for new sewer connections, to address traffic impacts, or to change land use regulations. In 2020, Bellingham instituted a 12-month moratorium on the building of new single-family homes in designated residential multi-family zones. According to Charles R. Wolfe, a Seattle land-use lawyer, “The general rule, in the U.S., is that moratoria are OK; they’re legal — if reasonable in scope and time.” However, Wolfe gets concerned when moratoriums are used as a political way to slow the growth and development of a city.

The Consequences of Slowing Growth

When officials decline to plan for population growth, their communities become subject to a number of complex problems that can cause long term social and economic instability. Lack of housing deters employers from creating jobs, a constrained housing supply increases demand (raising the cost of mortgages and rent), and a high cost of living reduces the cultural diversity of neighborhoods. Creating barriers to growth can also have inadvertent environmental impacts.

In the late 1950s environmental groups in the City of Boulder, Colorado began working to prevent a “human tsunami” of growth to keep Boulder a “sleepy college town.” The goal was to limit the extension of municipal services to prevent development on the fringes of the city. So, the City imposed height restrictions, became the first in the United States to buy greenbelts with public funds, and by 1976, limited the number of housing permits to 1.52% of the annual population.

The result of these actions gave Boulder 33,000 acres of greenways, but restricted the supply of housing, making costs skyrocket so now only the elite can own. Furthermore, one of the unintended consequences of their effort to reduce growth and preserve the environment resulted in the development of “satellite cities” (also known as sprawl), because people who work in Boulder can’t afford to live there. As of March 2023, median home prices were over $1 million. People commuting from surrounding cities spend more time in traffic, generating carbon emissions and run-off pollution from their vehicles.

Favoring lower growth in the name of the environment is also part of Bellingham’s history — and it’s one of the factors that kept us from planning for the upward growth our community has been experiencing since 2015.

Low-Growth Planning Results in Lack of Housing

The Washington State Growth Management Act requires fully-planning cities and counties to follow the guidelines of the comprehensive plan, which prepares communities for population growth. A foundational element of planning is choosing a near-accurate estimate of future populations.

In 2002, 20-year population projections were adopted by the Bellingham City Council. Whatcom County was projected to be home to 231,928 people, with Bellingham housing 113,055 residents. Back then, the estimated population growth was on target. Jump to 2022, and 231,650 people were residents of Whatcom County, though only 104,016 people called Bellingham home. The overall county projection was technically accurate, but Bellingham wasn’t nearly prepared to house the number of people who wanted to live here.

Similar to Boulder, environmental and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups have been strong advocates for low and slow growth. One such group, Whatcom Futurewise, wrote to the Bellingham Planning Commission in 2009 urging them to opt for a population projection of 220,000 for the 2029 comprehensive planning cycle. Their reasoning:

“We believe that most people will enjoy a much better quality of life if we plan for slower population growth. Among these benefits are:

  • More farmland, forests, and other open space to provide us with food and fiber, wildlife habitat, clean water, and parks for outdoor recreation

  • More affordable living due to lower local taxes

  • Less traffic congestion

  • Better air quality, better water quality (including a cleaner Lake Whatcom), and fewer fights about limited water supplies

  • More compact and attractive cities with convenient access to work, schools, shopping, parks and other amenities

Planning for slower population growth allows our cities more time to plan for attractive and desirable infill and redevelopment strategies that focus population expansion in existing urban areas.”

Though Whatcom County ultimately opted for a 2029 population projection of 246,602, low-growth advocates helped shape some decisions about infrastructure investments and the permitting of new homes. By reducing the estimated population numbers for 2029, the City Council opted not to annex new land into City limits to avoid paying for the necessary water, sewer and road infrastructure that could support the development of new homes.

In the 13 years between 2009 and 2022, only 8,018 homes (both single-family and multi-family) were permitted in Bellingham. 2,777 of those permits were issued between 2020 and 2022 when the City recognized it was in the midst of a full-blown housing crisis. During that time period, Bellingham’s population grew by 14,527 people, leaving nowhere near enough homes.

Like Boulder, but not as extreme, Bellingham’s constrained supply of housing sent home and rental prices soaring. By October 2022, the median cost of listing price to purchase a home was $625,000, while the Median Family Income hovered just below $60k annually. According to Bellingham’s 2023 Consolidated Plan 24% of homeowners and 56% of renters are cost-burdened, meaning these households are spending more than 30% of their income on housing. The lack of supply and the cost of housing has caused high rates of homelessness and a greater dependence on Bellingham’s social services.

Steps Towards a More Sustainable Future

As Bellingham and Whatcom County plan for 2045, the lessons of the past should guide the direction of our future. Over the next 20 years, it’s estimated Whatcom County will need 34,377 new homes. If Bellingham takes 48% of the share of this growth, it will need to build approximately 16,501 new homes (825 per year). The good news is there are reserves of buildable land that are ready to be annexed into Bellingham to support the projected growth— and these lands aren’t part of greenbelts, farmland or forest lands. Unfortunately, the cost of materials to build the infrastructure to support the growth is considerably higher today than it was in 2009.

Investment and attention to capital facilities upgrades is required under the GMA and should be assessed during this comprehensive planning period. A 2019 report card issued Washington’s wastewater, drinking water, roads, and transit systems a “C-” rating. A “C” rating is defined as, “Mediocre, Requires Attention.” To avoid emergency moratoriums and barriers to the new housing we need, the City and County will need to start building the necessary infrastructure today so it’s in place and able to accommodate our growing community.

Cities can’t stop growth, by law they have a responsibility to support it. Using political maneuvers to slow growth directly impacts the middle class and low-income residents by increasing the cost of living. As Daniel Herrieges, Editor-in-Chief at Strong Towns, asserts,

“We can lay out a vision of the city we want through whatever political processes are available to us. But we simply don't always get to script the city we want, at the size we want, with development in only the locations we want it. Not without severe side effects.”

We are already experiencing the “side effects” he’s referring to — just look around. Large portions of our community should not have to depend on social services because they are cost burdened and unable to afford the basics because we won’t plan ahead.


Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities.



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

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