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Centralizing Growth in Bellingham

aerial view of Bellingham looking to the northwest

In a city like Bellingham, with its character, natural beauty, and vibrant community, the question of growth isn’t a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “how.”


Whatcom County and its associated cities are in the process of updating their  respective Comprehensive Plans, which are a 20-year outlook and key components of the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA). The County is required to decide whether they will adopt a low, medium, or high estimate of population growth (or something in between) by the year 2045. Then the County will collaborate with its cities to decide where that growth should take place.

graph showing the OFM's historical, low, middle and high population projections

Whatcom County Population 1990 - 2045

Source: Office of Financial Management (OFM) historical data and projections from 2022

Washington state expects 1.8 million new people to relocate here by 2050 — just five years beyond the current planning window. For the past several years Whatcom County has been one of the fastest growing counties in Washington state with Bellingham ranking fourth after Seattle, Kirkland and Redmond. In citizen workshops held in 2022-23, representatives of Washington’s Office of Financial Management (OFM) have recommended all counties should adopt the medium population growth projection as the baseline to prepare for a change in population. However, considering the estimated growth our area is about to receive, we believe Whatcom County should plan for more than the medium population projection specified by the Office of Financial Management.

Once Whatcom County adopts a population growth projection, how much of that population growth should be allocated to Bellingham? As the central hub of Whatcom County, one would expect Bellingham to plan to take the bulk of new population growth. However, over the last few decades Bellingham has taken less than 40% of the County’s growth while surrounding cities like Ferndale, Lynden, Everson and Blaine and unincorporated areas of the County have struggled to absorb the majority of growth.

Jurisdictions throughout western Washington have been preparing their Comprehensive Plan updates over the last few years. As Whatcom County and Bellingham prepare their updates, we believe it is critical to plan for medium-high to high population growth and for Bellingham to adopt a minimum of 50% of this growth, centralizing development and reducing broader environmental impacts while creating a more economically stable and vibrant future for its community.

Benefits of Increasing Bellingham’s Population

As the largest city in the County, a multitude of benefits are possible if Bellingham plans to accept a higher percentage of growth. They include: an increase in tax revenue, more employment options from new businesses, a lower cost of living due to economies of scale and shared resources, more choices for consumers, an increase in social diversity, and more resources available to jurisdictions for the revitalization of urban spaces.


Environmental sustainability and resilience are primary goals of the Growth Management Act which are to be achieved primarily by reducing sprawl which is low-density development spread across rural, unincorporated areas of Whatcom County. Sprawl can generally be characterized by automobile dependency, commercial strip development, and growth that spirals outward from city centers. Sprawl leads to greater environmental degradation. When people live farther from where they work and recreate, they spend more time commuting which negatively impacts local ecosystems with metal, rubber, and chemical road runoff and an increase in air pollution from carbon emissions. Further, those needing to create new housing in the County face a number of environmental constraints related to agricultural land use, inadequate water availability, flood and lahar zone risk, and wetland protection.


Centralizing growth and development in Bellingham will help reduce the overall environmental impact to the County while fostering a more vibrant economic vision for the future of the City.

How Much New Housing Will Bellingham Need?

As of July 2022, the U.S. Census states Whatcom County’s population is around 230,677. The OFM’s medium population projection for 2045 is 292,714 which equates to about 62,000 new residents. According to the final Housing for All Planning Tool provided by Washington’s Department of Commerce, to accommodate this growth, Whatcom County will need 35,624 net new homes. If Bellingham takes 50% of this growth, it will need about 17,812 new homes in the next 20 years which means we’ll need to build an average of 891 new homes per year.

infograph showing Bellingham's future housing needs broken down by Area Medium Income groups

Data sourced from the HAPT tool

If the high population projection is adopted, the County will need to prepare to accommodate 337,557 residents and 55,667 net new homes. Of this, Bellingham will need about 27,834 new homes if it commits to accepting 50% of the County’s growth which is about 1,392 new homes per year.


If you’re looking around and asking, “Where would those new homes even go?” you’re not alone. Can we say no to growth? No. The GMA requires counties to accommodate growth unless there is a legitimate concern for the health and safety of the public. Further, trying to stop or slow growth in the short-term only creates long-term problems like the housing shortage and affordability crisis our community is facing today.

Planning for a realistic amount of growth that Bellingham is likely to see over the next 20 years gives our city an opportunity to maximize the benefits of growth by strategically planning and preparing for it. It also provides an opportunity to minimize the impacts of unplanned growth that result in homelessness, a strain on social services, high housing costs, a lack of housing, sprawl and more. If the County adopts the medium-high projection and Bellingham takes 50% of this new growth, at minimum there will be a plan for housing and social services should this growth be realized.

Centralizing Growth with Infrastructure & Annexation Planning

Within the City of Bellingham, it’s estimated that there are about 286 acres of vacant buildable residential land per the revised version of the 2023 Buildable Lands Report. Much of this land remains vacant because the City has assigned it as “Developer Dependent” which means developers are required to build the necessary roads, water and sewer infrastructure before the land can be approved and permitted for new housing development. Yet much of the infrastructure needed for these areas extends well beyond the development project making the costs unfeasible for builders to shoulder alone. In April 2024, an article by the Cascadia Daily News spotlights one example where 111 acres of buildable land remains vacant even though the builder has been trying to develop it for more than 20 years. As it stands today, whoever develops this land will need to build significant regional infrastructure before the City will consider reviewing a plan for a new housing development.


As we’ve noted in past articles, infrastructure costs continue to rise as the costs of labor and materials rise which makes the cost of housing and development more expensive. Yet, we know we need homes especially to combat the rise in homelessness which was at record highs in Whatcom County in 2023.


To incentivize continued development both the City and developers need to collaborate to find creative ways to build the infrastructure needed to support new homes. For example, there may be ways the City can work with private entities via private-public partnerships (also known as P3s) to help cover portions of infrastructure costs through grant funding in exchange for the development of affordable housing. But these agreements need to benefit all parties.

In addition to creative infrastructure investments to effectively utilize Bellingham’s remaining vacant land, the City should work with the County to annex more buildable land into its Urban Growth Area (UGA). Washington’s Growth Management Act mandates that growth must be encouraged within a city’s UGA, yet, currently six of Bellingham’s 15 UGAs have no capacity for growth nor do they have the desire to be annexed into the city.

Map of Bellingham's urban growth areas and its urban growth area reseves
graph showing how much land capacity is available for housing in Bellingham's urban growth areas and urban growth area reserves

Bellingham's Urban Growth Areas and Housing Capacity by Area

Introducing Bellingham’s UGA Reserve land into Bellingham’s UGA while re-evaluating and re-configuring UGA boundaries (assessing which areas of contiguous land will provide the biggest benefit for future population growth management) will be essential for having enough buildable land to support the number of new homes and housing types that Bellingham will need over the next 20 years.

Balancing Growth with Environmental Impact

As Whatcom County’s economic and cultural center, Bellingham deserves an opportunity to achieve a level of vibrancy that can support an inviting downtown. In addition, the City needs more housing, employment opportunities, and ultimately, an increase in revenue to support this growth.


Located between two global cities — Seattle and Vancouver — Bellingham has an abundance of potential for becoming a thriving waterfront community. Yet, as we know, the market moves faster than government can react, and there is already an urgent need for housing. Proactive planning is the best tool we have to accommodate the future growth our area will see. Choosing the medium-high to high growth estimate equips the County with the necessary plans and policies to be ready for growth when it occurs.


Though, if Bellingham continues its trend of taking less than half of the growth, new residents will have to find homes in surrounding satellite cities like Ferndale, Lynden, Blaine and Everson which will divert tax revenue away from the county seat and increase the overall vehicle miles traveled because more people will be driving to and from Bellingham for work and recreation. In addition to increasing the carbon footprint, as more people move to places like Everson and Lynden for housing, the County will experience more sprawl and lose more of its agricultural land to residential use. This is not to say that growth cannot or should not happen in satellite cities. It should, and it will. However, to mitigate negative environmental impacts, the bulk of the growth should happen where County residents spend most of their time.


The impacts of growth on the environment will be evaluated in the County’s upcoming Draft Environmental Impact Statement that will consider how an increase in population will impact local water resources, plants and animal habitats, the shorelines, air quality, environmental justice and more. Climate change is an important new part of the GMA, and Whatcom County is now required to form a Climate Change and Resiliency Chapter in the new Comprehensive Plan. Developing a plan to accommodate and centralize growth to minimize environmental degradation will be a critical component in the Comprehensive Plan update.



Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to inform the public about the processes and terminology associated with housing to encourage greater public input for housing and land-use planning policies.


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

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