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Growing Pains: The Case for a More “Comprehensive” Plan

downtown Bellingham looking from the water towards the Holly and Prospect Street intersection

Bellingham’s official comprehensive planning cycle for 2045 kicked off in July 2023 with the goal of completion by June 2025. The process, aptly named “The Bellingham Plan,” is divided into four phases: vision & foundation, growth approach, draft review, and legislative adoption.  The visioning phase, focused on developing a unified vision for the future based on community input, is now complete; and the second “growth approach” phase officially commenced as of January 2024.


 In an ongoing effort to keep public opinion at the forefront of the planning process, the City is asking for community feedback on five potential and specific means of “growth” in a round table discussion format. Most of these strategies involve increasing density and improving infrastructure in previously developed areas, with only little talk of reconfiguring the Cities boundaries to include more buildable land to accommodate future population growth.


While each of these “Options for Growth” represents a legitimate means to address the housing crisis in Bellingham, they aren’t enough to move the needle unless implemented comprehensively. In order to adequately meet our ever-growing needs, The Bellingham Plan must make efforts to not only increase density and improve infrastructure in existing urban areas, but also make use of all its viable buildable land.

Our Five Options for Growth

As discussed above, the public was asked to weigh in on the ways Bellingham can grow. The City lists five options, asking the public to comment with their pros and cons or upvote someone else’s idea. The options provided include:


  1. Focus on Urban Villages: Continuing to grow the Downtown, Fairhaven, Samish Way and other urban villages.

  2. Focus on Distributed Nodes: Encouraging the development of small-scale commercial services inside of established neighborhoods to make it more convenient for people to walk or bike to the services they need and want (like grocery stores and restaurants).

  3. Focus on Corridor Growth: Where the city would develop more housing, workplaces, and commercial services more densely near public transit corridors to encourage people to use public transit instead of their own vehicles.

  4. Focus on Areas with Fewer Opportunities Today: Where the City offers direct investment in lower-income neighborhoods in the form of street lighting, libraries, sidewalks, parks & trails to recently annexed underserved neighborhoods.

  5. Focus on Urban Growth Area Expansion: Expanding the city boundaries and extending infrastructure to new areas with land to accommodate more housing. 


Now, it’s never mentioned that the public should only choose one of the five options for growth, though in the same sense there’s not much mention of how heavily most of the urban development strategies depend on one another. It’s clear that many strategies are needed to properly address Bellingham’s housing crisis, and that each of these options has greater potential to impart meaningful change when applied holistically rather than individually.

Cascading Outcomes from a More Comprehensive Plan

As we have previously reported, new legislation HB 1110 now allows multi-family housing in single-family neighborhoods via middle housing development. HB 1337 also encourages homeowners to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their properties to increase housing supply within single-family neighborhoods. Both of these policies are part of the infill toolkit that will increase the density of existing neighborhoods and Bellingham’s urban villages.


Focus on Urban Villages is one of the ways the city currently intends to grow. While infill is necessary to increase housing options in our community, it will take time and ample land to support new housing developments. Currently, there is not enough accessible buildable land in Bellingham, much of the available land is subject to substantial “critical areas” constraints that make engineering and building costly. And we know that if the homes are costly to build, they will not be affordable.


To piggyback on the infill of existing neighborhoods and urban villages, homeowners and developers with land located near a transit corridor are now allowed and encouraged to build six units on their lots. This supports the third growth option, Corridor Growth. However, for Corridor Growth to be effective (the goal is to reduce personal vehicle use), residents need to be able to depend on consistent and more frequent public transit.


Increasing density within Urban Villages supports growth option two, Distributed Nodes. By encouraging mixed-use development to occur within the appropriate areas of a neighborhood, we can create more opportunities for both housing and employment. Businesses can occupy the bottom floor of condos and apartment buildings as they do now in many urban villages like Downtown and Fairhaven. 


Another growth option presented to the public is focusing on improving areas within the City with Fewer Opportunities. This option should be a consideration if the City wants to attract more people and services to areas that are currently underserved as a way to maximize economic vibrancy and create unique spaces that are beneficial to the well-being of the surrounding community. In the 20-year periodic plan, the community should expect improvements to neighborhoods like Alderwood and Birchwood.


The last growth option presented to the public Focuses on Urban Growth Area Expansion. Assessing Bellingham’s existing urban growth areas (UGAs) is part of the mandatory Land Use element of a comprehensive plan process per the Growth Management Act (GMA). The Department of Commerce’s UGA Guidebook states,


The housing policies of a Comprehensive Plan together with the Development Regulations that implement those policies can influence the development capacity of an UGA over the 20-year planning horizon. Policies that promote a mix of housing types for all income levels, combined with flexible regulations for density, innovation and design, infill, and redevelopment, can help maximize the use of available urban lands as well as generate revenues to pay for needed urban services and transportation systems.”


As part of the GMA, Whatcom County is required to identify UGAs and is also responsible for managing their boundaries and zoning densities to comfortably accommodate the City's growing population. Bellingham has a responsibility to annex UGAs that have the land capacity to accommodate residential, industrial and commercial growth into the City. During this assessment, it’s prudent to remove the UGAs that are not suitable for additional growth or are already developed to full capacity as well as those areas where these residents do not want to be part of the City of Bellingham.


According to the 2018 Annexation Phasing Plan, 6 of the 15 designated UGAs have little to no interest in becoming part of the City:


Area 10 - Dewey Valley

Area 11 - North Britton Road

Area 12 - Tweed 20

Area 13 – Hillsdale

Area 14 – Geneva

Area 15 - Yew Street

map of Bellingham with it's urban growth areas outlined
Image source:

That is the equivalent of 1,872 acres that is no longer available to accommodate growth and support new housing. Rather than focusing on expanding Bellingham’s Urban Growth Areas we should consider reconfiguring the growth area boundaries.


There are two designated UGA Reserves, the South Yew Street Reserve and the South Caitac area. The Annexation Phasing Plan states that “the Caitac area can accommodate a significant number of new housing units and at less cost than the Yew Street area in terms of providing the necessary urban infrastructure and services.”


South Caitac is a greenfield with a master plan vision to develop new housing as well as community services and amenities that residents need. More so, this area would be part of Washington’s largest green-built, solar community that has a proven formula for building high-quality, healthier, and affordable homes.

map of north bellingham UGA reserve

Is Greenfield Development Sprawl?

Unfortunately, when people hear the term expansion or greenfield development, they often conflate it with sprawl because growth occurs on the technical “outskirts” of a city. It is important to learn the distinction between the two. Sprawl lacks proper planning and thoughtful development, whereas greenfield development has specific goals and strategies to accommodate population growth.


According to research from Harvard, “While [previously] the case [was made] for densification and for ending urban sprawl, it did not mean to suggest that this is the only type of urban growth that should occur. Greenfield development, or development on previously undeveloped sites, must be an equally important aspect of city-building in the 21st century if urban areas are to properly and adequately house new generations of city-dwellers.”


This same article makes a point about upzoning and infill strategies: “It will be difficult for densification policies alone to supply an adequate number of housing units to meet the growing demand for housing in urban areas in most of the world’s metropolitan areas.” Though infill measures are important, we cannot ignore the obstacles that come along with them — strain on urban infrastructure, residents who fear losing their neighborhood character, and unexpected costs— just to name a few.


The Bellingham Plan must thoroughly plan for all five options for growth as the process develops. The City needs to look at its viable buildable land capacity and land use strategies so that we can encourage housing development for all economic segments of our community. Urban growth area reconfiguration is one main component that will provide the necessary land so our community can sustainably accommodate the estimated population growth over the next 20 years. After all, Bellingham needs to be building about 850 homes per year to meet the estimated 20-year population projection.


If we want the future of Bellingham to realize increased economic vitality, more affordable housing options for a range of incomes and vibrant places, we need to use all the tools at our disposal. Otherwise, we’ll continue to have a high population of unhoused families, a wider wealth gap, and residents and businesses who will face displacement because they cannot afford to stay in Bellingham.


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.


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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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