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Looking Forward, Capital Facilities Planning

Libraries are part of the capital facilities our tax dollars pay for

When you go about your day-to-day life, odds are “capital facilities” don’t pop into your head — and, if they’re working as they’re meant to, that’s exactly how it should be. Capital facilities are the essential, but sometimes overlooked, elements that create the foundation of our cities and counties, contributing to their function and appeal. Think roads, transit, water, sewer and storm systems, sidewalks, school buildings, police and fire stations, even libraries.

Under the Growth Management Act (GMA), cities and counties have to account for Capital Facilities Planning (CFP) as part of the Comprehensive Plan process, which guides growth and development decisions. Jurisdictions are responsible for creating a six-year plan to maintain existing public facilities, as well as a 10- and 20-year investment forecast to prepare for the impacts of population growth.

What is a Capital Facilities Plan?

Capital facilities are characterized as government projects, structures, assets, equipment, and facilities that have extended lifespans and are necessary to the public. They require a substantial amount of money (or capital) to build and maintain. According to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington (MRSC), “a ‘capital facility’ is usually defined as having an established minimum dollar value…and a useful life of greater than five years.”

Capital Facilities Plans account for the operating costs of infrastructure and the level of service it provides to the public, which helps cities and counties efficiently utilize budgets and address deficits. When budget deficits are identified in the process, it gives city and county staff opportunities to apply for loans or grants to close the funding gaps. This budgeting and planning process helps jurisdictions assess the feasibility of their growth goals and allocate funding to make these goals possible.

According to the Department of Commerce CFP Guidebook, the CFP must address the following five items:

  1. An inventory of existing capital facilities owned by public entities, showing the locations and capacities of the capital facilities;

  2. A forecast of the future needs for such capital facilities;

  3. The proposed locations and capacities of expanded or new capital facilities;

  4. At least a six-year plan that will finance such capital facilities within projected funding capacities and clearly identifies sources of public money for such purposes; and

  5. A requirement to reassess the land use element if probable funding falls short of meeting existing needs and to ensure that the land use element, capital facilities plan element, and financing plan within the capital facilities plan element are coordinated and consistent. Park and recreation facilities shall be included in the capital facilities plan element.

Capital Facilities Planning not only helps jurisdictions budget for the maintenance of existing facilities but also for new infrastructure investment that must happen concurrently with growth and land development as defined by the community’s Comprehensive Plan. Importantly, this process provides an opportunity for cities and counties to consider how to maintain and improve their overall economic vitality by planning for and building the necessary facilities to not only support the existing need, but the future demand for housing and development as well.

Level of Service and Concurrency

As part of Capital Facilities Planning, the GMA requires jurisdictions to establish a Level of Service (LOS) standard for all capital facilities. These standards are a measurement of function and capacity determined by the community. In other words, LOS directly impacts a community’s standard of living.

During the planning process, the LOS criteria is reviewed and considered in the decisions about the future of each facility. For example, in Bellingham’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan and Capital Facilities & Utilities Chapter, the assessment of the Bellingham Public Library system found the LOS standards only provided the most basic library services compared to the industry standard, rating the facilities Low or Minimal (.6 sf/capita for GMA adequacy). In the CFP, staff identified this deficiency and outlined the goals and policies to improve the LOS standard for Bellingham’s library system. Thanks to this planning, in March 2023, the library got the green light for a two-year pilot project to open a branch in Bellis Fair Mall to help meet the needs of the community in north Bellingham.

LOS standards measure the performance of all public facilities, but the GMA places a particular emphasis on transportation LOS. In Washington, cities and counties are required to have programs in place to correct existing transportation deficiencies and make upgrades that are in line with new development. These jurisdictions must also forecast the future transportation needs within cities and urban growth areas (UGAs).

Transportation is a mandatory element under the Comprehensive Plan, but transportation facilities are particularly essential to the public, which is why it’s critical to inventory existing transportation networks and the level of service they provide. As our population continues to grow, and as we build more housing to accommodate that growth, transportation to those new developments will be crucial to that area's vitality.

Looking Forward

The Capital Facilities Plan is an important element of the Comprehensive Plan process that ensures there will be optimal public services in place to support the demands of a growing population. With Washington’s expected population increase of 2 million people over the next 20 years, the Department of Commerce projects that the State will need to build 1.1 million new homes to accommodate the growth.

On a local level, if Whatcom County assumes 34,377 of the 1.1 million homes, and Bellingham takes 48% of that growth, then Bellingham will need to build approximately 825 homes per year over the next 20 years. This is a 30% year-over-year increase in new home construction which will impact the LOS within the existing neighborhoods. Remember, LOS = Standard of Living.

As the community looks to develop 16,500 of the new homes over the next two decades, identifying urban growth areas (UGAs) to accommodate new development will be an especially important part of the current comprehensive planning cycle and the CFP process. After all, with growth comes the need for expansion of public facilities to accommodate new residents and their housing. As the Association of Washington Cities states,

“One of the best ways to make a future land use plan come true is to use investments in public facilities to reinforce the plan. The community should invest in new roads, sewer and water lines and other facilities where it wants growth to occur.” (AWC; 2011)

The land use element in the Comprehensive Plan works in tandem with the Capital Facilities Plan to make sure UGAs will have the necessary public facilities and urban services needed to support the demands of a growing population. It’s not enough simply to grow, we must grow thoughtfully and in a manner that supports the future residents of our region. This means budgeting for the infrastructure investments that will provide a foundation for sustainable growth over the next two decades.

ABOUT — 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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