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The Fundamentals of a Comprehensive Plan

Aerial view of downtown Bellingham to the Mount Baker foothills

Comprehensive Plans, and the process that it takes to create them, are some of the most important efforts local governments can undertake to secure the success of our communities for years to come.

Think of it this way: Would you ever drive to a place you have never been before in the dark, without so much as a GPS or map? How would you expect that journey to go if you tried? Probably not all that well.

Comprehensive Plans are the maps that lead our cities and counties into the future. As Whatcom County begins the process for the adoption of the 2025 Comprehensive Plan, in the midst of a serious housing crisis and regional population increase, it’s a good time to take a step back and understand the fundamentals of Comprehensive Plans.

What is a Comprehensive Plan?

A Comprehensive Plan is known by several different names depending on the state, including general plan, master plan, and land use plan. Its purpose is to be the go-to resource for city and county planning, covering everything from goals to policies, to standards that are intended to help guide decision-making for the sustainable growth of our communities.

Like many Comprehensive Plans across the country, Bellingham’s provides a 20-year outlook and has reviews within that window. In the words of the City of Bellingham:

“The Bellingham Comprehensive Plan is the community’s vision and roadmap for future growth and development. Fulfilling the Growth Management Act’s requirement for a mandatory periodic update every eight years [now 10 years], the 2016 Comprehensive Plan includes a future land use map, six-year capital improvement program, and goals and policies for eight elements: land use; community design; housing; multimodal transportation; economic development; the environment; parks, recreation and open space; and capital facilities and utilities. It establishes the basis for the City’s zoning and development regulations and guides decision-making by City leaders.”

The Growth Management Act, mentioned in the above quote from the City of Bellingham’s website, instructs fast-growing cities like ours to create Comprehensive Plans and, in doing so, manage and thoughtfully plan for growing populations.

The Bellingham Comprehensive Plan process began in 1980, but urban planning efforts have been part of the United States since essentially the country’s founding. In fact, Williamsburg was the result of colonial town planning in the late 17th century. The more modern concept of urban planning stems from beautification projects at the beginning of the 20th century, resulting in the parks system in Washington D.C., and inspiring communities across the country. Closer to home, Seattle’s first go at urban planning was in 1910, and aspired to expand with the future in mind, while balancing the interests of the public and private sectors and maintaining the area’s natural lands and beauty.

These goals are very close to the goals of Comprehensive Plans today. The importance of maintaining our region’s environment while accommodating population and economic growth is more essential than ever.

What are the Mandatory & Optional Elements of a Comprehensive Plan?

Not every city and county in Washington is required to form a Comprehensive Plan, but for those that are, there is a mix of mandatory and optional elements that local governments can adopt based on their community’s needs.

According to the Municipal Research and Services Center (also known as MRSC), a Washington-based organization that assists local governments, the mandatory elements include:

  • Housing

  • Land Use

  • Utilities

  • Rural Development (for counties specifically)

  • Transportation

  • Capital Facilities

Beyond the mandatory elements, Comprehensive Plans for cities and counties in Washington may also contain guidance and strategies for:

  • Parks and Recreation

  • Conservation

  • Neighborhood and Urban Growth Areas (UGAs)

  • Economic Development

Some of the reasons for adopting optional elements may be because of industry revenue thresholds, as is the case with ports, or due to funding allocation, as is the case for economic development and parks and recreation. In short, the optional elements help governments tailor the Comprehensive Plan to best suit their citizens and city.

The 2016 Bellingham Comprehensive Plan contains chapters on community design, housing, land use, transportation, economic development, the environment, parks and recreation, as well as capital facilities and utilities.

Comprehensive Plans Should Guide Sustainable Growth

By 2040, Washington is expected to see its population increase by more than two million people. Over the next 20 years, Washington’s Department of Commerce is projecting that it will need to build 1.1 million new homes to accommodate this growth. Based on medium population estimates projected from the Office of Financial Management, Whatcom County will need to build 34,377 new homes, of which, the City of Bellingham may take 48% of that growth and build 16,501 homes— all by 2044.

To put this growth into perspective, Bellingham needs 825 homes per year to keep up with the projected growth over the next 20 years. That’s a 30% year-over-year increase in new homes compared to the average production of 644 homes per year built between 2016 and 2021(a timeframe that many in Bellingham consider to be a housing boom).

Numbers like these drive home the importance of creating actionable goals for the 2025 Comprehensive plan, addressing factors like land use, housing, capital facilities, transportation and affordability, especially in light of our current housing crisis. When done thoughtfully, it can help reduce the negative effects of growth.

In order for the Comprehensive Plan to be a solid foundation on which our community can continue to grow, it needs to protect the interests of the people. So if you care about things like affordable housing, neighborhood character, and the preservation of our region’s natural beauty, the Comprehensive Planning process is something worth paying attention to.

In fact, it’s important to emphasize that public participation in the planning process is one of the most essential things that citizens can do to ensure Bellingham grows sustainably. Though it sometimes seems like these matters are entirely in the hands of officials, public participation is actually a mandated component of the process.

The 2023 Public Participation Plan (PPP) approved by the Whatcom County Council outlines three goals for officials:

  1. Provide a roadmap for the public, outlining a clear and accessible public process for comprehensive plan and development regulation amendments;

  2. Ensure input is sought from a broad base of public participants and is elicited in a timely fashion, considered, and incorporated as appropriate into review of Comprehensive Plan and Development Regulation amendments; and

  3. Make a concerted and continuous effort to ensure that elected officials and staff are fully aware of and understand community and stakeholder concerns.

Residents can make their voices heard at town hall meetings and through public comment. If you cannot attend the hearings in person, you can stay informed by watching the recorded versions of the live stream Planning Commission and County Council meetings. You can also follow Housing for Bellingham on social media as we will continue to provide meeting notifications and links in our feeds.

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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