False pressures and perceptions: An open letter to the Bellingham City Council

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Sat, Aug 18, 2012, 7:39 am  //  Larry Horowitz

Dear Members of Council:

During a recent conversation with a member of City Council, we discussed Bellingham’s obligation to accommodate population growth.

As you know, under the GMA, the City’s primary responsibility is to “identify sufficient land for housing.”  [RCW 36.70A.070(2)(c)]  This is accomplished through the City’s land supply analysis, which compares projected population growth with the City’s capacity for new housing.  If the analysis determines there is sufficient land for housing, then the City has complied with the GMA.  

The most recently published land supply analysis is included in the City’s Comp Plan and was prepared more than six years ago, on April 25, 2006, based on the July 2005 database. 

Citizens often hear Council members describe "the pressure of trying to figure out how to accommodate population.”  The truth is, if the City’s land supply analysis indicates the City has sufficient land for housing, then there should be no pressure on Council at all.

Question:  Has any member of Council seen a land supply analysis that is more current than the April 2006 analysis in the City’s Comp Plan?

If not, then how does Council know whether or not any action needs to be taken to accommodate population and comply with the GMA?  Is this pressure real or simply perceived?

Since the land supply analysis was last published, the City added to its UGA – and then annexed – the King Mountain neighborhood.  Has the addition of King Mountain been considered in the City’s housing capacity?

Since the land supply analysis was last published, the City approved a new Parks Plan that reduced, by 1,132 acres, the number of parkland acres the City expects to purchase.  Now that the City will not purchase these 1,132 acres, isn’t this land available for residential development? 

How many of these acres are developable, and how many new residents will this land accommodate?  Has this additional capacity been considered in the City’s land supply analysis?

Before succumbing to the pressure of trying to figure out how to accommodate population, wouldn’t it be prudent to first find out if the pressure really exists?

On a related topic, during our conversation the Councilmember observed that “whether or not we need more housing capacity, many people want the economic results (real or perceived) of more capacity.”  I’d like to address this observation and perception.

In its Aug 2012 edition, the Economic Development Quarterly published an article titled Relationship Between Growth and Prosperity in the 100 Largest U.S. Metropolitan Areas.  This research paper analyzes the growth rate, per capita income, unemployment rate, and poverty rate of the 100 largest metropolitan areas from 2000 to 2009.  According to the article’s abstract:

“The study finds that faster growth rates are associated with lower incomes, greater income declines, and higher poverty rates. Unemployment rates tend to be higher in faster growing areas… The 25 slowest growing metro areas outperformed the 25 fastest growing in every category and averaged $8,455 more in per capita personal income in 2009.”

In other words, the perceived economic benefits of higher population growth rates simply don’t translate into reality.

A final question: Are the actions taken by Council - when responding to "the pressure of trying to figure out how to accommodate population” and the false perception that population growth generates real economic benefit - actually making Bellingham better

Or are these actions simply making Bellingham bigger?

Wendy Harris  //  Sat, Aug 18, 2012, 2:58 pm

Larry, again you raise very good points that warrant a broader public discussion. The studies I am aware of connect more growth with higher costs of living due to greater infrastructure and increased social services, adding an important factor to the points you have raised…  the public ends up subsidizing the cost of growth.  Impact fees reduce the amount of the subsidy but do not eliminate it.  Which goes back to the point of your article.. making sure that we do not grow for the sake of growing, but grow when there is a legitimate need.

I think your questions are particularly timely. I am concerned about the recent Interlocal Agreement between the City/County that included a provision regarding urban infill and off-site County mitigation. This would pave the way for more construction in City critical areas and destruction of existing wetlands and habitat. 

I am sitting back and watching how long it will take someone to provide us with distorted analysis based on U.S. Census figures, disingenuous pleas for affordable housing and the need for more rentals.

Mike Rostron  //  Sat, Aug 18, 2012, 5:26 pm

Advocating for population growth is irresponsible at a time when we cannot even figure out how to keep our water supply from steady deterioration for the people who already live here.

We seem to be putting the interests of those phantom folks who may move here (if properly encouraged by developers and gung-ho business and city growth advocates)  ahead of the interests of the citizens who already live here.

The real discussion we should be having is whether and how much we want to grow our population.  If there is a consensus that we want to remain a small city we can enact policies that discourage rapid growth.  We do not necessarily have to follow the path of Seattle or Tacoma.  Growth here is not inevitable, it is being actively encouraged.

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