Monday, April 2, 2012

Whatcom County's Opportunity to Reduce Excess Rural Growth - It is up to Bellingham Leaders

A follow up on last Tuesday's long post about rural growth planning.

David Stalheim put up a bit more wonk on rural growth planning rural-sprawl-blame-bellingham. He is not blaming Bellingham! He is attempting to bust a myth being put forward by some folks that would like to see Bellingham's growth area expand.

He further noted:

In finding issues with the rural growth, the Board said the "evidence demonstrates that vacant lots in existing rural areas can accommodate 33,696 additional people, where only 2,651 are expected…the County has not planned to ensure that its comprehensive plan and development regulations, considered together, allocate rural population consistent with the Comprehensive Plan's population allocation." 
The County (and by County I mean the entire County including all the cities) faces a fundamental choice. To the County's credit they picked a projected rural growth rate that is low. Back in 1997 when the County first adopted a plan under the Growth Management Act, the County set a policy of more growth going to the cities. In 2004, the County set a policy of very, very low growth in the rural areas. In 2011 the County stuck with that policy. But the problem is how to carry out that policy.

The big problem undermining the policy is thousands of vacant lots that were created years ago. That problem and is by no means easy to solve and thus far based on the growth rates seen over the past decade, the County will need to do a great deal more to deal with this inherited slug of potential rural development.

On my last Tuesday post I provided some suggestions. I should emphasize something I didn't in that post; I put everything and the kitchen sink in my suggestions. Hey maybe one will stick. But I left one suggestion out in part because it is already part of Whatcom County's policy to reduce excess rural growth: Transfer/Purchase of development rights (TDRs or PDRs). This is a concept where a property owner or developer wants to acquire additional potential development beyond what the existing zoning  allows is required or volunteers due to incentives to purchase or transfer development rights from an area where policy dictates development is not desired to an area where policy says it is desirable or at least where policy goals indicate is the area where more intense development is desired.

The use of TDRs and PDRs as successful tools in reducing development in undesirable areas has been mixed, but by no means has it been a failure. Indeed, TDRs have been successfully done in Whatcom County on a voluntary basis. Whatcom County set up sending areas in the Lake Whatcom watershed and receiving areas in urban growth areas and some potential development was reduced in the Lake Whatcom watershed. It was not a huge success, but it was 1) voluntary only and 2) only could be controlled by the County and came to an end when the City of Bellingham required annexation before allowing urban development within the urban growth areas outside the city.

The County also has an active PDR program aimed at preserving targeted farm land areas at risk from development. The program has been successful although funding is always an issue.

The County government is for the most part out of the business of granting increase density or up zones. Has been for a long time. The only place upzones will happen in the future will be within city growth areas. Hence, a TDR/PDR program will require the cities to step up and participate in the program. TDR/PDRs are current County policy. But as of yet no cities in Whatcom County have agreed to participate in a TDR program. Even Bellingham, with potential development within its own drinking water source has never assigned or required an area of growth to be obtain TDRs.

While the County government can pass a variety measures to slow growth in rural areas, there are limits to how far and how much the County government can do without the cities agreeing to help in a substantive manner with the excess development potential in rural areas.

Whatcom County Council recently passed what is called an interlocal agreement with the City of Bellingham. It is within these agreements that cities and can be bound to help the county solve a problem the entire county is interested in solving. The interlocal agreement that is heading to Bellingham City Council for approval. Its a good agreement but a minor shift in words will go a long way in resolving excess rural development potential.

First it should be noted that the agreement has a statement that suggests both the city and county are on the same page in regards to sprawl and excess rural development:

"WHEREAS, the city and county recognize the mutual coordination of land use densities and designations is necessary to reduce urban sprawl, support urban infrastructure and protect rural areas and resource lands."

So where TDRs come in I suggest a slight change to the language to match the mutual desires of the City and County:

D. Annexation related amendments should will include the following:

Transfer of development rights (TDR) and or purchase of development rights (PDR) agreement if a TDR and or PDR program has been adopted under section 11.B of this interlocal agreement; 

11.B. Lake Whatcom watershed and rural areas Transfer of Development Rights.
The city and county agrees to complete participate in a county initiated effort to further develop a an agreement for a TDR/PDR pogram for the Lake Whatcom watershed and rural lands within one year.

The language in the current proposed agreement is essentially identical to the language of the old agreement. The old agreement is something like 14 years old. Has a TDR or PDR agreement on Lake Whatcom been development between the City and County? No. Will leaving the language in the way it is bring about a TDR/PDR agreement before the next large annexation the city brings forward?

In 2008, the City of Bellingham completed the largest annexation in decades without a single development right being transferred or purchased from rural lands or Lake Whatcom. A lost opportunity. We, both the cities and the County are in this together.   

No comments: