Population Projections: Victims of the past or Masters of our own destiny

When it comes to planning for the future of our county and cities, must we be victims of the past or can we become masters of our own destiny?

Whatcom County will be adopting its population projection for the year 2031 in the very near future. Is the process they are following flawed? Will the visions that residents of each city have for themselves be honored by this process? Or will they be ignored?

Yesterday, I spoke with Doug Peters, Senior Planner in the Growth Management Services divison of the Washington Dept of Community, Trade and Economic Development (CTED). Doug handles many of the growth management issues that affect Whatcom County. Doug was not able to provide a direct answer to my questions, so we agreed that I would send them to him in writing for him to research. Here is the memo I emailed to Doug this morning.

Population Projections: Victims of the past or Masters of our own destiny

To: Doug Peters, Senior Planner, CTED Growth Management Services
From: Larry Horowitz, Bellingham WA
Date: October 17, 2008
Re: Population Projections: Victim of the past or Master of our own destiny

Dear Doug,

As we discussed yesterday, Whatcom County is in the process of adopting a 20-year population projection for 2031. The county is required to adopt a projection that falls within the range provided by the office of financial management (OFM).

I have several questions regarding this process. Primarily, I’d like to know whether counties and cities must continue to be victims of prior growth trends or whether they can be masters of their own growth destiny. In other words, if jurisdictions are required to be victims of their past, then their choices are severely limited and an adopted projection near the middle of the OFM range is virtually assured. On the other hand, if jurisdictions can act upon a community-wide vision for a future independent of past trends, their growth options are only restricted by the upper and lower limits of the OFM range.

In my opinion, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been wasted hiring consultants in a futile attempt to add further precision to OFM’s projections based on policy decisions made years, if not decades, in the past. Most of these forecasts ignore the ability of counties and cities to change policy decisions that have significant growth implications.

If, in fact, counties and cities are free to determine a future independent of the past, does it really matter how precisely they “nail” a future projection based on past trends? Isn’t it more relevant to select a future projection based on the community’s broad vision for itself?

I have been following Whatcom County’s process, and I believe that local officials continue to act as victims of the past rather than masters of their future. These officials – both elected and appointed - seem to believe that the projection they adopt must be consistent with past trends and cannot be determined based on future policy choices that differ from the past. They also seem to believe that only a top-down approach complies with GMA guidelines and that a bottom-up approach is not acceptable. I hope they are wrong.

As someone with substantial experience in planning, I understand that the most effective planning is accomplished when those with the most information initiate the process. In terms of planning for growth, the residents of each city have a vision for themselves and their elected officials are able – and are mandated by the GMA - to establish policies to meet these visions. Some cities have a vision of rapid growth, while others prefer to grow more slowly. A one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work in this context. Unless each city is able to inform the process of adopting a county-wide population projection, none of these visions will be achieved and the whole visioning process undertaken by residents will be a tragic waste of time and effort.

Currently in Whatcom County, the county-wide population projection will be adopted by County Council based on a recommendation of the Whatcom County Growth Management Coordinating Council (GMCC). The GMCC is following a top-down process based exclusively on past trends. As you might expect, the final result will be disastrous and will fail to honor the differing visions that residents of each city have for themselves.

I suggest a different process. Rather than having the county select a population projection and then allocate growth to each city, I believe each city should submit its own projection for 2031 to the GMCC. The county should also submit its projection for the unincorporated areas. The GMCC can tally the results and determine whether the total falls within the OFM range.

If the total is within the OFM range, the process will be complete. No further energy-wasting allocation process will be necessary because each city will have already determined its future growth projection.

If the total is below the OFM range, each city will be required to increase their projection until the OFM minimum is met. Similarly, if the total is above the OFM range, each city will be required to reduce their projection until the OFM maximum is met.

Here are my questions:

1) When Whatcom County adopts a 20-year projection for 2031, is the county selecting:
a) The population number that represents what is most likely to occur assuming everything remains the same; OR
b) The population target they hope to achieve based on the vision of its citizens and the policies established to meet that vision?

2) When Whatcom County adopts a 20-year projection for 2031:
a) Must this process follow a top-down approach in which the county adopts a number and then allocates it among its cities and unincorporated areas; OR
b) Can this process follow a bottom-up approach whereby each city presents the population target that represents its own community-wide vision and the county simply tallies the results and adds its target for the unincorporated areas?

3) Does the process I have suggested comply with GMA requirements for adopting a 20-year population projection? If not, how does it violate the GMA?

Thanks in advance for your assistance in this matter. As you might expect, time is of the essence and I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

Larry Horowitz
Bellingham, WA

About Larry Horowitz

Commenting member • Member since Jan 16, 2008

Comments by Readers

g.h. kirsch

Oct 17, 2008

If you really want to turn up your heartburn, go over to the county site and look at the estimated expenditures for 2008 and the budgets for 2009 and 2010 and you will see what the implication of projecting the growth trends of the past entail for taxes in the future.

Take away Pete’s rose colored glasses, and make an honest appraisal of revenues from sales taxes and property taxes adjusted for a protracted recession and ongoing devaluations, and it’s really scary.

Of course he’s got the smoke machine turned way up and the spin is he’s actually reducing property taxes. 

Growth’s going to bail us out!

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