Questions about Population Growth

Where to begin? Misinformation. Disinformation. Truths. Myths. Same old, same old. Paradigm shift. GMA. OFM. Growth pressures. Population loss. Growth subsidies. Proportionate share.

Where to begin? Misinformation. Disinformation. Truths. Myths. Same old, same old. Paradigm shift. GMA. OFM. Growth pressures. Population loss. Growth subsidies. Proportionate share.


Where to begin? 

Misinformation.  Disinformation.  Truths.  Myths.  Same old, same old.  Paradigm shift.  GMA.  OFM.  Growth pressures.  Population loss.  Growth subsidies.  Proportionate share.

As NW Citizen publisher John Servais knows, I hate to write.  And, if it weren’t for the propaganda piece supporting higher density in Bellingham written by the government affairs director for the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County (BIAW) and published by the Herald on April 1 (1), I’m sure I wouldn’t be writing now. 

As the propaganda piece declares, “Let’s be realistic – no neighborhood wants higher density.”

Which got me to thinking…  If no Bellingham neighborhood wants higher density, how does promoting higher density represent the vision that Bellingham residents have for our fair city?

Of course, that’s just one of many questions about population growth that need to be addressed, and it’s not the first.  Let’s see:

1) What rate of population growth (or loss) should we really expect?

2) Are the marginal costs of growth (locally, statewide, nationally, and worldwide) now larger than the marginal benefits?

3) Have we miraculously solved the problem of infinite growth on a finite planet?

4) What is our real vision for Bellingham and Whatcom County?

Population Growth
Is it realistic to assume that population will grow forever?  If we were planning for a city in Russia, Serbia, Romania, Czech Republic, South Africa, Japan, Germany or Hungary, what growth assumptions would we use - given that every one of these countries actually lost population (i.e. experienced negative growth) in 2011? (2)  Will the U.S. and other countries make it on this negative growth list before long? 

How do we plan for population growth (or loss) locally given the substantial downward adjustment - minus 72% for 2011-12 and minus 59% for 2012-2013 - to our state’s Net Migration assumptions in the Office of Financial Management’s November 2011 Forecast? (3)

Are these downward trends temporary?  Or are they the beginning of a new growth paradigm?  Can we continue to rely on the same old, same old?

Costs of Growth
If the assertion about density by the BIAW is correct – that “no neighborhood wants higher density” – why is that so?  Do residents who live in these neighborhoods intuitively know something that economists have failed to consider?  What are the marginal costs of growth?  What do we lose?  What are the adverse impacts?  Are they greater than what we gain?  And exactly what do we gain?

As contrarian economist Herman Daly writes (4):

“Increasing takeover of the ecosystem is the necessary consequence of physical growth of the macroeconomy.  This displacement is really a transformation of ecosystem into economy in physical terms…  These are basic facts about how the world works.  They could plausibly be ignored by economists only as long as the macroeconomy was tiny relative to the ecosystem, and the encroachment of the former into the latter did not constitute a noticeable opportunity cost.  But now we live in a full world, no longer in an empty world – that is, a finite ecosystem filled up largely by the economy.  Remaining ecosystem services and natural capital are now scarce and their further reduction constitutes a significant opportunity cost of growth.”

Is it possible that Bellingham residents intuitively feel this dynamic?  Are we beginning to feel like our neighborhoods are getting full?  That the encroachment of density is a real cost?  That our ecosystem, which supports life and the enjoyment of it, is threatened by the never-ending build-up of development after development?

And who is paying these costs associated with population growth?  How much are developers paying toward the new jail we need in Whatcom County?  The libraries needed to satisfy our newcomers?  The new museums and art facilities?  The new police stations and police cars needed to protect residents from increased crime?  The new fire stations and fire trucks?  The new roads?  The new schools?  The new parks?

Is it fair to force existing residents (innocent bystanders) to subsidize the population growth they intuitively recognize brings more costs than benefits?

Infinite Growth / Finite Planet
Please, someone, explain how we can have infinite growth on a planet whose resources and ability to assimilate waste is finite?  Perhaps my imagination is just too limited, but all those laws of thermodynamics have some impact, don’t they? 

Can we grow larger?  To 10 billion perhaps?  I dunno.  20 billion?  Hmmm.  100 billion?  Surely not!  At some point, the planet will no longer support a growing population.  Is it possible that earth’s residents intuitively understand this dilemma?  Is it possible that negative growth rates in Japan, Germany and Russia reflect this understanding?  Are we smarter than we look?

For laughs, consider reading Rob Dietz’ farcical article about Milton Mountebank and his Infinite Planet Theory. (4)

A (Real) Vision for Bellingham
In terms of population growth, what do Bellingham residents really want?  What is realistic? 

If the BIAW is right, and we don’t want higher density, is it appropriate to continue subsidizing population growth? 

Why the hell would we do that?  And why are our elected officials forcing us to do it?

Answers, anyone?

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About Larry Horowitz

Commenting member • Member since Jan 16, 2008

Comments by Readers

Wendy Harris

Apr 02, 2012

Good questions, Larry

A primary reason that development is so profitable is because the real costs are publicly subsidized.  Yes, we are all aware of the issue with roads and infrastructure, but it is much more insidious than that.  It starts with the mitigation required as part of the permit process. Studies have found that in some cases, where there is full compliance with permit requirements, loss in environmental functions is not fully replaced. This means that municipalities are not requiring adequate mitigation. This results in water quality impacts and loss in wildlife and habitat that degrades a healthy ecosystem. If developers actually had to pay for the full costs of direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of their harm, there would be less growth, and development would be better designed.

The GMA is fundamentally flawed in its failure to recognize that there is a limit to how much growth can be sustained without irreparable harm to our ecosystem.  This is compounded by the failure to require adequate mitigation. I know that developers already feel over-burdened and over-regulated, but the reality is that we continue to experience decline in water and air quality, loss of species and habitat.  The standard for mitigation is no net loss, not what allows developers to make a profit.


David Onkels

Apr 02, 2012

Larry’s paranoia about population growth, on a global basis, is, of course, unfounded.
I offer this, which I think you might have seen already: Hans Rosling at TED in 2006:

Locally, I assert that Bellingham has been the ‘partner from hell’ for Whatcom County in the planning process. The City of Bellingham would like to force people to live in buildings and developments for which those people, acting as a market,  have demonstrated a distaste. As a result, many people who would happily reside in a single-family residence with a back yard in a new development in a UGA annexed to the City are now driven to small cities in Whatcom County or to rural zones in the county. The city’s land use policies make this pattern of development, in the city, or in a UGA about to be annexed, almost impossible. The result is that growth is encouraged by planning policies to proceed in a direction different from that envisioned by the framers of the GMA. This pattern has occurred all over western Washington.

Nothing in the GMA, which requires cities and counties to plan for a variety of housing choices, makes this pattern of growth, that is, single family residences on accommodative lots, illegal. In fact, traditional patterns of rural settlement are encouraged. Growth in rural zones is required and encouraged, as is employment in rural zones, a great deal of which is memorialized in Whatcom County’s Comp Plan.


Wendy Harris

Apr 02, 2012

Dave, what provision of the GMA requires and encourages rural growth? It must be the same one that requires and encourages the County not to impose impact fees so that it is disproportionately less expensive to develop in the rural areas.

Yes, Bellingham has been the partner from hell for the County.. the City has actually required the County to follow the GMA, and then sued and prevailed when the County repeatedly failed to do so.  Want to know another growth trend that is interesting to follow… the number of decisions of invalidity that have been issued against the County by the Growth Management Hearings Board.  Include that cost in the public subsidy that exists for development.


John Watts

Apr 02, 2012

There are no definite answers for the questions Mr H asks, only local approximations that our elected representatives can quasi-agree upon.
The larger concerns are legitimate but unanswerable except in the abstract. Unfortunately, abstract concepts aren’t actionable except as they can be made real in terms of practicality and agreed upon by due process. The marginal costs of growth are also subject to interpretation and addressing them is problematic and inexact. History and regulatory precedent set the reasonable limits and political courage is required to change the allocation of anticipated costs to fairer ranges.

Regarding what has become Mr O’s typical comments, these reflect more of an ignorant attitude than anything else, making one question his basic fitness for serving in a supposedly non-partisan position such as an [unbiased?] planning commissioner. His views consistently seem to epitomize the origins of the County’s ridiculous unmitigated sprawl mentality that the GMA Board has so rightly criticized.


Julie Carpenter

Apr 02, 2012

Thanks for writing, Larry. This is an important community discussion that quickly goes from NIMBY to global. I’d like to add a few points from my perspective as a “tree hugger” human ecologist and long-time Realtor.

Despite the citation of specific nations with documented negative population growth, the facts of global exponential population growth stand, mathematically. There are more countries and religions endorsing procreation, whether actively through various subsidies (Sweden, U.S.) or more commonly, passively, through limited economic or practical access to birth control (Africa, Mexico, etc.) than there are countries endorsing negative or zero growth (China). See for more info.

In the U.S. there are predictable statistics about new household formation (See National Association of Realtors, NAR). Due to the recession, U.S. household formation has slowed appreciably in the past few years. NAR projects that we will see increased formation of new households for the next ten years as a result of pent up demand. New household formation is driven by several factors, many of which have been delayed as of late. Typical sources of new households are: young people moving out of family homes, marriage, divorce, birth, and immigration.

In my experience as a real estate broker, in addition to the national expectation of increased new household formation, we also have a special regional concern. We live in a great place. People who have visited, or who have computers and options are figuring this out, and they are coming. How many of us reading NWCitizen were born here? One of the many cool things about being in the U.S. is that we are welcomed to move about.

People with funds to relocate where they like regardless of local job availability have already impacted our local culture and economy, and they will be coming here in greater numbers than in years past. Anyone who thinks they can somehow pull up the draw bridge after their moving van hits Bellingham, or otherwise keep things from growing, is mistaken.

What to do? There are no easy answers. People have supported infill in theory. It’s certainly harder to swallow in practice when the trees, wildlife, views, sometimes even sunlight itself, and always, the convenient parking spots, begin to disappear in your own neighborhood.

Everyone who has had fun living in a big city gets that we have to foster a vibrant urban core. We already have highly prized friendly city neighborhoods where good fences make good neighbors. Let’s swallow hard, set some height limits to protect view corridors, and then welcome more houses and condos where they fit.

If we made it easier for builders to be able to afford to build modest homes, we wouldn’t have to scramble nearly as hard to force them and us to subsidize low income housing. If we choose to directly budget continued and expanded city support for innovators like Kulshan Community Land Trust, we can efficiently increase the stock of affordble housing.

We would benefit from the very best kind of infill by utilizing more tax incentives and building code flexibility that encourages cohousing and creative shared spaces. Imagine, how many people we could accomodate, and how well, with extended family options if we permitted an additional dwelling unit for every home where it could fit (with extra off street parking required). Before we have an expensive civil rights lawsuit that COB will lose, let’s get the antiquated, unenforceable “no more than three unrelated persons living together” rule off the books, please.

Sorry Dick C., I know you’ll disagree with these last comments, but I do offer to help you move to a neighborhood that better meets your needs. 

In many areas throughout Whatcom County, five and ten acre rural housing is appropriate. This smaller acreage zoning still provides sufficient space for wildlife habitat and hydrological recharge areas. It also accommodates stewards of the land who may lack the funds to acquire the twenty + acre minimum parcels that some have supported in a well-meant quest to keep Whatcom County rural.

Back to the global end of things, I believe that continued subsidies for having multiple children are a mistake. The world can not afford to continue to deny the impacts of exponential population growth of humans on the planet. Why on Earth should we support the personal or religious-driven breeding choices of those who would expand their family “footprint” beyond simply replacing themselves? Any need for more people can easily be solved by allowing immigration. The pent up demand for U.S. citizenship shows no signs of slowing.

As a matter of true national security and in the interest of improved global conditions and relations, supporting birth control globally will help us all to sustain the quality of life we currently enjoy.

If we want the privilege of pleading for “no growth in my back yard” best to make sure we don’t contribute to the cause of the problem from our own bedrooms.


Larry Horowitz

Apr 02, 2012

Julie, thanks for sharing your insights.  I’d like to address the issue of affordable housing, subsidies, and tax incentives.

As you know, resources are both limited and poorly allocated.  For example, the City of Bellingham currently charges developers impact fees that cover only 35% of the cost of providing parkland and park facilities (1), and the Bellingham School District currently charges impact fees that cover only 50% of the cost of providing schools (2). 

For every single-family house, the PARK SUBSIDY is $8,930 ($13,738-$4,808) and the SCHOOL SUBSIDY is $1,855 ($3,709-$1,854), for a TOTAL SINGLE-FAMILY SUBSIDY of $10,785 for just parks and schools.  (For now, let’s ignore the subsidies for roads, fire- & police-protection facilities, jails, museums, government buildings, etc.)

For every multi-family unit, the PARK SUBSIDY is $6,544 ($10,067-$3,523) and the SCHOOL SUBSIDY is $1,154 ($2,308-$1,154), for a TOTAL MULTI-FAMILY SUBSIDY of $7,698 for just parks and schools. 

The Bellingham Comp Plan calls for 20-year population growth of 31,601, or 1,580 per year.  Assuming 2¼ people per unit, approximately 700 units per year are needed.  Let’s assume an even split between single- and multi-family, or 350 of each per year. 

Based on the per unit Single-Family Subsidy of $10,785 and Multi-Family Subsidy of $7,698, the total subsidy per year for 700 units is $6.5 MILLION.  Over the 20-year GMA planning period, the total subsidy is almost $130 MILLION ($130,000,000) for just parks and schools!

Here’s the problem:  Every house in Bellingham receives this subsidy.  Think about that.  Why are taxpayers subsidizing million dollar condos on Boulevard? 

Regarding affordable housing, I believe the problem has not been well defined.  Is the goal to provide inexpensive homes to lure people away from where they’re living now so they can live here?  Or is the goal to help long-time residents who have not amassed the means to own their own home find a way to become a homeowner here?  If we focus our attention on the people who truly need help (as opposed to developers and builders who want to build homes) we may be able to figure out how $130 million might be enough to help the people WHO ALREADY LIVE HERE.

(1) Park Impact Fee Schedule:$FILE/2007 Fee schedule.xls.pdf

(2) School Impact Fee Schedule (See Appendix A):$FILE/3252_001.pdf


Larry Horowitz

Apr 02, 2012


Your comments have made me very optimistic that I might be able to sell my home for a sizable profit in the near future.  You wrote:

“We live in a great place. People who have visited, or who have computers and options are figuring this out, and they are coming…  People with funds to relocate where they like regardless of local job availability have already impacted our local culture and economy, and they will be coming here in greater numbers than in years past.”

You actually make it sound like it’s a buyer’s market here in Bellingham.

Unfortunately, the facts don’t seem to bear that out.  If there is such a great demand for housing in Bellingham, why are homes sitting on the market so long?  And why do home values continue to fall?

Sure, Bellingham is great.  I could not agree more.  But many people are stuck in homes they bought elsewhere and can’t sell them so they can move here.  The NAR projection of “increased formation of new households… as a result of pent up demand” sounds optimistic (not to mention self-serving).  Reminds me a little of “Radio Real Estate.”  I’m not convinced that, absent subsidies for new construction, we would experience very much organic population growth for awhile.  Of course, that’s just my opinion.  I guess we’re each entitled to our own.

Just curious, in all your years as a long-time Realtor, have you ever experienced so many consecutive years of falling home values?  Or is this possibly something different?


Tip Johnson

Apr 03, 2012

Population growth in any system is eventually self-regulating.  Theorists label different types of growth curves and come up with fancy homeostatic or homeorhetic models, but in the end, growth is always limited by the environment. How far we can grow depends on the nutrient available in the dish.  That’s the way it’s been.

Of course, humanity is not as simple as bacteria in a petri dish.  It can vary population support by changing its economics, theoretically achieving higher population yields through innovation and greater efficiency. However, you can’t escape that darned second law.  The harder you work it, the faster entropy increases, the greater the odds of chaotic events, and ultimately everything is used up anyway.  Besides, the whole current wealth disparity issue shows that humanity isn’t practically capable of utilizing such efficiencies. An increasingly small percentage will increasingly skim an increasing share, leaving less and less for more and more.  That’s a problem.  For if the masses can’t chew through adequate resource, GDP will falter and the economy stagnates.

Most self-regulating systems have a very small part of the self doing most of the regulating - the nucleus of a cell, the mitochondria in the nucleus, the ganglia of worms and brains of rats.  Humanity formerly employed tribal chiefs, lords, government and now apparently corporations. Humanity is different than most self-regulating systems.  Humanity has developed a knack shared by few others, notably cancer.  We allow the small part that does most of the regulating to regulate for itself, instead of the whole.  It seems crazy, but does it ever work.  Look how successful cancer is!  If cancer had an infinite planet context, it would be a real winner.  Unfortunately it does win, but in doing so, loses.

Montsanto is one of the corporations now with regulatory status.  Such corporations may hold the key to doing thing differently for the first time. Genetic engineering could be the key to the infinite planet theory.  Of course, Montsanto is not achieving its highest potential yet.  So far, they have become proficient at engineering foods.  Their foods seem to make people sick, leading to chronic immune disorders and sometimes organ failure.  That helps keep the population down, but merely leaves the survivors struggling to increase GDP.  Strict economists will note that the disease and destruction, bereavement expenses and the like, actually contribute to GDP, so it’s all a good thing economically.  But it’s just not enough.

Corporations like Montsanto could truly benefit humanity by better engineering not just its food, but humanity itself.  That’s right!  Imagine how many more humans could work productively on the planet if they were only smaller.  Every gallon of clean water would go farther.  Our existing wastewater treatment plants would serve many more.  Even scant resources by today’s standard could serve into the unforeseeable future. It’s a no brainer.

Astute readers will note that resources will still eventually run out.  Well sure, if we want to continue increasing population, even halving our size will not double our run time on existing resources.  But imagine if, as resources became scarce, we were engineered smaller and smaller!  Eventually we would inevitably discover, indeed stumble over, resources of which we are completely unaware today.  But the limit is unforeseeable,  There should be no reason humans cannot be designed no larger than ants.  World ant populations are estimated as high as 10 quadrillion.  That is a lot of ants and they don;t seem toy be having any economic problems, at least none I’ve heard of.

Of course, there will be challenges. Ants, for one. If we are to be as small as ants, we won’t want them around.  They reportedly work far too hard and they are probably dangerous competitors.  In the gradual trend toward smallness, cats could be a problem, too.  But who better than corporations like Montsanto to find solutions to these problems?  They are already experts at poisoning, terminating and the like.  Smallness will create other challenges, like developing technologies to actuate controls on existing infrastructure and bridge technologies for transitioning between adaptive uses. And that means economic opportunity.

For instance, when we reach four inch average height, todays toilets will have long become obsolete for their original purpose.  Probably we will have had various patents on adaptations that kept them working as long and efficiently as possible.  But eventually, tooling to produce smaller toilets will be necessary.  Smaller people will want smaller toilets.  Matching supply and demand keeps the economy strong.  Inventive folks will find adaptive, possibly recreational uses for the old,archaic models.  They may be featured in watermarks, or used for fire prevention in residential structures. As we engineer smaller and smaller, economics instead of history can start to repeat itself, possibly over and over and over!  That’s GDP in spades!

Don’t let skeptics like Horowitz talk you onto flushing the infinite planet theory down one of those toilets just yet.  It’s Yankee ingenuity that built America and while we are fortunate to enjoy our new, more complete corporate regulatory paradigm, we need to have faith in innovation and courage to tread new ways.

Small is beautiful!


Larry Horowitz

Apr 03, 2012

Julie, I was not able to edit my previous comment and correct an error.  When I wrote, “You actually make it sound like it’s a buyer’s market here in Bellingham,” of course I meant seller’s market rather than buyer’s market.


David Camp

Apr 03, 2012

Just a brief comment regarding natural population dynamics: when a species’ population outstrips available resources, it adjusts to a lower level. This is not a pretty process!

Whichever of the four horsemen adjusts us, (my money is on Famine, closely followed by War and Plague), it will be ugly, and unevenly distributed. I’d rather live here, for example, than in Mali, or Bangladesh.

It’s unlikely that a species as adaptable as humans will go extinct unless, for example, the atmospheric oxygen level declines catastrophically. Or radiation levels wipe out all warm-blooded animals.

In any case, the living planet, our one organism, our womb and our mother, will long survive us and our nest-fouling ways. This is my consolation.


Dick Conoboy

Apr 03, 2012


You said “Before we have an expensive civil rights lawsuit that COB will lose, let’s get the antiquated, unenforceable “no more than three unrelated persons living together” rule off the books, please.”  The validity of such laws has already been upheld by the Supreme Court in 1974 in Belle Terre vs. Boraas, the majority opinion having been written by none other than William O. Douglas.  Ignoring zoning codes means that ultimately you have none. In the meantime it is rezone by inattention and ignorance. 

I am not opposed to attempts to increase density but efforts to do so, such as with the Tool Kit, without concomitant enforcement of housing codes by the city can easily create horror shows, for example, Magnolia Hills.  The more you cram into an area the greater the danger of a mishap becoming a tragedy.  The 4 or 5 fires we have had in rentals in the past year or so scream for attention.  All of them were due to largely preventable causes that might easily have been uncovered by an inspection.

So, the more pressing need at the moment is to ensure the HEALTH AND SAFETY of renters, who tend to be the most economically vulnerable among us, but again the city seems incapable of creating such a program in spite of the enactment of such ordinances in hundreds of communities across the US.  Our housing must not only be affordable but safe.


Wendy Harris

Apr 03, 2012

The City pushes infill, but lacks the courage to pass regulations that place greater restrictions on noise, lighting, activities, etc. that will be needed to protect our quality of life in the face on infill. A decibel level restriction might be appropriate for music from downtown clubs, but is less practical in a residential neighborhood. We need an enforceable quiet hour. Urban infill comes at price which is not yet being fully collected.

And the City is failing to direct and guide infill in the best manner.  Look no further than Padden Trails for an example.  It should be much harder to build in inappropriate areas such as undeveloped critical areas, or impaired water bodies, and much easier to build in appropriately cited urban villages. I live in Silver Beach, the only urban neighborhood that did not have infill requirements, and I have been subjected to infill all around my house.

Until the City is able to say “no” to any developer, and say “yes” to residents seeking relief from the practical consequences of the urban infill that occurs, I can not support an infill policy.

Anyone that wants to argue with me is invited to spend a summer trying to sleep in a bedroom that is about 10 feet away from the neighbhor’s heavily used trampoline and basketball court.


David Stalheim

Apr 03, 2012

Hmmm…. my favorite expression. 

Controlling population at a local level is clearly not possible.  People will move to this area for a variety of reasons, whether it is the “great climate”, “progressive” politics, or a “good job now”.  Migration has slowed tremendously in Washington State, and the nation, due to a variety of factors.  And net migration is the largest influence on our county’s population. 

I would tend to predict that migration will continue to slow down for Whatcom County over the next 20 years.  The biggest potential change in migration could be caused by the Gateway Pacific project.  This would bring a lot of temporary workers, and experience shows that temporary workers that move to a place find out how nice it is and tend to find ways to stay.

As a planner, I tend to want to plan for higher numbers so that you have the roadways and infrastructure in place.  This position is contrary to my environmental activist friends, and Larry, who bring out the quotes from consultants that say when you plan for high growth it might be a “self fulfilling destiny.”  But, the plan does need to be realistic because a lot rides on it. 

The question which Larry brings up that I appreciate is if they come, who should pay for it?  If the growth requires improvements to the transportation network, why does the growth only pay 25% of those costs?  In the case of Whatcom County, they don’t even have impact fees, so growth often pays $0 except for direct safety improvements.  There are some benefits of growth in the form of increased property taxes, sales taxes, (and jobs), but not all benefits outweigh the costs.

Whatcom County did a transportation study in 2008 to identify all the costs that would be required to address the road network due to growth.  The cost:  $150 million.  And the problem is even worse because the County used rural growth projections that are now exceeded by 272%!

We now have almost two decades of growth management planning to review how Whatcom County has done.  As I reported on Get Whatcom Planning blog, the 1997 plan projected that the population in just 2+ years would be more than 19,000 people than we have today.  As a result, we designated more land for urban growth, particularly in Ferndale an Blaine.

The 2004 plan appears to be exactly on target, having achieved 50% of the growth in 50% of the time. But one major problem:  all that growth went to rural areas (272%!).

Dave Onkles makes a ridiculous accusation that growth to the rural areas is due to Bellingham.  Bellingham has achieved 85% of the growth it was allocated in 1997, but the small cities achieved only 41%. And, it isn’t the small cities fault that growth didn’t go there, either.

Rural growth is due to inaction of Whatcom County.  There are 2,075 development rights that currently exist in the County’s agricultural zone.  A GIS analysis shows that there are 2,330 lots in this “40 acre” zone that are less than 10 acres in size, amounting to a loss of 4,400 acres of agricultural land in this county in these small lots alone. 

As long as these development rights exist; as long as we allow wells to be drilled for single family homes without requiring water rights; as long as we don’t charge people the true cost of growth; and as long as people want to move to Whatcom County—they will.


Bill Geyer

Apr 03, 2012

Larry poses some interesting issues at the global level which provoked an interesting policy discussion.  For someone who claims to hate to write, he does a good job of it.  I will only add these observations:

First, in regard to the characterization of the BIAWC op-ed published April 1 as supporting higher density, such density increases are already a goal of the City Comp Plan.  Should it be?......a legitimate question upon which Larry enumerated factors that might lead to a different policy.  If “promoting higher density does not represent the vision that Bellingham’s residents have for our fair city,” then said residents can and should request their elected officials change the Comp Plan.  Meanwhile, those of us who deal with day-to-day implementation of the Comp Plan must accept and operate within its framework, along with the existing state and local development regulations – it’s the law. 

And speaking of law, the state Growth Management Act, at RCW 36.70A.110, Urban Growth Areas, mandates the type of higher density provided for in the City Comp Plan, so the issue would have to be raised with the legislature.  Whatcom County down zoned rural areas, and appears to be poised to do so again, but there is a legal limit to that process, as well.  What growth the cities do not absorb will go in the county.  One of the basic premises of the GMA is that it is better, from all angles, to develop in or near urban areas that already have urban levels of service.  You can dispute that position if you wish, but it will take a re-thinking at the state level for Bellingham to walk away from its current commitment to higher densities.

The rate of population growth or loss is highly dependent upon many factors, including local economic opportunity, the relative level of such opportunity in other areas, and the US mega-migration patterns to the South, West and Northwest.  Another factor is the general quality of life found here. 

As long as we’re posing such global questions, here’s another: how much out-migration could our city sustain before it impacts the quality of life of those who remained, as restaurants, shops and other such business close, and the city no longer has sufficient revenue to maintain its parks? 

Many examples exist in the USA today.  I grew up in Ohio and experienced first-hand Rust Bowl economics.  Watching a City lose 10%, 20% or 30% of its population in a decade is not pleasant.  Businesses close, banks fail, tax base declines, people lose jobs and families break apart.  The double helix of decreasing wealth and evaporating entrepreneurial spirit is a death spiral for those that are left.  Visit Detroit, Ft Wayne, Cleveland, Cincinnati, East St Louis, etc, etc. 

Larry cites nations like Romania, Serbia, and Hungary that are losing population.  One look at their economies tells you why: no opportunity.  Here’s a headline from an article in today’s edition of CNBC online, that should give you chills:  Will 50 percent Unemployment Leave Europe’s Young Scarred?  Found at:

That’s a self-answering question, is it not?

As to the marginal costs and benefits of growth, it all depends upon the nature of the growth.  Quality development might seem like an oxymoron to those who have already concluded that low or no growth is best.  But it is possible, and, given the current GMA and Comp Plan, highly desirable, to plan for growth that at least maintains if not improves the overall quality of life in our city.  Balance and patience are the keys.  Built to today’s development standards, projects like Padden Trails will have less adverse impacts and provide high quality affordable housing, than most of what has been built in its neighborhood in the past. 


Mike Rostron

Apr 03, 2012

How I love a good rant!  Thanks Tip!

One simple and glaring fact is obvious and has been for decades: Residents of Bellingham and Whatcom county do not have much of a voice in how our city or county are developed.  The COB planning department works in collusion with developers and ignores or discourages neighborhood input.  The Padden Trails and DOT sites are prime examples and just business as usual.

The Port Of Bellingham develops and expands the airport without bothering to find out from local citizens if they want a larger busier airport with all the noise, traffic, and other costs.  And the Port admits the airport serves mostly Canadians.

Of course the major developers are part of the “one per cent” that own everything, and the rest of us are pretty much at their mercy unless we elect officials who will listen to the citizens.  Without constant attention and pushback the wealthy always get what they want - and they want is profits and damn the peasants! 

We have big shiny petrochemical plants that employ a few of the local swain for decent wages, and talk of a new coal shipping facility to employ a few more rustics, but of course we run the risk of destroying our section of the Salish Sea, and to add insult to injury we still have the highest gasoline prices in Washington! 

As for jobs - no worries, Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol are hiring - maybe all the infill should just be built along that dangerous northern border - a hundred mile buffer zone of fun, amusing, and efficient infill toolkit homes!
(I had best be careful what I say here - I think I hear a helicopter hovering over my house;-)

Georgia Pacific established the pattern.  Do what you want, make a lot of money, move on and leave a few cases of toilet paper for the yokels to clean up the mess with. 






David Stalheim

Apr 03, 2012

What rural areas did Whatcom County downzone that doesn’t have a vested application still sitting in the vaults of PDS?  Whatcom County took the previous plans, tied a ribbon around it and called it “GMA”. 

The urban growth areas designated in 1997 were basically the same areas planned as urban before GMA.  Those areas that were “downzoned”, like Governor’s Point, have applications dated from 1992 that claim “vested rights.” 

A case I prevailed on before the Hearings Board not once—but twice, is where Whatcom County just granted more time to divide land that was applied for in 1983 before any protections for wetlands and current shoreline regulations. 

Zoning in Whatcom County rural areas has no effective teeth—then, or now.  Only when the County gets serious that rural growth pay for rural growth, and that rural growth doesn’t interfere with water rights of agriculture, will we see any potential shift of that growth materialize in urban areas.


David Onkels

Apr 03, 2012

“Dave Onkles makes a ridiculous accusation that growth to the rural areas is due to Bellingham.  Bellingham has achieved 85% of the growth it was allocated in 1997, but the small cities achieved only 41%. And, it isn’t the small cities fault that growth didn’t go there, either.”

I’m sure Mr. Stalheim enjoyed watching Gary Davis of PDS blow holes in his population numbers at the last Planning Commission meeting.

Of course, Mr. Horowitz has had his own problems with the GMHB over the same issue, as I recall.

In addition, I note that Mr. Stalheim can’t spell.


Larry Horowitz

Apr 03, 2012

David Stalheim,

I agree, “Controlling population at a local level is clearly not possible.”  Of course, no one has suggested doing so.  On the other hand, there are many actions that influence the rate of population growth locally; none more impactful than development and construction subsidies in the form of new facilities paid for by existing residents rather than by those who create the need for these facilities.  (These subsidies have been fairly described by many as “involuntary contributions toward developer profits.”)

I also agree that Whatcom County will experience a long-term net migration slowdown.  The bursting of the real estate bubble - and the continued, unabated downward pressure on home values – has had a chilling, and likely long-lasting, effect on migration nationwide.  People are still free to move about the country; but many simply cannot afford to.

And who can argue that no matter how much infill development is encouraged and accommodated, rural sprawl will continue unabated in Whatcom County?  Those vested lots will eventually be developed.  Infill will not prevent sprawl.  At best, sprawl may be postponed by a few years.  Why encourage such sacrifices for a temporary delay of the inevitable?  Snake oil salesman are more reliable than those who assure us that urban infill will prevent rural sprawl in Whatcom County.

I am not a professional planner, but common sense tells me that if the political will and courage were in place to require those who profit from population growth to pay their full proportionate share of the cost of new facilities needed to serve new growth and development (as authorized under RCW 82.02.050), then the growth pressures that were responsible for the implementation of the GMA would evaporate.  Think about that. 

The GMA was adopted to deal with too much growth.  All those code sections exist simply because high growth rates overwhelmed the state’s ability to conserve and use land wisely and protect the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety, and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of the state.  The GMA was the legislature’s medicine for the symptoms of rapid and uncoordinated growth.  Fine.  But how wise would it be to continue medication when the ailment has passed?  As my friend John McLaughlin, Ph.D. pointed out years ago, much of what passes for planning today is a “cure” for which there is no disease. 

Is it not time to step back and re-evaluate?  If we removed the unwanted and undesirable growth subsidy, would we continue to experience the kind of rapid growth that the GMA drug is designed to treat?  If not, then does it make sense to continue with that remedy?  Worse, does it make any sense at all to tax existing residents to subsidize development - and thereby create the undesirable symptoms of too much uncoordinated growth - the exact symptoms that the GMA was intended to alleviate?

As Pel explains to Ursula in ‘Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About’, “You live in the Land Beyond Mad.”  Those who continue to apply inappropriate solutions to a problem that no longer exists are truly living in the Land Beyond Mad.  Of course, excessive self-interest will do that to a person.


David Onkels

Apr 03, 2012

Nothing requires rural growth but this is instructive:  36.70A.011 RCW ” The legislature finds that to retain and enhance the job base in rural areas, rural counties must have flexibility to create opportunities for business development. Further, the legislature finds that rural counties must have the flexibility to retain existing businesses and allow them to expand. The legislature recognizes that not all business developments in rural counties require an urban level of services; and that many businesses in rural areas fit within the definition of rural character identified by the local planning unit.

  Finally, the legislature finds that in defining its rural element under RCW 36.70A.070(5), a county should foster land use patterns and develop a local vision of rural character that will: Help preserve rural-based economies and traditional rural lifestyles; encourage the economic prosperity of rural residents; foster opportunities for small-scale, rural-based employment and self-employment; permit the operation of rural-based agricultural, commercial, recreational, and tourist businesses that are consistent with existing and planned land use patterns; be compatible with the use of the land by wildlife and for fish and wildlife habitat; foster the private stewardship of the land and preservation of open space; and enhance the rural sense of community and quality of life.”

I’m certain that you read this differently than do I, but I see the “rural lifestyle” differently than do you, I can assure you, and nothing in these findings discourages growth and dynamism in rural lands.


Larry Horowitz

Apr 03, 2012


RCW 36.70A.110 requires Bellingham to “include areas and densities sufficient to permit the urban growth that is projected to occur in the city for the succeeding twenty-year period.” 

As you know, Bellingham has met this requirement with existing zoning densities.  There is no need to increase densities to meet the requirements of RCW 36.70A.110.

The same code section states, “Cities and counties have discretion in their comprehensive plans to make many choices about accommodating growth.”  Your claim that the issue of making changes to the comp plan “would have to be raised with the legislature” is simply false.

The BIA propaganda piece was not written to justify existing high densities, but to support the upzone to more than double the density of a particular parcel owned by your client, Padden Trails.  There is nothing in the Comp Plan that states the upzone of Padden Trails is a goal.  In fact, City Council advised your client that they would not support an increase of density long before your client submitted their application.  Why do you insist on omitting key facts?

I’m not sure readers appreciate your attempt to scare them by comparing Bellingham to the Rust Bowl out-migration.  Perhaps you and Julie Carpenter need to compare notes.  She’s convinced that “People with funds to relocate where they like regardless of local job availability have already impacted our local culture and economy, and they will be coming here in greater numbers than in years past.”  Only one of you can be right.

You indicate that Romania, Serbia and Hungary are losing population because there are no opportunities.  But how do you explain the population loss experienced by Germany, Japan, and Russia?

Finally, your sales pitch about “quality development” reminds me of an architectural rendering.  It’s easy to paint a nice picture, but much more difficult to build it on the ground.  If every project that claimed to be “quality development” truly was, don’t you think there’d be much less opposition?


Larry Horowitz

Apr 03, 2012

David Onkels,

Before you make assertions, it might be wise to get your facts straight.

The GMHB petition filed by the Macombers, Helen Green, and me had nothing to do with the “population numbers.”  We claimed that the Comp Plan’s treatment of the city’s Park Level of Service (LOS) failed to comply with the GMA’s internal consistency requirement.  The GMHB agreed stating, “This lack of consistency between the ELOS standard stated in the Capital Facilities Plan and those stated in the Park Plan fails to comply with the internal consistency requirements of RCW 36.70A.070… The City is ordered to bring its Comprehensive Plan into compliance with the Growth Management Act pursuant to this decision within 120 days.”

More importantly, we claimed that the City underestimated its net developable residential land by overstating the number of parkland acres it could afford to acquire.  As you know, the following year, the City revised its Park Plan and lowered its projected parkland inventory by 1,132 acres.  In other words, the City’s land supply in the Comp Plan does, in fact, substantially overstate the amount of parkland and understate the amount of developable residential land.  To date, this error has never been corrected.

Perhaps my friend Doug Starcher could confirm this fact.


Larry Horowitz

Apr 03, 2012

A quick comment on GMA planning goals and GMA requirements.  Most people know there are 14 GMA planning goals, 13 listed under RCW 36.70A.020 plus the Shoreline Management Act, which became goal 14 under a 1995 legislative amendment.

Goal 4 relates to Housing and states, “Encourage the availability of affordable housing to all economic segments of the population of this state, promote a variety of residential densities and housing types, and encourage preservation of existing housing stock.”

Previously, Mr. Onkels claimed that the GMA “requires cities and counties to plan for a variety of housing choices.”  In fact, this is not a GMA requirement; it is simply one of 14 goals, many of which are diametrically opposed with one another, creating a balancing act worthy of Cirque du Soleil.

On the other hand, “ensuring the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods” is a GMA requirement of RCW 36.70A.070(2).

Be wary when people claim that a GMA goal is actually a GMA requirement.


David Onkels

Apr 04, 2012

You don’t win any points by mischaracterizing my statements. I wrote, “Nothing requires rural growth but this is instructive:...” “Requires” is italicized for emphasis.

On another topic, I liked this: “And who can argue that no matter how much infill development is encouraged and accommodated, rural sprawl will continue unabated in Whatcom County?”

Of course, since Stalheim et al cooked the numbers, the impression is that rural growth is rampant in Whatcom County. In fact, that is a canard. Rural growth has not occurred in greater numbers than were planned for.

The other day, I was reading a column in, and the author quoted someone as saying that “Sprawl is the density at Which people have always lived.”

I’m in favor of a planning approach that considers the market in its design.


Larry Horowitz

Apr 04, 2012

David Onkels,

The statement you made that I referred to comes from your Apr 2, 7:56 pm comment:

“Nothing in the GMA, which requires cities and counties to plan for a variety of housing choices, makes this pattern of growth, that is, single family residences on accommodative lots, illegal.”

In other words, you claimed that the GMA “requires cities and counties to plan for a variety of housing choices,” which is exactly what I wrote.

Have I mischaracterized your statement, or have I simply quoted you?  Talk about paranoia…


David Onkels

Apr 04, 2012

“RCW 36.70A.115
Comprehensive plans and development regulations must provide sufficient land capacity for development.

Counties and cities that are required or choose to plan under RCW 36.70A.040 shall ensure that, taken collectively, adoption of and amendments to their comprehensive plans and/or development regulations provide sufficient capacity of land suitable for development within their jurisdictions to accommodate their allocated housing and employment growth, including the accommodation of, as appropriate, the medical, governmental, educational, institutional, commercial, and industrial facilities related to such growth, as adopted in the applicable countywide planning policies and consistent with the twenty-year population forecast from the office of financial management.”


Christopher Grannis

Apr 05, 2012

Larry is right about population growth. The current projection for growth is based on 20 something percent growth per ten years of unprecedented boom time. Bellingham population growth from 1910 to 1980 was closer to 10% every ten years. During the 1930s the population of Bellingham actually went down. It is clear the growth rate in this economic climate is closer to the 1930s than the 1990s. The boom ended in 2007.
Larry is also correct about the costs of growth. The Puget Sound is dying. What is the cost? Development brings pollution from vehicles that drip oil and drop brake materials, from landscape chemicals, pet waste and other pollutants. Petroleum products and landscape chemicals are particularly poisonous to the tiny creatures that make up the bottom of the food chain that sustains aquatic life in the wetlands, creeks and the Puget Sound. Studies show that storm water management practices do not keep pollutants out of creeks. One of the highest priorities for preserving the biology of the Puget Sound is to preserve watersheds. Forty years ago there were tens of thousands of small sea birds on Bellingham Bay and salmon fishing in the local waters was the second largest industry in Whatcom County. The sea birds and the fishery are mostly gone now. Development of our watersheds is a primary cause of the degradation of the Puget Sound.
If we want to leave a livable city for our descendents we have to transition to a sustainable life style, which means high density in the urban core, urban villages, and along the transit routes between them that result in vibrant urban living. Across the country urban populations are growing as young people and retirees chose to live within walking distance of shops restaurants and entertainment. Incomes are not keeping up with the increasing cost of living or the increasing cost of fuel and the demand for housing that is not car dependent will continue to grow.  City planning students at Western have identified underutilized and vacant land within walking distance of the down town bus station that if wisely developed would absorb Bellingham population increases for years or decades. The Bellingham Planning Department has done a good job of planning for Old Town, Fountain, and Samish urban villages, and they are working on updating the Down Town plan. The problem is not that there are no good places to build sustainable low impact housing. The problem is that pushing for the development of green space edge fill and the cost of subsidizing the extension of infrastructure into green space is delaying or inhibiting smart growth. Rather than subsidize stupid growth we should provide incentives for developing desirable urban housing. 



Larry Horowitz

Apr 05, 2012


Thanks for the link to Eric Pfeiffer’s article, which demonstrates we are on track for the overshoot predicted by THE LIMITS TO GROWTH.  It also confirms the chatter I receive daily from members of the “SteadyStaters” Google group. (1) 

I’m a firm believer in freedom and choice, and I have hope that a critical mass will choose to adopt more sustainable ways of living in symbiosis with our life-giving planet.  Of course, if we don’t, the outcome is clear.  Humans will not defeat planet Earth, only Earth’s capacity to sustain us.

There are many limits to growth, and we will likely come up against these various limits at different times.  The sooner we adopt more sustainable ways of living, the less painful the experience when we encounter the limit.

Continuing to subsidize actions that ensure we’ll reach that limit sooner than later is a recipe for disaster.  If we’re not personally here when the $#!+ hits the fan, can we at least consider our children and grandchildren?



John Watts

Apr 05, 2012

Good continuing exchange on this timeless subject.
Global philosophy on growth is always interesting, but like politics, all meaningful discussion is usually local. That is so because people get engaged mainly when something happens nearby that bothers them. That results in becoming emotionally involved enough to take action.

Even if all the answers were known and understood, it is unlikely everyone would buy into the practices that might standardize and balance the costs of services implied in a well managed growth plan.
There are just too many differences in what people desire and what they will pay for, even within an area like Whatcom County. Plus, there are major differences in wealth, community mindedness, aspirations and attitudes. So much so, that herding cats might be easier!

All this is not to say the exercise of at least leveling the economic playing-field for growth management is not worth the effort; but it is practically impossible without strong leadership - and follower-ship - among the various municipalities involved in the region.
That clearly does not exist, and forces in play mitigate against it happening here anytime soon.

So, the reality is that current economic incentives mostly work against concentrating density within urban centers, in our case Bellingham.
The results certainly bear this out. Stalheim is correct in his analysis, despite Onkels uninformed, but nevertheless biased opinion. The County essentially has no impact fees, with the possible exception of minimal school impact fees in collects on behalf of school districts.

Bellingham does have substantial impact fees or their SDC equivalents, on water, sewer, schools, transportation, parks, but not on fire.
Mr Horowitz seems to believe these are too low, and of course he is entitled to his opinion. Of course, it will be difficult to increase the SDCs for water and sewer, since they are set at 100%.

Perhaps a little more research to compare what other municipalities collect in impact fees and system development charges [SDCs] to offset the costs of growth might help him discern reality in vividly unmistakeable terms.

I don’t expect to simply quarrel with anyone about any subject, merely challenge them with facts from my own experience and ask them to back up their opinions as best they can. Otherwise, such an exchange is largely futile and non-productive. Self education is always better than accepting personal opinion, hearsay and wild speculation, fun as they can be sometimes.

BTW, Bellingham’s growth projections from 1997 were way too high, which the City Council came to understand when it began to consider its 2004 Comprehensive Plan update. That particular effort took a few years longer than intended, as Mr Horowitz may recall. But, the result was a much more realistic growth projection than the 1997, including sufficient additional UGA acreage; the specific locations of which were to be determined by Whatcom County.

My earlier comment -#4-also stands as stated.


Larry Horowitz

Apr 05, 2012

Based on Mr. Watts’ comment, it appears my statements about impact fees could have been more clear.

It is not my opinion that Bellingham’s impact fees are too low.  It is a fact that the City of Bellingham Park Impact Fee and the Bellingham School District’s School Impact Fee do not cover the full proportionate share of costs for new development.  For example, the Park Impact Fee is only intended to cover 35% of the full proportionate share of costs.  The School Impact Fee is only intended to cover 50%.

It is also a fact that if the goal is to have growth pay its own way, then Park and School Impact Fees are too low to accomplish that objective.

I really don’t give a $#!+ what other municipalities have chosen to do with their impact fees.  If they are interested in a race to the bottom, let them race to the bottom.  On the other hand, if Bellingham taxpayers don’t want to subsidize developer profits and costly population growth which impairs our quality of life, then impact fees must be increased.

Mr. Watts is entitled to a different opinion, but not a different set of facts.


Larry Horowitz

Apr 06, 2012


I shared the link you provided to Eric Pfeiffer’s article with the Steady Staters Google Group.  Richard Sanders, founder and Executive Officer of Australian-based Quest 2025 [1], responded with a link to Graham Turner’s detailed study, which confirms that we are tracking the LIMITS TO GROWTH predictions of Overshoot & Collapse [2].

[1] Quest 2025 (“Working to create an ecologically sustainable future”):

[2] Graham Turner’s study, “A Comparison of the LIMITS TO GROWTH with Thirty Years of Reality”:


David Stalheim

Apr 08, 2012


And you thought no one would speak up.  A recap of Whatcom County growth projections from the last three rounds:  1997 plan projected Whatcom County to be 220,336 people by the year 2015.  It overestimated by approximately 19,000 people unless there is a whole lot more growth in the nex 2+ years.  The rural areas are already overgrown by 417 people.

The 2004 plan, as J. Watts said, was more realistic projection—but just at the County level.  This plan is 10 out of 20 years, and the county has achieved 50% of the growth.  The problem is that the rural areas grew by 7,424 more people than planned for 2022!  And, worst of all, our transportation plan and capital facility plans(and impact fee calculations) were based on that low rural growth rate.

The 2010 plan has achieved 18% of the growth projected for the entire county, but the rural areas have accommodated 68%. This was for the year 2029. 

It appears to me that the last two county growth forecasts are fairly accurate compared to the 1997 plan.  The problem is how that growth was allocated.  The intention was that more growth go to the small cities, Birch Bay and Columbia Valley, but it has instead found its way to rural areas.

Of course, the result of this growth to rural areas is inefficient and costly sprawl.  $150 million projected to fix the unincorporated transportation system in the next 20 years, of which no impact fees are being collected.  That means county taxpayers and state taxpayers (via grant funds) are paying to subsidize this growth.


Larry Horowitz

Apr 09, 2012


I beg you, please enlighten me.  As I see it, Bellingham residents overwhelmingly oppose more density (read population growth) in their own neighborhoods, and rural county residents and elected officials oppose development in rural areas.  I don’t know how residents of the other cities in Whatcom County feel, but except for developers and others who profit from population growth, it appears there is little taste for it.

If that’s true, why do we continue to promote Bellingham and Whatcom County as “great places to live” and create ‘synthetic’ growth?  As I have written previously, we are selling ourselves cheaply like pimps in Times Square.  Why don’t we simply allow the natural ‘organic’ growth to occur without subsidizing and stimulating growth?  How is promoting population growth consistent with growth management?

If one had to choose between:

A) accurately forecasting and planning for growth; and
B) ensuring that growth pays its own way by providing funds to expand the infrastructure to accommodate growth

I would choose B.  All the great forecasts and plans in the world are meaningless if they cannot be put into effect.  On the other hand, if adequate funds were available to accommodate growth, I believe we could do pretty well in that regard.

Regarding impact fees, many point to the fact that we must consider what other municipalities do.  Bull$#!+.  That’s like telling Mercedes Benz they must charge the same price for their cars as Hyundai does.  If there is greater demand for locating to Bellingham and Whatcom County than other locations, there is need to discount our price.  If people really want to come to Bellingham so badly, why are we subsidizing them to do so?

I hope you will enlighten me.  I look forward to learning from you experience and expertise.


David Stalheim

Apr 09, 2012


In Bellingham, 43% of the families earn less than $50,000 per year.  The city has a lot of young people, a large share of the older population, a lot of baby boomers—but a large gap in the prime earning years of 30 - 49.  The common perception is that people leave town to find a good paying job, and then return towards retirement.

Growth and development that brings family wage jobs to increase income and diversifies the age cohort of Bellingham would be welcome—in my personal opinion.  This would make housing more affordable, and would enable those families with children to afford educational opportunites that more “well off” families have.

There are always parts of our community that we would like to enhance or improve. Private capital and investment, partnered with public investment, is often necessary in order to make that improvement come to reality.  How many great civic spaces can you think of that are a partnership between private enterprise and the public? 

Diversity in Bellingham’s downtown housing is essential for ensuring a vital area.  Concentrating only low income populations developed with public funds is not a healthy community.  Private development is essential to bring diversity.  As a result, some “incentives” might be necessary from the public, like reduced impact fees to attract the type of development the community is seeking.

Most of our historic buildings are in private ownership.  Saving these buildings requires significant investment, which requires a return to the investor.  The public helps subsidize these investments through other incentives, like tax deductions.

Private development and investment can definitely have positive community benefits.  And that investment often assumes new growth or markets for their product, be it housing, services, food or coffee.

These are the balancing acts that your elected officials grapple with when setting fee schedules.


Larry Horowitz

Apr 09, 2012

Well, David, you have not answered my questions at all, and I still feel unenlightened.

The GMA is a band-aid necessitated by overwhelming growth – growth at a rate faster than people and places desire or can handle without destroying much that contributes to our high quality of life.  Continuing to subsidize unwanted growth is like trying to stop a car going 100 miles an hour by stomping on the gas pedal.  It’s just not going to produce the desired result.

Your answer sounds like social engineering, not growth management, and your response regarding “great civic spaces” and “historic buildings” have no bearing on population growth. 

Sure, targeted subsidies for those who need assistance is something the majority is likely to support.  But that’s not what we’re doing in Bellingham and certainly not in Whatcom County.  You wanna build a million dollar condo on Boulevard?  Fine, here’s a $20,000 subsidy for your trouble!  What is that all about?  How does that make housing more affordable for those truly in need? 

Here’s a suggestion:  Instead of indiscriminately subsidizing the profits of those who develop, build, and purchase every million dollar condo overlooking Boulevard Park, every half million dollar house in Padden Trails, and every apartment downtown, why don’t we require those who profit from growth pay the full proportionate share of costs associated with accommodating the increased population.

By my estimates, that would create a $130 million endowment fund over a 20-year period just from the additional park and school impact fees.  Then we could use the $130 million endowment fund to help those who REALLY need it, especially those who have lived here a long time.  Why should we - and why would we - subsidize someone coming to Bellingham and Whatcom County from California or the east coast?

I don’t believe our elected officials are grappling with these issues; but I would love for them to prove me wrong.

It’s long past time for this dialogue to take center stage.


David MacLeod

Apr 11, 2012

Good article, Larry, and I appreciate the robust conversation. I especially like Julie Carpenter’s comments, which include multiple perspectives, and mentions some of the problems that come with one size fits all zoning. 

There are lots of good reasons to promote infill in our cities, but when resources become scarce it becomes more important to have space to grow more food and meet other resource needs very close to home. Preserving rural farmland is extremely important, but as fossil fuels become increasingly scarce and expensive, we will need more affordable housing in rural areas for more farm workers.

As Julie put so well: “In many areas throughout Whatcom County, five and ten acre rural housing is appropriate. This smaller acreage zoning still provides sufficient space for wildlife habitat and hydrological recharge areas. It also accommodates stewards of the land who may lack the funds to acquire the twenty + acre minimum parcels that some have supported in a well-meant quest to keep Whatcom County rural.”

I appreciate the references to the 1972 MIT study, “Limits to Growth,” and the recent Yahoo article about the 40th Anniversary of that study.

In 2004, “The Limits to Growth: 30 Year Update” was published, and in 2011, “The Limits to Growth Revisited” was published (  The author of that book comments on the 40 year anniversary here (and corrects some mis-statements made in the Yahoo article):

As mentioned above, Graham Turner has shown that the Business As Usual projection from the 1972 study is remarkably on track…which is a nice vindication, but is bad news for all of us.  A short review of his study and an extremely helpful chart that shows the trajectories is here at Smithsonian:

Finally, a recent interview with Dennis Meadows, lead author of the original study. “Is it Too Late for Sustainable Development? Dennis Meadows thinks so. Forty years after his book The Limits to Growth, he explains why”
“When I use the term sustainable development—which I consider to be an oxymoron actually—I am trying to capture the meaning that most people seem to have. In so far as I can tell, people who use the term mean, essentially, that this would be a phase of development where they get to keep what they have but all the poor people can catch up. Or, they get to keep doing what they’ve been doing, but through the magic of technology they are going to cause less damage to the environment and use fewer resources. Either way you use the term, it is just a fantasy. Neither of those is possible—anymore. It probably was possible back in the ’70s, but not now. We’re at 150 percent of the global carrying capacity.

“...There is starting to be, particularly since Katrina, a field that looks at community resilience, or the capacity of a town or social community to absorb shocks and continue functioning to fulfill the needs of its members. I am talking about longer-term resilience. I am talking about coping with the permanent loss of cheap energy or the permanent change in our climate and what we can do at the individual, the household, the
community and the national level to ensure that—although we don’t know exactly what is going to happen—we will be able to pass through that period still taking care of our basic needs.”

For those who want to help rebuild resilience here in Whatcom County, look over to the links on the right hand side of this website, and check out Transition Whatcom.

P.S. Two more links to consider: “The Death of Sprawl?”

“Retrofitting the Suburbs for Sustainability”

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