Guest writer Nicholas Zaferatos is a 40 year resident of the south side, a former Bellingham Planning Commission member, and is professor of urban planning at Huxley College.
Big Picture Thinking. Ok, one more shot at TDRs (Transfer of Development Rights) as several of us have referenced this technique as an available financing tool that could replace the tax bailout scheme now before property owners. For the record, I have not come out publicly opposing the measure. But I do oppose, on general principle, the continuing demands placed on taxpayers to “bail out” bad public policy that freely handed development rights to property owners of “critical areas” and “natural resources” lands in Bellingham and in the County. I question continued taxpayer buyouts and bailouts of land purchases that, under local and state laws, should never be developed. Our increased monthly water bill doesn’t just pay for the infrastructure to deliver drinking water to our homes. It also pays to purchase watershed lands because the government has been politically unwilling to downzone lands in the watershed. Its easier, in such cases, to just have the taxpayer pay for past public policy mistakes.
Yes, we planners do tend to spend an inordinate amount of time imaging more equitable avenues for addressing current and complex problems. And while it is largely theoretical ground we stand on, theories are not fantasies, but foundations upon which to introduce new ideas based on what has worked elsewhere; they remain theoretical only because they haven’t yet been attempted or proven in our locale.
If we’re going to correct the wrongs of past zoning mistakes, in some cases that means playing hardball in how we regulate properties (yes, we can legally downzone and reduce development rights, just as we can up zone and grant more development rights). In some cases, the public’s purchase of development rights makes for the best solution, but there are other tools available that can allow the private marketplace to discourage development on some sites and encourage development elsewhere, where appropriate. The City Council demonstrated this to perfection when it established a tax incentive district scheme that encouraged investment in new housing downtown. That was a very successful example of government intervention in the workings of private markets for positive public outcomes. The result: more people living downtown and an emerging thriving downtown economy.
The TDR model has been kicked around for a while because it offers a vehicle for reallocating where development ought to, and ought not to, go, without additional public tax subsidy. But a TDR program doesn’t work on its own accord. It can only work if we really get serious about “managing” growth. We’re off to a good start, having generally defined an urban design pattern throughout the city where more growth should occur. The comprehensive plan’s urban design element lays out the concept as “urban villages” and designates future city expansion in urban growth areas, “UGAs”. The design concept is progressive, and if you do some research, you’ll find that our model is “spot on” as it incorporates most of the emerging principles of new urbanism, smart growth, transit oriented development, and sustainable design, each supporting sensible urban development.
There are, however, several key pieces missing for fully implementing the concept, which should be done in concert with neighborhood associations. But we do have some excellent experiences as well. Old Town and Samish Way urban villages now seek to transform outdated and underutilized urban sites for redevelopment into new, sustaining urban neighborhoods. The neighborhood associations in these areas supported the concept, the city invested in detailed master planning studies, and our first urban villages were adopted by the City Council.
This urban design process needs to vigorously proceed for each of the other 22 or so sites designated as “urban villages”, along with each of the designed UGA areas. If we just upzone these areas without detailed master planning, we’ll only get piecemeal and fragmented development which won’t constitute vibrant new neighborhoods. These sites should be carefully planned as contained neighborhoods – complete with the provision of neighborhood elementary schools (yes, we also need to change our school district’s current habit of closing little schools and building suburban monstrosities that kids can’t walk to) as well as other essential elements that sustainable neighborhoods require – like dependable transit services, public utilities, a branch library, urban parks, and centralized neighborhood commercial services (I once advocated at the Food Coop’s annual meeting for instead of building the new store out at Cordata, we should build a series of neighborhood-scale food coops in each future urban villages, but that didn’t happen).
As difficult as this urban development path may seem, the next step is really the hardest: we need to establish “development priority areas”. This prescribes a phasing that specifies which of these urban infill sites should be first developed, and which should be developed at a future time. Public investment for infrastructure is necessary for each development site, as it is not feasible to serve all sites at once. This also serves to limit building supply to designated districts. As market pressures increase, there comes a demand for increased development rights – that’s where the TDR bank comes in. In time, the system can be extended to transfer development rights from areas outside the city – such as watershed lands and agricultural resource lands. The model is theoretical, I agree. It calls for a commitment to regional planning, which we don’t now have. But it’s a path towards sustainable development.
Is this heavy handed central government planning? Yup. And that’s what makes planning most challenging. It challenges and limits individual property rights by designating when (timing) and where (location) development should occur. By its very definition – that’s what Growth Management means. That’s how we protect important resource lands and conservation resources – by transferring development rights out of those areas and into our well planned and designated priority development urban areas.
Bellingham has, in my opinion and experience, one of the state’s most dedicated and talented staff of professional planners. We need to urge Mayor Linville and the Council to commit the necessary resources to a phased program for speeding up our commitment to designing our urban villages and UGAs, as sustainable planning, by allowing our planners to do what they do best – planning our future, rather than spending much of their time mitigating the negative effects caused by past zoning mistakes.
In the short term, the municipal park district proposal is perhaps the easiest and simplest way to solve this short term financing gap and, if passed, it certainly would take pressure off the City Council by making the problem go away. But it would still remain a piecemeal approach to solving our longer term community problem. There are “100 Acre Woods” all around us. They are called Lake Whatcom watershed, they are called Agricultural Whatcom, they are called Marine Shorelines, they are called Blanchard Mountain, they are called Galbraith Mountain, they are called Urban Greenbelts, to name only a few of our remaining gems. We need to connect the dots between protecting natural resources and, at the same time, encouraging a progressive form of development that revitalizes our urban community, builds sustainable neighborhoods, and protects valuable assets in a way that doesn’t continually burden the taxpayers of the community.