Thursday, August 16, 2007

Growth Management 102: Dealing With Uncertainty -And Fantasy!

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome - Albert Einstein
Bellingham's 1995 Comp Plan -ratified in 1997- utilized a 5% to 25% Market Factor related to land availability, parcel size, infrastructure cost, and developer preference for lower density development. It also utilized a 50% inflation factor for the demand side. This 50% inflation factor was later reduced by the Growth Hearings board to 25%.
The final combined Market/Safety factor range used for the 1995 Comp Plan was 30% to 50%. This range was applied to the entire City + UGA capacity equation to give a range of capacity estimates that fed into the Land Use portion of the Comp Plan.

Contrast that with the City's current proposal for overall safety factor of 17 percent, that combines a recommended 25 percent for some areas and 0 percent for others. [Note: Twenty five 25 percent is the highest safety factor allowed by the Growth Management Hearings Board, without inviting their additional scrutiny] No 'fantasy safety factor'!

In between then and now, the City's actual land use is probably not too far from the amount projected, notwithstanding it has not been nearly as efficient as is desired. To answer this question accurately, we need to also consider changes in zoning between 1995 and today in the City and UGA; where new housing units have been built and at what density; and differences between the 1995 and 2006 methodologies. But, whatever it turns out to be, it was achieved under the circumstances of existing zoning, policy, regulations, jurisdictional control and several changes - some substantial. Together, all these elements -and the 'market'- explain our land use performance. Can the City's land use effiency be improved? You bet it can! But first some habitual patterns need to be identified and changed to achieve more certainty.

Here are some ideas for consideration:

• Neither the County nor the City has closely monitored what has happened in the past several years since the 2000 Census and OFM mandated population 'assignments' were made. It is suspected that more growth than 'assigned' has gone to places like Birch Bay, Kendall, the small cities, and the unincorporated areas. If that is so, then deducting any excess from what is expected to be accommodated by Bellingham would be fair. Initially, Bellingham did agree to the ambitious goal of trying to accommodate over 50% of total County projected growth, even though it currently represents only 40% of County population, excluding its UGA population of about 13,000. Maybe over 50% for Bellingham is unrealistic? But, adjusting Bellingham's 'share' of the growth might help the City, but would it help the County?

• The Bellingham Land Supply Analysis focused on Option 4 of the EIS, which called for some combination of infill and expanded UGA to meet projected population needs. But, most of the same assumptions used in the EIS also went into the land supply methodology that was used. So, predictably, this careful, lengthy process -based on actual land use history- came to the conclusion that Bellingham needed 1400 more acres to accommodate its 'assigned' growth, including 200 acres designated for Industrial use. However, all five of the 5-year Review Areas totaling 2200 acres were recommended to the County for its determination as to where the 1400 acres would come from. No 'fantasy analysis'!

• The allowance used for future Parks, Recreation & Open Space is probably overstated for several reasons. The six-year PRO Plan update is set for 2008 at which time questions about adjustments to the needed level of service, financial sustainability, inclusion of the entire UGA in addition to Bellingham, collection of Parks Impact Fees, impact on Greenways 3 levy, how future trail corridors and 'anchor' parks can be planned with more certainty, what constitutes our Parks system and what does not [e.g. wetlands, critical areas, watershed acquisitions], and the like must be done. Since these considerations do impact the land supply analysis significantly, some allowances based on informed estimates should be generated before final land supply decisions are made. These questions were not adequately addressed during the analysis due to time constraints, the newness of some of the elements and questions asked, and the uncertainty of knowing which new UGA lands might be added -literally a 'chicken and egg' situation. No 'fantasy Parks LOS'!

• In the existing UGAs the City had to assume that development would occur at the lowest densities allowed, because it doesn't have the authority or tools in place to demand otherwise. No 'fantasy analysis'! Granted, this is a low target, but based on past performance, it is at the limit of certainty. Assuming a mid-range density will occur in the UGAs would drastically change the land supply analysis, but it would also take a leap of faith -or making real changes- to make certain. UGA land is County land, has County zoning and regulations, and is not under City jurisdiction. Interlocal Agreements are good, but currently they don't provide the certainty the City needs to change its land supply analysis. The City has taken steps to use the tools it has, like extending water & sewer into the UGA only upon the certainty of annexation, but unfortunately because of its past lax policy, still allows lower than desired urban densities amonting to 'urban sprawl'. The real irony here is that only if new UGA land is allowed, will the new City policy be able to manifest itself quickly! A new UGA would essentially amount to a 'clean slate', upon which real urban densities and planning can be made much more certain.

• The waterfront redevelopment has significant potential for infill, in addition to its value for cleaning up a contaminated area, providing access to the Bay and attracting businesses and jobs. But, it also carries significant uncertainty. Again, different analyses show different ranges of housing densities and timing. The City again used the lowest allowed density as its assumption to accommodate growth, but with all of it as infill, to which the City will be able to both set the new zoning and use its regulations to monitor results. Other redevelopable areas near the waterfront redevelopment like Old Town are treated in the same manner, with the main uncertainty being the timing. No 'fantasy timing'!

• The planners at CTED tell us that the so-called 'safety factor' was dreamed up in the early 1990s before government had the computer and GIS capability for monitoring land supply. This technology has changed in the past 15 years, and now better monitoring of actual land use is preferred iover the use of a safety factor. Six Washington Counties are actually required to carefully monitor their land supply, but Whatcom County could decide to do it without being required to do so. With the known variability in underlying assumptions and the resultant compounding of uncertainty, land supply monitoring just makes more sense than continuing the practice of best guessing what will occur during the next 20 years, even though reviews do happen every 7 years. But, monitoring does cost money and takes time to set up, test and become a reliable tool. It's great to embrace such a good idea, but it is wishful thinking to simply rely on it happening in advance! We will still need to start out with a good faith, informed estimate so we have something to track against, then later phase in something better. No 'fantasy monitoring', because once a rural area is up-zoned we can't easily rescind it! [same problem the City has in existing neighborhoods, even including those that might make good urban centers] So, the thought is good, but real data is needed, along with real authority to actually achieve what is planned! We don't have the luxury of saying-in the words of Star Trek Commander Jean-Luc Picard- 'Make it so'!

• The 'safety factor' has served its purpose by being there mainly to cover up some underlying vagueness and uncertainties in how land will be used, as well as the timing of it. But, in many respects it has become a concept similar to 'papering over' an ugly or defective wall, or painting over rust and dirt. As in both these analogies, the safety factor should not be a substitute for good [surface] preparation, because it is a wasteful practice that won't last and won't satisfy. It is a derivative concept, not a basic one.

Of course, there are still some who see the safety factor differently and have come to rely upon it, but most would likely agree it is there to cover up a series of other uncertainties, which have the cumulative effect of obscuring what we need to see clearly. No 'fantasy certainty'! I believe the safety factor might easily be reduced to zero, but only if much more certainty can be gained in other, more basic ways, by making some of the changes suggested above. That ought to be the real task of any reconciliation meeting between the County and City - to render the use of the safety factor redundant, because it is no longer needed. And, this can be done, provided each party honestly seeks to treat the real underlying problems and not just an easy symptom -the safety factor- that owes its existence to other root causes.

No one can claim to know everything there is to know about this subject, and it is certain that more information - honestly communicated - would be helpful. Coming up with ways to allow the City more control over development in the UGAs, plus an opportunity to set up TDR/PDR/RDR systems that work to relieve development pressure from Lake Whatcom, AG lands and other lands that need preserving. These steps alone, would dramatically reduce the amount of additional UGA needs, and maybe eliminate it entirely! Again, every time more certainty can be introduced, the better the chance that GMA goals can be met. No 'fantasy knowledge'!
"If we are to solve the problems that plague us, our thinking must evolve beyond the level we were using when we created those problems in the first place." - Albert Einstein