The recent battle over Bellingham’s Alternative Dwelling Units (“ADU”) ordinance is the poster child for disputes to come over growth in our North Sound counties. Like the coal terminal debate, the ADU fight – involving secondary attached residential units — underscores that we need to define our core values, and then take greater control over our future. If we don’t, we risk damaging the character and qualities that drew us here and keep us here to live. Our region is stunningly beautiful and extraordinarily unique, but just because our North Sound counties are special, doesn’t mean our area will stay special.

Population statistics don’t lie. We are in a painful growth spurt that has driven up housing costs and the cost of living generally. Unemployment is down, but wages remain largely flat, leaving many residents struggling to make ends meet. Many of us were willing to sacrifice earning potential in exchange for the quality of life here, but many are starting to question whether the sacrifice is sustainable, or worse yet, worthwhile. In a word, we are getting squeezed on multiple fronts.Collectively, we have a responsibility to each other, and to future generations, to be thoughtful custodians of our future. The fundamental questions are do we grow, and if so, how do we grow, and why. The answers don’t lie in sterile statistical analyses. We must first look within and ask: “Who are we?”

Interstate 5 was built in sections. One of the earliest was a seven-mile stretch of four lanes between Bellingham and Ferndale, seen here, late in 1956. View is facing east with the southbound lane (right) about to enter Northwest Avenue. It would take nearly the next decade for the freeway to be finished through Whatcom County.

Let’s First Face Reality: Growth Is Inevitable

Those of us who were raised here in the 1950s and early 1960s reminisce over the “good old days.” Bellingham was a blue-collar town of 35,000 then. Mount Vernon, which is now the size of Bellingham in the 1960s, was home to only 8,000, while 8,500 lived in Anacortes. The populations of Ferndale and Lynden were 1,500 and 2,500, respectively. I-5 did not exist yet. Our local airports were truly “local.” Bellis Fair Mall hadn’t been built. The Bellingham Tower and the Leopold were the “go to” hotels north of Everett. Business stalwarts like JC Penney, Sears, the Bon Marche, and Joe Martin Sporting Goods were fixtures in the downtown and Old Town corridor. Logging, fishing and farming were still significant economic engines. Even the iconic smokestacks in Mount Vernon, Everson and Ferndale were well-known testaments to the glory days of our dairy industry.

But as quaint as our region may have been then, not everything in the nostalgic “good old days” was idyllic. The Georgia-Pacific paper plant in the center of Bellingham’s waterfront often fouled the air. Without strong building codes, structures were built that were not safe. Without environmental protections, wildlife and wetlands were severely impacted and many farmers unknowingly polluted the ground water. Without growth management controls, water supplies were outstripped and urban sprawl negatively impacted the character of many neighbors. Moreover, businesses, old and new, often operated without being financially responsible for the full social and environmental impact of their services and/or goods on society, leaving our local communities and taxpayers to foot their bill.

Times changed, obviously. The North Sound counties today are not our grandparents’ counties. Growth was driven by a myriad of factors, including the influx of refineries and manufacturing, the opening of I-5 and Bellis Fair Mall, increased enrollment at Western Washington University, and simply being positioned in one of Mother Nature’s finest outdoor playgrounds, situated between two of the West Coast’s major tourist attractions, Seattle and Vancouver. No one can blame visitors travelling through who make mental markers to return, or Western graduates who elect to stay.

Growth came, regardless, and continues to come. We can argue over whether the changes were improvements and at what cost. Certainly, many argued at the time over issues like the expansion of the airport and Western’s campus, or the building of box stores, or the acquisition and planned development of the old Georgia-Pacific property. All of these examples of change were originally opposed by many critics. Now, of course, human nature being what it is, local residents embrace most of these changes, even Costco, Lowes, and Home Depot, as having added significant value to our communities, or at least significant convenience, despite their impact on local small businesses.

For better or worse, history proves that the issue of growth itself is not properly framed as a philosophical debate, because growth, and the problems that growth causes, is inevitable. We are not, however, defenseless. At its heart, growth is simultaneously a moral and value-based challenge, not just a management challenge. The critical philosophical debate should be “how” and “why,” not “if.” By understanding the “why,” and controlling the “how,” we can preserve, and enhance, this amazing place we call home.

Smart Growth: Let the “why” drive the “how”

Any dialogue over why we should grow may seem counterintuitive if growth is inevitable. But there are many kinds of growth, none of which necessarily incorporate or reflect our core community values: Growth for growth’s sake, growth solely for the sake of jobs, or simply directionless growth. By its very nature, capitalism is inherently random. Entrepreneurs will seek profit wherever and however that they can. The proposed coal terminal is but the most recent high-profile example.

Pro-business advocates make compelling arguments for growth on the basis of economic statistics like the disparity between our area’s income levels, cost of living, wages, and unemployment. All are valid points, but the most compelling argument is not statistical. The most compelling argument is that if growth is inevitable and random, urban sprawl is our fate, and with it, our diminishing quality of life unless we proactively shape growth to reflect our community’s core values. Directionless growth is the nemesis of every city.

The answer to the question “why” starts with listening and ends with respect. Every community is unique with diverse stakeholders, each with a passion for their community, each with personal interests or values that caused them to either move here and/or stay here. Stakeholders are not to be disparaged—they are musical notes that reflect our communities’ core values and heritage. If we listen carefully, each note is distinctly different, and together, the notes create beautiful background music unique to each locale. Bellingham’s “core value” sheet music is different from Ferndale’s, Ferndale’s is different from Anacortes’s, and Lynden’s is different than Burlington’s. The differences are to be celebrated, and respected.

Many developers argue that local government is anti-growth and special interest groups destroy our quality of life by limiting growth. They miss the point; they assume that growth improves quality of life. It may, but not necessarily. Growth may have the opposite effect. The mindset of more options and increased convenience are most often associated with “big city” values. Quality of life is in the eye of the beholder. Each of us defines quality differently. We should embrace and respect these unique differences, instead of pitting our stakeholders against each other as if one or the other is the “black sheep” of the family.

More importantly perhaps, our counties will grow regardless. We have no choice. If we could stop growth in its tracks, would our quality of life really deteriorate? No. The primary discussion should be over “how” because the answer to “why” is self-evident—the growth train has already left the station. If we don’t ride the train and take a seat at the controls, we can’t direct growth to reflect our core values. It is that simple.

Simply put, there is no inherent value connotation in growth as an abstract concept. We can justify no-growth in any number of ways. Likewise, we can justify growth in an equal number of ways, e.g., to ensure that our children have meaningful, rewarding job opportunities in the future. And we can ask ourselves, “Just because we can grow, should we?” All are worthy philosophical questions. Unfortunately, none reflects reality. Growth is inevitable.

Our futures in the North Sound counties will be determined by “how,” not “if.”

Aerial view of State Highway plant nursery at the interchange of Interstate 5 and Meridian, future site of Bellis Fair Mall, c. 1971

Smart Growth: “How” Is Inherently A Values-Driven Issue

All growth is not the same. We need to distinguish between the three primary types of growth: Organic growth, random new growth, and community-directed growth.

Organic growth is perhaps the least controversial because existing businesses, many of them legacy businesses, should be encouraged to grow organically, or at least are entitled to grow organically and responsibly with our full support and appreciation. They paid their dues by competing locally, year after year, for their very existence. Nor do they pose a threat to our sheet music. To the contrary, they are already musical notes by being the economic backbone of who we are, today, and in years past. Bellingham Cold Storage, Western, The Port of Bellingham, Peace Health St. Joseph Medical Center, Woods Coffee, and Janicki Industries are worthy examples.

So, too, is the renovation of historical buildings by such developers as Bob Hall. His work to preserve our heritage in downtown Bellingham, one renovated building at a time, celebrates our core values and our past. Downtown was “commercially gutted” when Bellis Fair Mall was built, and it has struggled to find a new identity. Now, however, our commercial core is enjoying a renaissance of sorts thanks in large part to Hall, and other like-minded entrepreneurs, who are gradually revitalizing and reshaping our downtown. The Port of Bellingham’s development of the former Georgia-Pacific property will only further enhance this organic growth.

But if organic growth is smart growth from within, random new growth and community-directed growth are different animals. Each requires a different approach.

The free enterprise system being what it is, random new growth is a certainty. The relocation of Costco to the Bakerview Rd/I-5 interchange and the construction of nearby hotel capacity, e.g., Holiday Inn Express, Home2 Suites, SpringHill Suites, and La Quinta, illustrate the need for smart, balanced growth management and environmental protections. In years past, the full environmental and social impact of these projects would not have been absorbed by their respective business entities. Instead, many of the negative impacts, e.g., traffic congestion, storm water run-off, degradation of wetlands and wildlife habitat, etc., would have been borne by taxpayers and Mother Nature. Growth management and environmental laws, therefore, are critical to control random new growth. They provide important guardrails against urban sprawl.

One can fairly argue, and many do, that growth management laws and environmental protection regulations fail to strike the right balance and thereby stifle growth that would benefit the community and increase our quality of life. Some even argue that these guardrails are “no growth” measures in wolf’s clothing. These arguments are worthy of discussion.

Laws and regulations affecting growth should be, in large part, neutral “rules of the game” designed to reasonably protect legitimate community interests. In theory, our core community values are already imbedded in these laws and regulations. If the “red tape” becomes unreasonably burdensome, however, either because we pass a moral judgment on the proposed use, or because we are simply using the red tape for a “no growth” agenda, the property values of all property owners are at risk. This is not who we are.

We need to be fair and balanced in what we require of random new growth, but simultaneously respectful of property rights. When appropriate, our lawmakers need to have the courage to say “no” to special interest groups whose purpose is primarily to frustrate or discourage to the point where entrepreneurs say “no mas” regardless of any project’s commercial worthiness. Business entities who respect the “rules of the game” deserve to be in the game.

Community-directed growth, on the other hand, involves even additional calculus. The Port of Bellingham, for instance, recently hired Don Goldberg as director of economic development. (Whatcom County is funding a percentage of his compensation package.) Goldberg’s challenge includes attracting new business to Whatcom County, which begs the question: “What new businesses should the port try to actively recruit?” Or stated differently, should the port seek to attract any business willing to relocate or expand, or should the port pursue a new note on Bellingham’s sheet music that reflects our core values, or both? Essentially, the port and Whatcom County, generally, have unique opportunities to forge public/private alliances to limit randomness in the free enterprise system.

Thoughtful community leaders in other cities have historically embraced the opportunity to “look around the corner” and take a degree of control over their cities’ futures. Our North Sound counties should do likewise. We would be remiss if we didn’t.

Smart Growth: The Port Development Is A Guinea Pig

One of the initial tests for the Port of Bellingham will be the development of the waterfront. Does the port have an ear for music or is it tone deaf? Will the port development reflect all musical notes, all stakeholders, or will the build-out, and the businesses that it randomly attracts, leave many of our residents feeling as though one or more stakeholders were favored over others? Time will tell. The challenge is thankless, no doubt. Criticism is likely regardless.

But the waterfront project illustrates a wonderfully unique, once-in-a-lifetime example of community-driven growth that is within our reach—that is if we care to reach. Certainly, responsible self-directed growth must include the enforcement of growth management laws and environmental regulations. That’s a minimum threshold only. However, responsible growth includes, whenever possible, taking control over the direction of growth by actively seeking to attract new business that meet our core values.

The quality of life in our North Sound counties gives us leverage in the marketplace of industries to control our destiny to a significant degree. We have something to sell that people want badly—an outdoor lifestyle that is second to none without the headaches of metropolitan city life. Do we actively solicit Microsoft, Google, Amazon or biotechnology firms to locate a regional office here to take advantage of our highly-educated labor pool or proximity to Vancouver? Or, for example, do we recruit additional light manufacturing in the solar power industry? And if we do, are we willing to tackle the housing shortage and build the infrastructure to support these industries?

Again, these are important questions. Our North Sound counties are at a crossroad with growth that appears to be outpacing our responsiveness. If we can shape our future, should we? And if we do and don’t address housing and infrastructure, quality of life is certain to suffer. To commit to the former is to commit to the latter. Two bites of the apple will be needed, not one, at a time when we have many other pressing financial issues and competing priorities, the need for a new jail being the most obvious.

And as if the issue of growth isn’t complicated enough, our politicians and business leaders need to be forever mindful that it is easier to break what we have than it is to improve what we have. Just a little food for thought, Jack, Kelli and Don. No pressure.

"The fundamental questions are do we grow, and if so, how do we grow, and why."