Planning board considers growth, SEPA rule changes

Published on Wed, Sep 18, 2013 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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It’s time for the city of Blaine to look toward the future. 

At the September 12 planning commission meeting, commissioners and city planners began discussing what the best course of action would be for the city’s long-term growth.

“All cities in the county are required to update their comprehensive plan by 2016,” said community planning director Michael Jones. “That may seem like a long way off, but it takes awhile to do it. These policies direct our future,” Jones said. 

Updating the plans are the first steps in complying with the Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA), which was enacted in 1990 because the state legislators believed uncoordinated and unplanned growth posed a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development and the quality of life in Washington.

Under the GMA, counties are required to review Urban Growth Areas (UGAs) in relation to expected population growth. UGAs are areas in counties that provide expansion room for growing cities. These areas can come under city jurisdiction through future annexation.

“The GMA is designed to help growth go where infrastructure already exists because it costs an astronomical amount to build new infrastructure,” said commissioner Richard May. 

The Washington Office of Financial Management updates county and state long-range population forecasts every five years to support GMA planning. These projections were compiled into a working document prepared by BERK Consulting, a Seattle strategic planning firm, for the county to review.

“It’s not a policy document,” Jones said. “It doesn’t say what will happen or what should happen. It just takes history and projects it forward.” 

Based on the most recent projections, Blaine is expected to experience a decline in population growth over the next 20 years. 

“There’s a substantial difference from the current comprehensive plan,” Jones said. “The BERK projections suggest that there will be less population growth to go around since it’s the first time that the county is expected to experience negative natural growth, where there are more people expected to die here than are born here.”

The planning commission was asked to consider what kind of growth rate they felt the county should plan for, how much of that growth should be coming to Blaine and whether or not the city should take a position on limiting or promoting growth in other areas or cities. “Our goal is to create a recommendation from the city of Blaine to Whatcom County regarding population and employment planning,” Jones said. “The policies we suggest can help determine what kind of growth the county allocates to our city. The council will either pass a resolution or send a memo with that information to Whatcom County to be considered in the planning process.”

Jones encouraged the commission to look at “creating a more complete community” as they went through the planning process. “Based on the current comprehensive plan, our vision for downtown to be a thriving center and looking at the land available, I encourage you to look at ways to create retail and business opportunities and ways to support commerce in Blaine and recommend policies which will help Blaine continue to expand,” he said.

The last time the comprehensive plan was updated, the city of Blaine lost more than 75 percent of its UGA. When asked whether it was possible for the city to regain that land, Jones was hesitant. “In my assessment, we will not get any additional UGA unless the land capacity analysis says that we need more land,” Jones said. “And we won’t know that until we know how many jobs and people we need to accommodate. Right now, we’re just looking at the population numbers. It’s the first step in the process.”

The commission planned to continue its consideration of the growth plan at the Thursday, October 10 meeting during a study session at 5:30 p.m. that will precede the regularly scheduled meeting.

The commission also discussed an update of city-related State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) regulations that would change what kinds of projects are subject to the environmental review process. “The city council has to look at ways to make responsible development easier. This is one of those ways,” said Alex Wenger, community planner, noting that increasing the threshold for what qualifies as a SEPA project would prevent developers who want to build something the size of the new RiteAid, a 17,000-square-foot building with 60 parking spaces from having to go through a lengthy (and costly) application process. 

Projects that currently require a SEPA review are: single family developments with 10 or more units, multi-family developments with 10 or more units and commercial developments which exceed 10,000 square feet or 30 parking spaces.

Under the proposed amendment, thresholds for the SEPA regulations would be raised for multifamily developments and commercial developments. “We’re proposing levels of 20 units for the multi-family developments and 30,000 square feet or 60 parking stalls for the commercial developments,” Wenger said. “As a finding of fact, the planning commission has determined the proposed amendment will facilitate multifamily development and encourage greater density as directed by the goals of the GMA and county-wide planning policies.”

According to the proposal document, the planning commission has determined that environmentally sensitive areas are adequately protected by current local, state and federal regulations and there would be few adverse impacts by raising the thresholds. 

However, in a letter to the commission, North Whatcom Fire and Rescue chief Henry Hollander said that changing the SEPA thresholds would adversely affect the fire district, as it is a direct source of funding for fire operations and growth. 

“The fire district has spent significant resources over the past few years to develop a voluntary mitigation program through the SEPA process that would assist in providing some funding to help with this increased workload,” he wrote. 

“By implementing the proposed increase to the SEPA threshold there would be more development exempt from the SEPA process. This would result in fewer fees collected, which in turn could affect the fire district’s ability [to] provide an acceptable level of service.”

He requested that the city maintain current SEPA levels or instate a “fire impact fee” to help offset the loss anticipated by changing the threshold levels.

The commission deferred making a recommendation on the amendment until the next regularly scheduled planning commission meeting on Thursday, September 26 at 7 p.m.