I had a flashback this morning to an event that I attended when I was running for County Council: the Northwest Business Club candidates’ lunch. I had been warned about the hostility and partisanship, but I can’t say that I was prepared for the rancor in the room.
One question, in particular, stood out. A woman asked me, “Has the Whatcom County Council done anything that is good for business?” When I hesitated for a moment, she said, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, “Now, that was a tough one, wasn’t it?” The point that I was trying to make was drowned out by laughter (and believe me, they weren’t laughing with me).
I know what she was getting at, of course. She was talking about the California developer who bought up two five-acre lots and told his rural neighbor, “It’s great up here! It’s like the 1950s – they let you do anything you want!” She’s talking about the development community – the big developers – one of whom told me why developers support the current Council: “Sam Crawford doesn’t care if it’s good development or bad development. If it’s development, he wants it.”
We don’t talk about good and bad development in this county, in those words, and I think that we should. Otherwise, our thinking is fuzzy. During the campaign, my opponents called me both “anti-development” and a “city girl.” How can both be true? Someone who likes cities is, by definition, pro-development.
The “city-girl” jibe was intended to convey that I couldn’t appreciate the rural “county lifestyle,” the focus of which was made out to be. . . more development. Scratch your head over that one – I did. I grew up on a hundred-acre farm, and apparently that “rural lifestyle” isn’t what my opponents had in mind in relation to Whatcom County’s “rural” areas. “Rural” here apparently means “increasingly crowded.”
I like interesting, exciting cities because I like good development. I try to avoid the Guide Meridian because I don’t like bad development. I’m not unique in these preferences. Good development, as it turns out, is pretty much what the Growth Management Act thought that it was back in 1990. And that’s according to the market, not according to me.
There’s been a spate of articles recently, ranging from the Washington Monthly to the Wall Street Journal, reporting that the two major demographic groups affecting the housing market – “millennials” and retiring baby boomers – don’t want what the County is so determined to provide: more suburban-style housing spreading out away from urban areas. The Wall Street Journal article points out that 88% of the millennial “Generation Y” wants to live in urban areas. The Washington Monthly article emphasizes that “the Great Recession has highlighted a fundamental change in what consumers do want: homes in central cities and closer-in suburbs where one can walk to stores and mass transit. Such ‘walkable urban’ real estate has experienced less than half the average decline in price from the housing peak.”
Whatcom County, and Washington state in general, should have a competitive advantage. We should be poised to take advantage of these market trends because they align so neatly with the goals of the Growth Management Act: to create great, vital urban spaces, provide affordable infrastructure, and prevent the “inappropriate conversion of undeveloped land into sprawling, low-density development.”
When Whatcom County stops fighting these goals tooth and nail and starts promoting good development, it will be good for business. Good development is good for the public at large, and good for our children. Good development provides jobs, opportunities, and attracts businesses and tourists. Good development doesn’t threaten our important agricultural industry, and it doesn’t require the enormous taxpayer-provided subsidies for new roads, police, and fire services that we’ve been paying over the past couple of decades. Good development complies with the law, and good developers work within the law.
And if you know how to make the Northwest Business Club listen to that perspective, much less agree with it, please – run for County Council!