Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What We Count, Matters; What Matters, We Don't Count

People who want to make money from land development are identifiable (we know who they are). Their interest is easy to quantify in the short term. They have a direct, immediate incentive to work for their goal. There is a limited number of them, which makes it easy and beneficial for them to get together in order to promote their mutual interests.

The general public’s concern with “the environment,” on the other hand, is diffuse: we don’t know exactly who will benefit, or to what extent. An individual’s interest is difficult to quantify: what’s the “value” of breathing clean air? It has a value, but we have never quantified it. What’s the “value” of fish in the river versus fewer fish in the river (for those of us who don't fish for a living)? As a society, we have decided that a healthy salmon run has "value," but we don't know how much. Per capita.

Environmental costs and benefits are calculated in the long term. Lake Whatcom is fine to drink from right now, but who can credibly predict how much will it cost to drink from Lake Whatcom ten years from now? Or how that cost compares to the cost of an ounce of prevention?

The environment, quality of life, community – their “value” is, of course, immense. But on an individual basis, no person’s interest is necessarily greater than anyone else’s, so there’s no reason for any individual to invest time and effort. In fact, if I invest time and effort and nobody else puts in the time and effort, my time and effort are completely lost.

With apologies to John Kenneth Galbraith, whose Culture of Contentment is quoted below, this is how I explain the future of working in environmental and land use jobs to my students.

Bringing it home:

Our current County Council majority only supports short-term, identifiable, quantifiable individual interests.

The rest of us, and surely it is a majority, who care about the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the plants and animals that share the earth with us, can take one small step to preserve our modest stakes in the world.

We can, at least, vote.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence right now that our commitment runs that deep.

Carl Weimer made a rational decision when he decided not to run for County Executive. As much as many of us wanted him to run – to take on the burden of fighting our collective battles – the collective will and support that would allow him to succeed are not in evidence. And by "succeed," I don't just mean "get elected." I mean "do the job of which he is capable."

From John Kenneth Galbraith, The Culture of Contentment.

Subsidies “provide a significant benefit to a small number of people while distributing the costs of providing that benefit over the population as a whole. Thus, those receiving the subsidy have a strong incentive to see it maintained, and a commonality of interests that promotes collective action. Because their numbers are relatively small, the transaction costs of pooling their resources and coordinating their activities are small compared to the benefits of cooperating.

By comparison, each member of the general public shares an infinitesimal portion of the cost of the subsidy. The cost in time and resources of recouping this tiny loss far outweigh the actual return to the individual. Thus, individuals have little incentive to oppose the subsidy. As a result of general public inertia, then, the subsidy-seekers can maintain the subsidy indefinitely to the disadvantage of society as a whole.”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ferndale UGA: Right Size Revisited

After posting the blog about whether Ferndale got their UGA proposal the Right Size, I was asked:

"If the County's Comprehensive Plan says that the Ferndale UGA should accommodate 5 to 10 units per acre, why isn't there an analysis done that is within that range? Wouldn't that require even less land?
In the table below, I compare two alternatives to the revised UGA boundary using 5.3 to 7.1 units per net acre, to the county and city proposals that use densities below the minimum.

Alternative Densities to 2011 City-County Proposal
County-City Proposals
County Plan Moderate Density Alt.
County Plan Minimum Density Alt.
County-City Proposal
County-City Proposal
Assumed Net Densities
Dwelling Unit Capacity
- Existing DUs in partially/under-utilized
+ Pending Project Dwelling Units
Dwelling Unit Capacity with Pending
x Occupancy Rate
x Average Household Size
Population Growth Capacity
Growth Allocation
Population Surplus (Deficit)
Gross Developable Acres Available:
Reductions (infrastructure, critical areas, market supply)
Net Developable Acres Available:
Net Developable Acres Needed:
Acres Surplus (Deficit):

This clearly shows that if we size our UGAs based on planned densities, that even the latest proposal from Ferndale, which is based on an inflated growth allocation, could be accommodated on far less land as well.

Maybe they didn't get it right sized after all? Time to look at what they did include in the UGA proposal that might be agricultural lands, sensitive lands, floodplain or other areas that should be removed from the UGA.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ferndale UGA: Right Size?

Has Ferndale finally proposed an Urban Growth Area that is the right size? 

Following our successful challenge to the County Council’s decision to expand the Ferndale UGA, we now have a new proposal from the Ferndale City Council to review.  
The latest proposal from Ferndale is encouraging.  The city has now completed updates to the sewer, water, transportation, stormwater and fire district plans.  The city has proposed additional reductions to the UGA.  Most of the area within the Drayton Harbor watershed is removed from the UGA, being held in "reserve for urban growth".  The city continues to work on increasing density within the urban areas.

Getting the Ferndale UGA the right size is important.  Ferndale is one of the least dense urban areas in Whatcom County -- in fact, in Washington State.  Recent Census data (click here) shows that out of 253 Urban Growth Areas in Washington State, there are just 7 UGAs with less population per square mile that are comparable in population to Ferndale.  Bellingham, on the other hand, is in the top 50 of population per square mile.

In Whatcom County, Ferndale doesn't measure up, either.  Lynden and the Foothills UGA are fine examples of small UGAs that meet density expectations.

Urban Growth Area Name
Total Population, 2010
Population Density (Persons / Square Mile), 2010
Bellingham UGA
Lynden UGA
Whatcom County Foothills UGA
Nooksack UGA
Everson UGA
Birch Bay UGA
Ferndale UGA
Sumas UGA
Blaine UGA

As we look into the future, which is the primary reason for "planning", we should use these facts to help change the trends.  The Census data is a snapshot that planning might work to correct.  We should turn to our planning documents for that guidance. 

When we look at the County's Comprehensive Plan, it sets expectations for urban densities -- allowing the smaller cities to be less dense than Bellingham, but still setting benchmarks.  What does the plan say, and how is this latest proposal meeting that expectation?

The County's Comprehensive Plan says that Ferndale should plan at densities averaging 5 to 10 units per acre.  But in the proposal adopted by the County Council last year, and in this latest proposal, they continue to analyze the size of the UGA at densities below the range set in the plan:  4.7 units per acre.  Why plan if you don't intend to follow it? 

Thanks to the staff at Whatcom County that provided me with electronic records within 24 hours, I have been able to "crunch the numbers" before posting this blog.  When I adjust the density calculation to at least 5 units per acre, and update assumptions using new Census numbers, the UGA proposed by Ferndale is 71 "net" acres too large -- or around 150 overall acres. While this isn't the balanced size the County is reporting, it is closer to being the right size than the previous proposal.   

The question now turns to whether they have proposed a UGA in the right place, and with the needed public facilities and services.

But before we leave the conversation of density too quickly, as a region and community, it would behoove us to think real hard about whether having growth in outlying communities at even 5 units per acre is good for our county.  Agricultural lands and sensitive lands surround these "urban" areas.  As they grow out, they grow into our resource lands and critical habitat.  Are we better off having the type of densities like Bellingham has achieved to accommodate future populations in order to protect our resource-based economy? 

Look at the following two images produced by Bellingham GIS staff (available on the web) to graphically show the difference in density that is taking place in Bellingham compared to other areas, and in the time period of 1990 to 2010.

 1990 Density

2010 Density

We need to think whether to encourage growth at 5 units per acre as planned in Ferndale, or to encourage growth at 10 - 15 units per acre.  Future generations depend on decisions that are made today on this subject.  

The city should be encouraged to plan wisely -- they are headed in the right direction. But, that doesn't mean that we don't need to hold the county and city accountable to making sure that they achieve the densities that they have planned for, so that we are not back in 10 years expecting yet another expansion of UGAs into resource lands. The county and city need to enact minimum densities, and purchase/transfer development rights off our agricultural lands.  They need to get going on this before it is too late.

The Whatcom County Planning Commission  is scheduled to have a public hearing on the Ferndale UGA proposal on July 14, 2011.

 Up Next:  Ferndale Public Facilities and Services