Planning out 20 years of growth & climate impacts: Whatcom’s Comprehensive Plan

March 14, 2024

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By Riley Weeks and RE Sources staff

What do you want Whatcom county to look like in 20 years? We have the opportunity to determine the future of Whatcom County for a rapidly growing population in the midst of a climate crisis. 

This post dives into part of our larger vision for a climate resilient NW Washington, which we outlined in this Story Map from 2021. 

Every ten years, Whatcom County updates its Comprehensive Plan. As our community grows and changes, it’s documents like this that help determine where and how development happens, and how the county invests in public infrastructure that we depend on every day. The plan is required of fast-growing counties and cities in the Washington state under the Growth Management Act

As mentioned in our previous post on 2025’s Comprehensive Plan, jumbled and uncoordinated responses to crises don’t do any good, especially for those on the front lines. Comprehensive Plans are so important because they provide structured guidance for how to face challenges together, as a community. 

In 2023, thanks in part to RE Sources’s urging, climate change and resiliency elements were added to the Growth Management Act to account for greenhouse gas reduction goals, as well as language to help communities — especially vulnerable and overburdened ones — to buffer the impacts of climate change.

The “Comp Plan,” as we call it, must be reviewed and revised by June 30, 2025, which means now is the time for the public to speak up on what they’d like to see in the plan. The most recent updates to the plan are included here

On February 20, the County released their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Scoping Summary, which gives an overview of what kinds of impacts to air, water, and land the county will consider in their EIS. We submitted a public comment that responds to and addresses each of the ten outlined sections on behalf of you, our community of supporters.

RE Sources has been working to protect the environment and communities of the central Salish Sea region and our climate since before the first Comp Plan in Whatcom County was even adopted in 1997. As the county continues this process, the next step is a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is anticipated this summer. We’ll keep you informed regarding updates to the Comp Plan, and we’ll let you know when and how to mobilize for a more climate resilient Whatcom County. 

RE Sources is pushing for these major priorities in Whatcom County’s 2025 Comp Plan update:

1. Protect Whatcom County’s rural land base from sprawl

Whatcom’s farms and forests provide so many benefits to our communities and ecosystems, such as clean water, open space, wildlife habitat and migration corridors and more. Of course, these lands also sustain rural communities and economies. Farmers and foresters have made it clear that farming and forestry cannot continue here without strong protections against rural sprawl, which fragments and erodes the rural land base. Subdividing and developing rural land also means more pavement, more cars on the road, and more pressure on dwindling groundwater aquifers. 

Preserving the integrity of the rural landscape requires bold action from the county, or our could region look like an extension of the Seattle metro area. Whatcom County’s comp plan can prevent rural sprawl by employing the following strategies:

  • Hold the line on further expansions of existing Urban Growth Areas (UGAs). We believe that municipalities and the UGAs as they exist now are sufficient to accommodate population growth in our county, especially with the new laws and incentives that promote density and infill development in cities.
  • Protect critical farmland with prime agricultural soils from subdivision and development — per the recommendations in the county’s 2019 Rural Lands Study — and explore strategies to compensate landowners for adverse impacts.

2. Limit development in areas at risk of future floods, sea level rise, and coastal erosion

Our region has a long history of living with significant flood events, and yet development in flood-prone areas continues even today. Climate change is projected to dramatically increase the frequency and severity of future floods, which means more properties, lives and livelihoods may be lost if the county fails to take climate adaptation measures. Fortunately, Whatcom County is already taking steps to study these projected impacts. It is the County’s responsibility to integrate the findings of these research efforts into their long range planning — otherwise, these studies will sit on the shelf and homes will continue to be built in dangerous locations.

3. Decrease the amount of pavement and restore ecological functions to the landscape

Stormwater runoff from buildings, yards and streets is the biggest source of pollution to our waterways and is why the Nooksack River is considered one of the most polluted rivers in Washington state. Removing hard surfaces and planting climate-resilient shrubs and trees will not only filter polluted runoff — it will also mitigate heat, fix carbon, filter air, regulate water levels, and provide valuable habitat. Critical areas such as shorelines, riparian areas, and wetlands should be restored, protected, and prioritized. Stormwater management needs to go above and beyond what is required in our state permitting system. We need a policy that actively restores ecological benefits (“net ecological gain”) instead of one that merely limits ecological degradation (“no net loss”).

4. Maintain and update sewage infrastructure and halt biosolids production and land-spreading

Aging and poorly maintained sewage infrastructure, along with the application of biosolids derived from sewage, contaminates the landscape and waterways with fecal bacteria, pharmaceuticals, and thousands of unregulated contaminants. Ensuring the integrity of existing septic systems and sewage lines should be prioritized over the creation of new systems. Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) upgrades need to be made to meet climate objectives, reduce nutrients, and eliminate toxic contaminants. This means a WWTP needs to find alternate technologies to anaerobic digestion and biosolid production. A regional facility should be investigated to meet the needs of the entire county.

5. Promote ecological forestry practices on county-owned lands 

We need to adopt 21st century forest management on county-owned lands, such as the Lake Whatcom reconveyed lands, Canyon Lake Community Forest, and other forest lands. Mature and old-growth forests provide enhanced watershed functions and make Bellingham’s drinking watershed more resilient to climate impacts. We also seek a Comp Plan that:

  • Works with the county’s new Forest Resilience Task Force to study how commercial forestry in the Lake Whatcom watershed interacts with climate impacts to contribute excess phosphorus pollution to the lake.
  • Promotes the collaborative effort to expand the Stewart Mountain Community Forest (SMCF), and explore co-management/ownership of the forest between the county, the Nooksack Tribe, and Whatcom Land Trust.
  • Supports co-management conversations between the county and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) regarding county trustlands managed by DNR on the county’s behalf. In 2023, DNR opened the door to co-management, However, many details need to be figured out.

6. Plan for the Clean Energy Transition 

Making the infrastructural shifts from fossil fuels to 100% carbon-free electrified transportation and heating systems over the next 20 years requires comprehensive planning at all levels. The policies and actions in Whatcom County’s 2021 Climate Action Plan must be incorporated into our 2025 Comprehensive Plan across the board in all chapters (Utilities, Transportation and others), supporting goals to:

  • End fossil fuel expansion and phase out natural gas-burning in buildings, our leading source of greenhouse gas pollution locally.
  • Expand multi-modal transportation opportunities, as well as electric vehicle charging.
  • Site zero-carbon energy production, storage, and transmission infrastructure responsibly with conditions to protect wildlife habitats and watershed health.

We will keep you in the loop as opportunities arise for you to help ensure the Comp Plan puts Whatcom County on a more sustainable path. Sign up to receive Action Alert emails!

Banner photo by Alan Fritzberg