Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights
Whatcom County Chapter
Bellingham Legal Blog
Written by Heather Wolf
Bellingham Legal BlogLand Use Law for the Layperson
What is “Sprawl”?
Next Tuesday, the Whatcom County Council will be holding a public hearing regarding proposed changes to its urban growth areas (UGAs). The current proposal eliminates much of the existing Ferndale and Blaine UGAs and also removes portions of the Bellingham and Lynden UGAs.
Advocates for reducing the size of UGAs throughout Whatcom County do so on the basis of limiting and/or halting “sprawl.” Although the term “sprawl” often gets bandied about in land use discussions, the term is rarely used correctly.
Sprawl is often used as a catch-all term to encompass any type of development outside of an established neighborhood. Washington’s Growth Management Act, however, refers to “sprawl” as the inappropriate conversion of undeveloped land into sprawling, low-density development. Thus, sprawl is not development in or expansion of an urban growth area per se.
Cities, especially Bellingham, have had a difficult time promoting the infilling and densification of existing neighborhoods. As a consequence, denser development has occurred at the edges of cities and outside of city limits and within adjacent urban growth areas.
Development at the edge of a city or within its urban growth area is not “sprawl” if the development is urban in nature. Residential development at more than 4 units per acre and/or commercial or mixed use development adequately served by utilities and transportation facilities are examples of urban types of development.
In preventing “sprawl” counties must consider what in fact causes low density development in rural areas and whether reducing UGAs encourages or discourages further development in rural areas. In other words, those concerned about sprawl should consider the ramifications of shrinking urban growth areas to such an extent that lack of land availability leads to low density development in rural areas – “sprawl.”
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