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The future of Bellingham

City asks for community input for 20-year Comprehensive Plan

Photos highlighting the first steps of The City of Bellingham 20-year Comprehensive Plan. The city is currently in its vision and foundation phase, allowing community opinions to be heard. // Photos courtesy of the City of Bellingham 

The City of Bellingham looks to the future as it updates its Comprehensive Plan, a document that proposes a 20-year growth and development vision.

The Comprehensive Plan is a legal document that is required by state legislation under the Growth Management Act. About once a decade, the city updates the plan, focusing on new programs and investments within Bellingham. 

This process includes identifying community values, drafting the plan, submitting it for approval and legislative adoption. Upon approval, the Comprehensive Plan is then renamed “The Bellingham Plan,” which illustrates the 20-year vision. Currently, the city is in the vision and foundation phase, which is the first step in establishing what the plan will focus on addressing after its adoption in 2025. 

The city analyzes Bellingham zoning maps and updates them as population and employment levels change. Topics surrounding land use, housing and climate will likely be prominent in the proposed plan as Bellingham’s population is expected to continue growing, said Elizabeth Erickson, the Bellingham Plan’s senior planner.  

“We do our best to look at the future and make sure that we're planning for that growth in population as well as employment, and looking at how that might be distributed across our city,” said Erickson. 

The city wants to represent all Bellingham residents' voices in the plan and encourages community members to voice what they would like the plan to focus on, said Erickson. They can utilize open houses, tabling events and surveys and information on the Engage Bellingham website to do so. 

“We're still pretty early in the project, so it's a great opportunity for everyone to get involved and let us know what they want to see,” Erickson said. “[This allows] us to see what people envision for Bellingham, and a big part of this is to really create that vision together and write this plan together.”

Within the plan, there are a variety of neighborhoods the city focuses on when drafting the Comprehensive Plan, including Western Washington University. 

“The university is a large component, an important component of our city, and many of the students, faculty and staff are members of our community,” said Blake Lyon, planning and community development department director. “So there's certainly a coordination that happens there to make sure we understand what the university's kind of growth projection is and what their needs are.” 

The City’s partnership with Western provides the university with the support of its Institutional Master Plan, which is an amendment to the Bellingham Plan. The university forms its IMP through a variety of studies, such as the Campus Character Study.

“The Campus Character Study looks at that internal part of what characteristics we wanted the physical campus to maintain or improve, and what characteristics we wanted to minimize or remove,” said Rick Benner, Western’s university architect and senior director for Capital Planning and Development.

Western is currently in the preliminary steps of adopting a new IMP, which will eventually be adopted by the city. They are appreciative of the support that the city provides in this process, said Joyce Lopes, Western's vice president for business and financial affairs at Western.

“We understand the significant impact that Western Washington University has in the area, and that this is a partnership,” Lopes said. “So we do appreciate the work with the city and its partnership to ensure that we're meeting the needs both of Bellingham, but also of Western Washington University.”

The last Comprehensive Plan update was in 2016 and focused largely on the development of urban villages. The Samish Way development was proposed by a Western class in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning & Policy. 

“Students proposed developing Samish Way as a more dense urban village that has a variety of services, not just for the urban village residents, but for the whole area,” said Nicholas Zaferatos, a professor in Western’s Department of Urban and Environmental Planning & Policy. “The neighborhoods latched on to that idea, and then they moved into the political process and put pressure on the city to develop and put resources into developing, which eventually became the Samish Way Urban Village.” 

Zaferatos continues to work with students in the department to draft proposals for the city’s Comprehensive Plans. This year, Zaferatos’s urban planning studio class will look at the occurrence of urban infill along Lincoln Street. 

“Bellingham has done a great job with its planning and in meeting the state's overall overarching goals for how we develop, emphasizing sustainability development, prevention of sprawl and of course, addressing all of the important resources that our communities have,” Zaferatos said.

The plan will remain in phase one for the remainder of the year. The city will continue to host a variety of open house forums to receive community input on the contents of the plan. 

On Nov. 9, the city will host an open house forum in Western’s Viking Union Multi-Purpose Room from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The planning team looks forward to hearing and representing student voices, as the 20-year plan will impact them the most of all residents. The city will also be soliciting feedback in a student-focused survey available online and at the open house.

Sophie Cadran

Sophie Cadran(she/her) is a city news reporter for The Front this quarter. She is a second-year journalism student at Western with a minor in communication studies. In her free time, she enjoys getting outside with friends and family, reading and swimming. 

You can reach her at

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