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An update on The Bellingham Plan

Due by 2025, Bellingham city planning and development staff move forward in reviewing the city’s comprehensive plan

Western Washington University students attend an engagement opportunity for The Bellingham Plan on Nov. 9, 2023 in Bellingham, Wash. City of Bellingham community planning and development staff hold these events to reach various community groups such as students. // Photo courtesy of the City of Bellingham

The Bellingham Plan, an update to the city’s comprehensive plan, is moving into its next phase of assessing and applying community input to generate growth alternatives for the development of the city in order to be finished by 2025. 

Joseph Tovar is an experienced planning practitioner who participated in the drafting of the Growth Management Act in 1990 and serves as a lecturer at University of Washington and Western Washington University.

“A comprehensive plan is the collective overall vision for how a community wishes to evolve over time and specific policies about how to get there,” Mr. Tovar said. “These [plans] include policies affecting how land is used, decisions about infrastructure and services that need to be provided, and the specific controls on how land can be used and developed, which include zoning, subdivision and shoreline regulations.” 

By Washington state law, comprehensive plans and its implementation of development regulations must be reviewed and updated every 10 years with a progress report at year five, Mr. Tovar said. 

For the last six months, The Bellingham Plan staff have been focused on community engagement, said Chris Behee, the long-range division manager of Bellingham’s community planning and development department. One of the primary goals during this time has been to include a wide and diverse range of voices, Behee said.

In determining relevant themes to address in The Bellingham Plan, city planners are considering three principles: planning requirements as per state legislation, changes in the community since the last update and visions for the future, said Elizabeth Erickson, the project manager for The Bellingham Plan and a senior city planner. 

As Bellingham city planners move into the next stage of drafting The Bellingham Plan, they are tasked with creating solutions to identify issues raised by the community. 

“One challenge [in updating a comprehensive plan] is how to engage those many voices and then work through the deliberative process of a planning commission and council to consider all those competing visions and opinions and distill them into a final adopted policy or policies that will be applied citywide through the adopted plan and its implementing measures, like zoning,” Mr. Tovar said. 

Marie Langer is a Western student and urban sustainability liaison for the Western Urban Planners club.

“I would like to see more involvement from a wider range of people and really see that reflected in the plan,” Langer said. “I would like to see more civic life, public life and communal life planning in terms of small gathering spaces.” 

Weston Sitterding is a fellow Western student and a co-president of the Western Urban Planners club. 

“It’s really important to me that Bellingham continues to plan around active transportation modes,” Sitterding added.  

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Western Washington University students voice what matters to them at an event for The Bellingham Plan held on Nov. 9, 2023 in Bellingham, Wash. Students give input on challenges they face and what they like best about Bellingham.  // Photo courtesy of the City of Bellingham

It is the role of Bellingham city planners to navigate these differences of opinion and value in their work on The Bellingham Plan. However, the differences in concerns and significance for community members are not always mutually exclusive, according to Sitterding. 

“You can't say that you're focused on one part [of planning]. Everything in planning all happens all at the same time,” Sitterding said. “My housing and my transportation views are intertwined, there’s no separation.” 

In their work, Bellingham city planners have identified several themes that are important to the community and regulated by state legislation including, housing-affordability, safety and climate mitigation and resilience, Behee said. 

“There are some big priorities that the state has required us to tackle,” Behee said, citing House Bill 1220, House Bill 1337 and House Bill 1110 as laws creating frameworks that city planners must adhere to in their interpretation of community input. In addition, the GMA outlines 15 goals that guide city planners in updating comprehensive plans. 

As community engagement is a priority of The Bellingham Plan, the city will hold several events and engagement opportunities over the coming months.

Eleanor Peterson

Eleanor Peterson (she/her) is excited to be working as a city news reporter for The Front this quarter. She is in her senior year at Western majoring in communication studies and minoring in journalism with an emphasis in public relations. Eleanor enjoys going for scenic walks, drinking iced lattes and creating music playlists in her free time. You can contact Eleanor at

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