Beyond environmentalism: supporting Bellingham's economic future - Salish Current
January 23, 2024
Beyond environmentalism: supporting Bellingham’s economic future
Garrett O'Brien

Local government’s priorities do not reflect the majority’s needs and wants in terms of housing, jobs and plans for the future, contends a commentator; an urban village including subsidized housing was among projects under construction in April 2022. (Salish Current photo)

January 23, 2024
Beyond environmentalism: supporting Bellingham’s economic future
Garrett O'Brien


The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Bellingham has an affordability crisis, which is no surprise to anyone paying attention. Household income in the city is one-third below the state average. At the same time, housing costs are 20% higher than the state average. The issue of affordability has two aspects: how much people earn and how much it costs to live. In Bellingham, people earn less and pay more to live — and policymakers consistently undervalue the importance of job creation.

A recent example is the Bellingham City Council’s proposed revision to the noise ordinance section of the municipal code. If adopted, the revision will severely restrict working hours for industries based on any arbitrary noise complaint and essentially eliminate use protections commonly associated with industrial zoning. This ordinance will not affect the largest noise polluter in Bellingham, Burlington Northern Railroad, which blasts through Bellingham under the protection of federal trade laws. Instead, it will punish local manufacturers, food processors and boat builders.

Many people are not involved in local politics due to their busy schedules and other responsibilities. They rely on elected officials and the local government to balance the needs of economic development and environmental protection. However, in Bellingham, public policy has been favoring environmental policies over economic growth for years, leading to an affordability crisis. We are now experiencing the delayed consequences of this imbalance.

So, what are elected and appointed officials doing to improve the situation? An obvious starting point would be to allow an increase in the supply of buildable lands, which the local government has opposed for 20 years. Instead, policymakers have prioritized apartments to meet housing demand, disregarding the overwhelming desire for detached single-family homes and townhouses — in the last three years, only 20% of all residential units permitted have been single-family homes, furthering the dramatic and unnecessary shortfall. 

Every eight years, local government embarks upon the hefty task of updating the Bellingham Comprehensive Plan, a requirement from the Growth Management Act first adopted in 1990 that requires fast-growing cities and counties to support and manage their population growth. Last completed in 2016, this year is an opportunity to rebalance policies and improve job creation, economic development, and housing supply.

Writing about these issues infuses me with a sense of hope that Bellingham will finally accept its status as an expanding mid-sized city and embrace the economic dynamism that goes along with it. However, my optimism was quickly tempered with a visit to the City’s webpage and reading its exclusionary advertisement for public participation, discouraging people with prior experience serving on city boards and commissions from applying.

When it comes to long-range planning, the City’s message to former planning commissioners, transportation commissioners, civil service commissioners, Historic Preservation Committee members, Greenways Advisory Committee members, Lake Whatcom Watershed Advisory Board members and others willing to serve is loud and clear: thanks, but no thanks. 

The City’s ideal work group candidates try to ensure the community’s diverse perspectives are included in the planning process. However, why deviate from the standard boards and commissions requirement of simply being a Bellingham resident for at least one year and explicitly exclude potentially qualified applicants?

The local government’s priorities do not reflect the needs and wants of most people, particularly working-class people. People want adequate housing supply and options, good jobs and competent planning for the future. In response, local government is restricting buildable lands, subsidizing apartment buildings, proposing job-killing noise ordinances and excluding technical expertise in community planning efforts.

Bellingham will continue to face the same problems until business owners, trade organizations, labor unions and everyday working people engage in the public process to help form balanced policies that enable a thriving economy.

— Contributed by Garrett O’Brien

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato ( and he will respond with guidelines.


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