Bellingham Herald   December 5, 2006
County proposes new rules to spread growing traffic costs; Developers would be asked to pay for more
By Jared Paben, Staff






When big developments go in, the traffic they cause can clog once-quiet county roads, creating headaches for everybody living in the area.  Somebody has to pay to fix the roads to keep traffic moving, and government generally tries to charge developers for the added traffic they've created.

New rules from Whatcom County Council will spell out exactly when the developer would have to pay and what that developer's options are for fixing roads. Whatcom County Council will hear from the public tonight about the proposed temporary rules before altering them or making them law for the next six months.  Proponents of the rules say they make negotiating with developers more predictable and fair, while a representative of the building industry said the current rules allow the county to kill projects without encouraging it to make needed road upgrades.

To a large degree, the rules are a reaction to growth in Birch Bay, which has seen an influx of about 2,800 people over the past six years. Growth there has increased traffic faster than the county has been able to pay for road upgrades. "Birch Bay, obviously, is a target for this because so much growth is happening and we are feeling the need for these capital facilities very much," said Kathy Berg, chairwoman of the Birch Bay Steering Committee.

The new rules will require developers who put in more than four homes to pay for a traffic study. That study would determine whether the traffic from the new project would push traffic congestion on roads above the county's limit. If so, the developer has to pay to upgrade roads, decrease the size of the project, do the project in phases while upgrading parts of the system or work with the county to find another way to improve roads.

Under state law, government planners can require the developer to pay to upgrade roads around the project. But those rules don't take into account the stress on roads at other locations, said Sharon Roy, a Birch Bay resident and former county councilwoman who supports the new rules. The new rules will take a broader perspective, keeping the entire area drivable, she said.

County Council Chairwoman Laurie Caskey-Schreiber said the rules will prevent frustration with worsening traffic in fast-growing areas.  "This will maybe get the citizens not so anti-growth if they know that everything they value is not going to go away," she said.

Douglas Robertson, an attorney who represents several builders with projects in Birch Bay, told the county that while similar rules are needed, it should hold off on approving them, allowing time for more input and wording refinements.

County Councilor Sam Crawford, who works for development surveying company Ayers Consulting, said it's important that developers who benefit from projects pay for road upgrades, not the taxpayers. But he supports delaying the rules until they can be further thought out. "You can't hold a developer hostage and say `OK, you can't do your development because you're not spending $20 million improving the road,'" he said. "You have to make sure that he pays for the use of the road equitably."

Next year, the county and its consultant, Kirkland-based The Transpo Group, will look at further defining the interim rules, regardless of whether the rules are approved tonight, Everett said. Transpo, which has a $370,000 contract with the county, will also look at how to charge developers a flat fee for each new home they build. Those impact fees would be used to pay for road upgrades, Everett said.