Browse this page for a comprehensive answer to 28 common questions about annexation. Contact the UW Research Team for addition questions about the research process.
1. Why and how is the University of Washington involved in the City of Bellingham annexation process?
A team of University of Washington (UW) Master of Urban Planning students is partnering with the City of Bellingham Planning and Community Development Department to assess the interest of residents living within unincorporated communities adjacent to Bellingham city limits regarding joining the city.
The UW Team is tasked with providing community members with accurate and unbiased information from which the residents can decide if joining the City would be in their best interest. The UW Team does not have a preferred outcome regarding this assessment.
Annexation is the procedure for bringing unincorporated areas of a county into an adjacent city. If an area is annexed, the city becomes the primary provider of local government services such as police, fire and utilities. The most common form of annexation is by petition.
For more information on annexation see the City of Bellingham Annexation Webpage.
In the case of Bellingham, an unincorporated area is an area within and governed by Whatcom County that has yet to join a city or form a town or city of its own.
Bellingham urban growth areas (UGAs) are unincorporated areas next to city limits identified by Whatcom County that are characterized by urban growth. Establishment of UGAs is required by the Washington Growth Management Act of 1990 for the purpose of encouraging urban growth within existing urban areas. Several UGAs have already experienced significant development are being considered for potential annexation by the City of Bellingham.
The Growth Management Act of 1990 says that all areas defined as urban growth areas (UGAs) should be in a city. Whatcom County does not have the resources to support urban areas while the City of Bellingham does. Due to this, both the County and City agree that these areas should be part of the City of Bellingham to best serve the residents of the UGAs.
Washington State law guides the annexation process. Many methods exist, ranging from petition-based to agreements between government authorities. The most used annexation method is the petition. The petition starts with interested residents submitting a Notice of Intent to Annex that represents either:
- at least 10% of the residents of the area to be annexed, or
- the owners of at least 10% of the land value in the area to be annexed, per Whatcom County Assessor’s office assessed valuation.
If the City Council decides that the proposed annexation is good for the public, it may begin a public process to study the annexation proposal. In this case, the supportive residents must use official petition forms to collect the signatures of property owners that represent at least 60% of the total assessed land value of the area requested for annexation.
At the end of the public process, the City Council votes for or against the annexation in question. There is no guarantee of annexation by filing a petition and application for annexation to the City. Additional information regarding Washington State annexation methods is available on the City of Bellingham Annexation Website and the WA Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC) Annexation Methods Website.
Yes, the most recent annexations were of Mt. Baker Highway/Britton Road and Bennett/Bakerview/Airport Drive in April 2019. The effects after annexation vary by community; however, the following have generally happened:
- Lower utility costs for City of Bellingham water and sewer services and extension of service to vacant properties (upon the submission of an application)
- Consideration for the City of Bellingham to improve public park spaces (trails, playfields, etc.) identified in the Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PRO) Plan
- Inclusion in city planning and budgeting for parks, infrastructure, and other neighborhood improvements
- Increased levels of service provided by the City of Bellingham police and fire departments
- The ability to vote in Bellingham elections along with representation on the Bellingham City Council
- Establishment of Neighborhood Associations officially recognized by the City of Bellingham and representation on the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC)
- Access to city and state funding for neighborhood development through programs such as Small and Simple Grants and Safe Routes to School
For a more detailed history of annexation in Bellingham please visit the City of Bellingham Annexations Website.
If a significant majority of property owners do not support becoming part of the city, the Bellingham City Council has indicated it is unlikely to move forward with the annexation process.
Under the petition method, property owners may choose not to sign annexation petitions; however, if an annexation petition is endorsed by property owners representing at least 60% of the total assessed land value of an area, the City Council may approve an annexation of that area in its entirety. Some property owners may have a pre-annexation agreement tied to their property which may affect their role in the petition process.
In order to provide water and sewer services to property outside of city limits, property owners/developers were often required to sign a pre-annexation agreement with the City of Bellingham. This agreement works as a no-contest vote for the property owner if the city decides to pursue annexation of the area at a later date. These agreements are tied to property, so your home may be subject to this agreement if you, a previous owner, or the person that developed your land agreed to it.
Pre-annexation agreements are recorded with property deeds, which are filed at the Whatcom County Auditor’s office and are typically included in closing documents when a property is purchased. Property owners may consult their deed and attachments to determine if a pre-annexation agreement exists. Questions related to accessing property deeds may be directed to the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office via email to email@example.com, or telephone (360) 778-5100; or the Bellingham Planning & Community Development Department via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or telephone (360) 778-8300.
Questions generally related to City of Bellingham annexation may be directed to Moshe Quinn of Bellingham Planning & Community Development Department via email to email@example.com or (360) 778-8354. Questions related to the University of Washington assessment may be directed to the UW Team via email to UWTeam@cob.org.
If an area is annexed…
Most immediate changes that would come after annexation are administrative. The City of Bellingham would assume responsibility for providing urban services including police, fire, city-provided utilities, and infrastructure maintenance. Residents will immediately gain access to city programs, community services and representation by elected city officials.
Property tax and utility rates would update to City rates at the time of annexation. For more information on changes to utility rates and taxes please see questions 16 and 18. For information on changes to taxes for business owners please see question 20.
Changes caused by annexation which may take longer include Neighborhood Association establishment, realignment of City Council Ward boundaries, transition from special district to city utility services (where applicable), and infrastructure upgrades.
New development within the UGAs will be subject to impact fees relating to park development; water, sewer, stormwater, and transportation improvements; and school facilities. These are enforced to ensure that the developer pays for the additional stress on existing services caused by increases in population. For more information, see the City of Bellingham’s Permit Fees page.
Additionally, residential properties will be subject to the City of Bellingham’s stormwater fee which charges based upon the amount of impervious surfaces on the parcel. Exact fee rates differ, please consult the Stormwater section of the Bi-Monthly Utility Billing Rates to see which rates may apply to you.
Lastly, landlords are required in the City of Bellingham to register their rental properties with the City and pay an annual registration fee along with a rental safety inspection fee every three years. Please visit the links provided to determine what rates may apply to you.
It is unlikely. Property tax rates within the UGAs will drop between 6.1% and 6.5% for 2019. The taxes for your property will depend on the new applicable fees as listed in FAQ #15 and the assessed value of your home. Please see the UGA specific FAQs for individual property tax rates.
Zoning is unlikely to significantly change. The City of Bellingham’s 20-year plan shows that if UGAs annex, current zoning designations will change to the closest similar zoning as defined by the City of Bellingham. This change may include the addition or subtraction of certain allowable uses (this change mainly affects building in public park spaces), but the general character of the uses will stay the same.
Generally, communities will transition to City of Bellingham utility services after annexation. In communities where the City of Bellingham already provides utilities, water and sewer rates will drop by 33%. In communities serviced by special districts, the City will either partner with existing districts to ensure appropriate service to residents or develop a plan to provide services directly. Additional information related to utility service levels and costs for Bellingham residents is available on the City of Bellingham utilities website.
The City of Bellingham and surrounding UGAs are provided bus service by Whatcom Transportation Authority (WTA). Service is not expected to change as a result of annexation; however, annexed communities will be considered in future transportation planning efforts. Detailed information related to current and planned WTA bus service is available on the WTA website and within the 2016 Bellingham Comprehensive Plan and 2017 WTA Strategic Plan.
All individuals and firms doing business in Bellingham, whether located inside or outside the City limits, must register with the City Finance Department and are subject to the business and occupation (B&O) tax, unless specifically exempted by Bellingham Municipal Code.
B&O tax is a gross receipts tax measured on the value of products, gross proceeds of sales, or gross income of a business and currently ranges from 0.17% for manufacturing, retailing, and wholesaling to 0.44% for services and other activities. Businesses collecting less than $5,000 quarterly or $20,000 annually in gross receipts are exempt from the B&O tax.
The City of Bellingham sales tax rate of 2.2% will apply in addition to the 6.5% sales tax rate levied by the State of Washington on all items and services that are not exempted from sales tax under state law. Please visit the City of Bellingham Business and Occupation Tax page for more information.
Annexation is not expected to affect job growth or change land use. However, City of Bellingham neighborhoods and residents are included in economic development plans and policies, and city businesses have access to incentives meant to support business throughout the city.
Annexation is not expected to affect housing density or traffic patterns; however, City of Bellingham neighborhoods and residents are included in land use and transportation plans and policies which are meant to manage growth and improve roads for all users.
Fire service will likely change and may improve as a result of annexation. City of Bellingham residents are served by the Bellingham Fire Department, which maintains a fleet of seven fire engines at 6 stations. Proposed annexation areas are supported by Whatcom County Fire Districts 4, 7, 8, 21, and South Whatcom Fire Authority, which are largely supported by volunteer firefighters. The City and County operate under a mutual aid agreement, meaning that city firefighters respond to county fires if necessary and vice versa. That means that response times in both areas are similar. Annexation would expand the City of Bellingham Fire Department coverage area and may require increases in firefighters, equipment, and stations to maintain or improve fire service.
Yes. City of Bellingham neighborhoods are patrolled 24/7 by uniformed police officers. Unincorporated Whatcom County is supported by the County Sheriff Department which responds to reported crimes based on severity. Once annexed, previously unincorporated areas will gain access to city police services, and the City Police Department will maintain or improve level of service.
Annexation does not guarantee immediate investment in new parks. It does include the newly annexed area in planning by the City of Bellingham Department of Parks and Recreation. The City Department of Parks and Recreation has a goal of providing every city resident with a park or trail that is within a 10 minute walk to their house. The City prioritizes areas with the most need first.
Yes. Bellingham School District attendance areas span across city boundaries and would not change as a result of annexation. Resource officers, Safe Routes to School, and other City resources would become available to schools annexed into the city.
Annexed areas would need to meet City of Bellingham standards for streets and sidewalks and will be considered for improvements. Generally, these changes would happen as the City budget permits. Bellingham neighborhoods are also eligible for street improvements under the Washington State Safe Routes to School program and local Small and Simple Grant funds for minor community enhancement projects.
Yes, as a resident of Bellingham you will be able to vote in elections for the Mayor of Bellingham and for the City Council. Soon after annexation, the City of Bellingham will conduct a census of new residents, which may result in changes to City Council ward boundaries. Residents are represented by one council member from within their ward and are able to vote for every member of the Council in city elections.
UW Research Team, UWTeam@cob.org
Planning and Community Development, (360) 778-8300
Whatcom County Auditor’s Office, (360) 778-5100