Tax incentives proposed for Fairhaven apartments - Updated

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Mon, Nov 16, 2015, 10:41 pm  //  John Servais

Zone is along Donovan from 4th to 10th Streets inside heavy black line.

Updated - Monday eve, Nov 16, 10:40 p.m.

The public hearing for the proposed tax exemption is being left open for written comments until Dec 7, the date of the council meeting.  The proposal almost passed, having a motion and second and the council about to vote for it, when Fairhaven resident, Pete Nygren, voiced a desire to speak and walked down to the podium.  Council let him - as the public hearing was technically still open and only one person - a non-resident and part of the development industry - had spoken.

Nygren expressed his concerns, saying he had known nothing of this prior to Sunday and believed most of his neighbors also knew nothing of it. City Council President Gene Knudsen sharply replied that there had been 30 day notices, as are always given.

Council member Terry Borneman then spoke, asking that it be delayed.  The others went along. Borneman probably spoke up because Nygren had phoned him earlier in the day and had been assured there would be no vote at the meeting this evening.  This is a situation where one person, Pete Nygren, made a difference.  His neighbors now have some breathing room to learn what this proposal might do to their neighborhood.

It will be interesting to see if and how the city informs residents of this Fairhaven neighborhood that they now have three weeks to submit written statements.  There was no mention at the council meeting of how the residents might learn the facts of the proposal or what it could lead to in their neighborhood.  The response to concerns was that this proposed tax exemption does not change the zoning, and so nothing really changes. 

But if nothing changes, why is this being proposed?   Unmentioned by anyone - council or staff - was the next measure on the council agenda, which passed quickly.  It was an ordinance with tax incentives for infill in urban villages. It applied only to downtown and Old Town, Fairhaven was not included, but this now establishes an ordinance that other urban villages can easily attach to in the future. 

The point is, urban villages are targeted for large apartments and condos to strongly increase population densities in the city. This is accomplished by not one, but multiple ordinances, each creating just a bit of a change. Donovan Avenue in Fairhaven has possibly been targeted for apartments by the city planning department.  This tax incentive proposal is just one small step. 

Now it is up to the residents of this quiet neighborhood to press city planning for answers, to discuss what they want, and to press council members for that desired result.  Before December 7. Actually much sooner as the these things are prepared well ahead of council meetings.

First post on Sunday, Nov 15, at 6:30 p.m.

A review of the Bellingham City Council agenda for this Monday - Nov 16 - shows a public hearing and possible vote on extending tax credits for building apartments and multi-unit buildings in a quiet Fairhaven neighborhood.  This is for a special area on Donovan Avenue.  We've contacted a couple residents of the small neighborhood - including one property owner in the zone - and they knew nothing about this proposal.

This article is brief and its purpose is to alert residents of Fairhaven who may not know about this issue.  We have links below to the city documents.  The one home owner we spoke with was astonishsed they would not have been informed by the city of this change.  The tax credits would give 12 year exemptions from many taxes if apartments are of a reduced rent for those below the average city income.  Thus, they will be apartments subsidized by the city. 

While the proposed tax credits will not impact existing zoning, it is another step in the process of increasing density in inner city areas.  Already in the Fairhaven Neighborhood Plan of 2001, the area was brought under an Urban Village overlay - which allows more flexibility in how the city reviews and approves proposals for apartments.  Thus, the question becomes: Is there a project being planned now?  And what exactly is motivating this tax exemption overlay for this specific area at this time?  

Residents can attend the City Council hearing and speak out, or ask questions, at the 7 p.m. hearing.  However, the council agenda also calls for voting on the tax exemption, so this could already be a done deal.  It has supposedly gone through staff review, a planning commission hearing, and further staff review.   

Presently, this multi block area has a rural feel, even a bucolic ambience, where living is quieter and slower than most city neighborhoods.  There are no curbs in the nine block area, nor a single sidewalk.  The residents have long valued this quiet neighborhood.  It is enclosed by natural buffers and street closings so there is no impact from neighborhing districts and it is very self contained.  


The City Council agenda - see Presentation 3.

By clicking on agenda item #3, you can access the five documents for this proposal.  Next is a link to one of them, the memorandum.

Planning staff memorandum to Mayor Kelli Linville endorsing the tax exemption area.


Michael Lilliquist  //  Sun, Nov 15, 2015, 8:54 pm

I must say I was surprised to see the strip of land on the other side of the Creek included. I will be asking about that.

As I recall, the city council discussions focused on incentives for development in the urban villages, and this is outside the core area. The Council also talked about incentives for affordable housing, regardless of whether it is located in an urban village, so long as it is appropriately zoned. This areas was zoned duplex or multifamily *before* the Urban Village SubArea Plan, but I never thought of it as a target for dense development. Affordable housing might be fine, if done well.

Lots to think about.

Michael McAuley  //  Sun, Nov 15, 2015, 10:42 pm

If the area is zoned multi and nothing is changing except a tax break for specific housing needs, what’s the issue here?

John Servais  //  Sun, Nov 15, 2015, 11:09 pm

Michael and Michael,

As two elected officials, thanks for checking the article and for posting that you are aware and your questions. 

Michael, if you are surprised to see this strip then I feel my article is not a false alarm. 

Other Michael,  the issue here is that change always comes in small innocuous steps. While frogs will jump out of a slowly warming pot of water (contrary to the tale) humans do tend to sleep through small changes until they wake up one day to their world upside down.  The Urban Village overlay was sold by the planning department to the residents as a “nothing is changing” adjustment about 4 years ago.  Now this and next another small change - and their neighborhood has apartments.

Personally, I predict the next non-change will be an “improved” Donovan Avenue with curbs and sidewalks as a condition for someone to build a multi unit building.  Or difficulty for the next person wanting to build a single family residence there.  Or a modification on the meaning of that specific city code on what “multi” means exactly - without any more notice to impacted property owners than this measure has received.

I think the issue here is incremental change without notice to impacted citizens and property owners.  We give to our elected representatives the privilege of making our legal decisions but we retain our rights to know what they are doing and to participate in in public discussion of those proposed decisions.

Dick Conoboy  //  Tue, Nov 17, 2015, 10:53 am

Where is the neighborhood association in all this?  The MNAC rep for the association and the association president should receive these notices directly from the city.  There should be no surprises.  + Link

John Servais  //  Tue, Nov 17, 2015, 5:36 pm

Dick, to answer your questions.  The association was not notified by the city.  At the MNAC meeting on Oct 21, this item did not yet exist, so the Mayor could not inform anyone of it.  This item surfaced on Nov 2 - long after the MNAC meeting.

You say the association “should” receive these notices.  Well, please explain the process where this happens.  Is this a normal practice of the city to email or notify association presidents of pending city ordinances that might impact their neighborhoods?  I am unaware of such a process, but you are much more closely in touch.

Following your link to the list of MNAC representatives, I am struck at how many of the positions are vacant.  Why is this?  The Fairhaven association rep position is one of those vacant.  MNAC does not seem like a good mechanism for notifying citizens or property owners.

Tip Johnson  //  Wed, Nov 18, 2015, 1:32 pm

This is a little puzzling in lower Fairhaven.  The agenda materials include some maps: + Link see page 4.

(Note: There seems to be timeout function built into the links provided at sirepub.  Several times now, using previously copied links, this error message is returned: “The resource you are looking for has been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.”  If the link above doesn’t work, you’ll need to go to and drill down to the 11/16/2015 Regular Council Meeting and hit the link for item 21038 (3). A sidebar opens on the right with links to the documents.)

Page 4 shows existing land use. Most of it is occupied by existing residences.  Furthermore, BMC 17.82.030 - D 2&3 details conditions that make it seem unlikely that the provisions can even be applied in the RT-2 area north of Donovan. (sorry for the inconvenience, you’ll need to go to>government>departments>city attorney>resources>City Code>17.82.030 for specifics)

However, if any portion of the four lots south of Larrabee and east of 6th, currently in Conservancy, jut into the RT-2 zone, then they will be “deemed” to be included in the zone.  Also, the Urban Village overlay, together with the legislative purpose of the measure(s)(state and local), may indicate that rezoning the conservancy parcels would be a slam dunk.  Seems improbable the ordinance would be applied to the entire stretch of Donovan to benefit a single landowner on speculation of a rezone or technical inclusion. But it doesn’t make sense to me otherwise.

Dick Conoboy  //  Wed, Nov 18, 2015, 2:31 pm


I regularly get hearing notifications from the city through the mail with the MNAC letters on the label indicating that I am getting it as an MNAC rep.  I believe similar mailed copies go to the MNAC Alternate and to the neighborhood association presidents.  This is not the sole mechanism for publishing hearing notices but I cannot speak to other methods.  I also get email notifications of these hearings but there is no regular mention of these hearings announced during the actual MNAC meetings which occur on the third Wed of each month.

I have no idea why there are 4 MNAC positions vacant at this moment.  Some neighborhood associations may not be entirely functional due to problems recruiting people to serve. These are recurring issues for several neighborhoods.  Perhaps Vanessa Blackburn of the mayor’s office might be in a better position to answer this question.


John Servais  //  Wed, Nov 18, 2015, 4:14 pm

Dick, today I have checked with city hall and no mailings were made to MNAC on this hearing.  The reason is it does not change zoning. 

Apparently it does not matter that this ordinance will impact the property owners, nor that it is intended to stimulate and make multi-unit development more attractive by giving huge tax deductions for up to 12 years.

Tip Johnson  //  Thu, Nov 19, 2015, 10:38 am

Yep, as predicted, the link to the maps in my comment above now leads to the error message.  I’m wondering if there’s a good reason to switch up the urls periodically, because it seems like it creates a lot of inconvenience, obstruction and is generally BS.  I find it rather distasteful, but maybe I’m missing something?

Tax incentives proposed for Fairhaven apartments - Updated

Mon, Nov 16, 2015, 10:41 pm  //  John Servais

Council to allow three weeks for written comments on tax exemption proposal for high density buildings in quiet Fairhaven neighborhood

9 comments; last on Nov 19, 2015

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