Bellingham Updating Accessory Dwelling Laws

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Sat, Nov 14, 2015, 5:33 pm  //  Guest writer

Backyard House. Used with permission of Rise Over Run, with link below article. Photo by Uwe Schneider.

Guest writer, Shannon Maris, says this about herself.  

I am a residential building designer in Bellingham. I am on the front lines of people wanting to build or remodel existing buildings on their property to have a detached Accessory Dwelling Unit but it is not allowed as of yet. I get a good 10-15 inquiries each year and tell them – I’m sorry but that is not allowed in single family zoning in the City of Bellingham. I have heard all the reasons above, and I have been waiting 37 years for the possibility of remodeling an existing garage on my property into a detached accessory dwelling….  Maybe some day soon?

- - - - - 

The meeting listed below will discuss an update to the Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance. It includes allowing detached accessory dwelling units for the first time ever, not just attached accessory dwellings, as has been the historical limitation to in-fill within our city limits. Please note that this refers to in-fill where infrastructure, utilities and services already exist.

This ordinance is a great start to slowing sprawl into new "urban growth areas" that have no roads, infrastructure/utilities or services. It is a way to utilize the great ideas and work that has been done by the city to create the In-fill Toolkit. But so far, the Toolkit has only been allowed in areas already zoned multi-family or limited areas where "urban village" zoning is being tried, not in single-family neighborhoods.

It is also great news for anyone who thinks:

  • Density within the existing urban core is important
  • Saving resources/energy/carbon/gas is important
  • It would be wise to support a well-used and alternative transit system which can be established with a dense urban core
  • An increase in walk-ability and bike-abilty would be a positive step forward
  • Supporting affordable housing is a good idea for our community
  • They are tired of apartment living but it is all they can afford or find

Or if any of you ever thought:

  • It would be nice to have my elder parent live in a cottage out back now that they are getting older.
  • My kids are grown and I don't need this big house and it would be nice to live in a small place out back and travel.
  • I am an elder and things continue to get more difficult to do; it would be nice to have someone around to help out so I can stay in my home as long as possible. It would be even better if they could have their own space when they aren't helping me.
  • We are a young family, working hard and paying for childcare, and sure could use a little extra cash from renting a little studio out back to a student who can watch the kids for a couple hours before we get home from work.
  • We are parents with an adult child in transition who could live above an existing detached garage.
  • I’m employed and just want a little extra cash from renting a studio to one person, a senior or a single parent (50% of the current population demographic).

The latest statistics indicate a 1% vacancy rate in the Bellingham rental market now!

Imagine! Detached accessory dwellings could address all of these issues and are good for jobs, the economy, lowering taxes AND the environment! How often does that synergy happen?

The options are more of the same, more single-family houses, condominiums, apartments, duplexes, and townhouses in multi-family zoning and into the urban growth areas at the outskirts of town. This requires using more open land, more roads, increased infrastructure, more utilities, and more resources, which stretches services, increases car use and traffic, and expands land use for a population that is only 50% of the current demographic. And we all pay more taxes to maintain it.

Is allowing detached accessory dwellings a silver bullet? No, but it is a wise place to start before looking at expanding growth areas. It is an option that quite a few other towns have used successfully (note list in meeting document). It is not a new idea. The lot my house is on had a church in the front yard, I am living in the parson’s cottage and the cottage next door was the caretaker’s cottage; a total of one commercial building and two residences on the original property.

Are there concerns? Absolutely, one requirement in the guidelines is that one of the dwellings must be owner-occupied and the maximum allowable size for an ADU is 800 square feet. There are issues about height limits, maximum occupancy, parking, utility access, neighborhood character, setbacks, permit fees and process, and others. We can use other municipalities’ guidelines for ideas and review their successes and challenges in crafting the update to the existing ordinance. All of that needs input from you.

If any of the above resonates with you, or you have specific concerns, NOW is the time to send an email to the Planning Commission to be included in their meeting records for Thurs. Nov. 19. Also, please note: This is a Work Session meeting. It clearly states comments MIGHT be accepted at the meeting but only at the discretion of the Chair so don’t expect to speak if you attend!

Email to:

To be notified of up-coming meeting and progress updates, send an email to

for the Bellingham Planning Commission
Date: Thurs. November 19, 2015
Time: 7:00 PM
Location: City Council Chambers, 210 Lottie Street
Materials: Available in the Planning and Community Development Department and at Staff Contact: Greg Aucutt, Assistant Director at 360-778-8344 or

The Bellingham Planning Commission will be discussing the opportunities and issues associated with the update to the Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance. Spoken Public Testimony: Public comment may be accepted at the discretion of the Chair. Written Public Comment: All written comments should be e-mailed to or mailed/delivered to the Planning and Community Development Department at City Hall prior to November 17, 2015 for consideration at the meeting. All comments received prior to the meeting will become part of the written record. approximately two weeks prior to the meeting.

Other resources :

City of Bellingham : Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Ordinance Update

Planning Commission Meeting packet : Excellent history and summary of issues discussed, as well as scope for the works session meeting.

Another hard to find city of Bellingham ADU info page

Seattle Times article : 400 s.f. house ADU ordinance passed

A one-stop source about accessory dwelling units, multigenerational homes, laneway houses, ADUs, granny flats, in-law units…

BOOK: In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats
this is the first book to explore the many designs, uses and benefits of this time-honored and emotionally satisfying living arrangement. In-law units take many forms and they’re all shown here: attic, basement and garage conversions, bump-out additions, carve-out suites, and backyard cottages. This book covers every aspect of turning one house into two homes.

Related Links:

-> Backyard House by Megan Lea at

Tip Johnson  //  Sat, Nov 14, 2015, 9:16 pm

Nothing else could meet so many housing and community goals:  Increase affordable housing without public investment in tax incentives or infrastructure subsidies. Increase supply and diversity of housing stock.  Prevent nuisance housing issues with built-in supervisory oversight.  Reduce crime and increase responsibility with ‘eyes on the property’ security.  Provide affordable rentals that help folks save to buy while keeping struggling homeowners afloat by helping meet their monthly nut.  The single family neighborhood paradigm is slipping away and ironically this is what can save it.  Way better than the Animal House four bedroom duplexes, or the cheater SF homes with coin-op laundry in the garage and managed for single room rentals.  Let homeowners decide what they want to invest in, manage and host. The neighbors can probably live with it if the homeowner can.

David Camp  //  Mon, Nov 16, 2015, 6:08 am

Yes - the current rule that an ADU has to be structurally connected to the main house and not detached is counter-productive. And - massive ADU’s are now being built - there’s a new one on the corner of Liberty and Maple that dwarfs the main house. I can only assume the 800 sq ft limit applies to living quarters only and not garages?

It seems to me that the 800 sq ft limit should apply to the entire unit, including garage space. And be restricted to owner-occupied houses.

Why? Because Bellingham’s housing stock and neighborhoods are so vibrant and well-preserved by owner-occupiers who buy up crappy old houses and improve them. This costs no public funds or subsidies and provides employment for the maximum number of free people.

Permitting detached ADU’s gives owner-occupiers another tool in the toolkit to improve their houses and their neighborhoods AND keep the local economy rolling, not benefiting some foreign predatory developer like other unwise developments I could mention.

Alex McLean  //  Wed, Nov 18, 2015, 11:50 pm

Thanks, Shannon, for distilling the “pro” position on this debate.

I wrote in support of DADUs (Detached ADUs) to the Planning Commission awhile back, and, less officially, I’ve been sniveling about the issue for years to anyone who looks vaguely official at the permit desk.

My opinion is that it is a profoundly stupid bit of legalistic snookery to ONLY allow “attached” ADUs. It solves none of the challenges of preserving neighborhood character since those who can will simply clamp on some clunky and queer-looking extra units to their formerly normal houses. In so doing, they are essentially making townhomes, dupe-plexes, complete with daffy exterior staircases denoting access for their new renters and, most likely, blocked views for everyone else. We’ve all seen the garage on steroids—it ain’t pretty, it is doing little to improve morale amongst neighbors ... but, well, it is totally legal.

I live on a half acre in a one-story rambler. My Happy Valley zip code means I am in the densest neighborhood in the city (or at least it was) with a steady march of condos and “dormitory housing” metastasizing outward from Western Washington University’s orbit.

What I would like to do is build a really cool little bungalow cottage on the footprint of one of my TWO detached garages. I’ve no goddamn use for two garages, incidentally, and I’ve been content to watch one of them slowly crumble into the landscaping. The City of Bellingham, helpfully, has informed me that I can go ahead and build my fantasy ADU ... but only if I provide an 87-foot-long heated and lit corridor from my house out to that garage. Equally helpful, they also suggested that my wee rambler could easily accommodate a second floor.

It seems to me, and it is my great hope it will happen, that a few limiting contingencies written into the permit process could guide DADUs into being test labs for sustainable building techniques throughout Bellingham. Few want to commit to the cost of vegetated “green” roofs, for example, on their larger main house ... but perhaps a few hundred square feet on a cottage is not unreasonable? The City could mandate zero net energy usage, LEED-based building standards, solar panels, Low Impact Development criteria, or any range of nudges and incentives. Carefully written building standards could ensure that these things do not become an infestation of scabrous construction projects infused into our quaint neighborhoods.

With the right tweaks to the code language these detached ADUs could enhance neighborhood character, rather than destroy it*, in single family zones. It seems evident that these areas are going to get slowly mangled at their perimeters by monochromatic mondoplexes—built by out-of-state investors—anyway.

(* My neighbor, completely legally, built a two-story, metal-clad, garage that is twice the size of their house. It looks like an aircraft hanger, has one window, is quite blue, and enhances my property values not in any remote way.)

Bellingham Updating Accessory Dwelling Laws

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