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Planning or Development Commission?

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As a result of receiving notification of the plans to rezone two properties in the Samish Neighborhood, I found that the company spearheading each of these rezones was owned by a member of our seven-member Planning Commission. In and of itself, this was not a problem, if the particular Planning Commission member recused him/herself from the consideration and vote on these rezones when they came before the commission. However, on further investigation, I learned that every member of the our present Planning Commission is involved with or has/had close ties to businesses that owe their existence to development, i.e., real estate, consulting, construction, architecture, etc. Here is the rundown of the currentmembers and their affiliations/employment:

Tom Grinstad – Architect with Grinstad and Wagner

Jeff Brown - In his application he describes himself as a long term owner of multiple properties who has navigated land use issues. Prior work involved consulting on solid waste collection contracting. Additionally, his wife works for Northwest Ecological Services which advises clients on wetland and shoreline permits for development. [ Note: Edited on 26 May 2015 - a previous version of this entry identified Jeff Brown as the Assistant Executive Director at Park Lane at Bellingham, a nursing home. This was in error.]

Garrett O'Brien – Volonta Corp. - A construction firm

Ali Taysi – AVT Consulting – Land use and permitting (His company is involved in the two rezones I mentioned above.)

Phyllis McKee - Investment real estate management

Steve Crooks – Petrol NW Consulting (He spent several years in Bellingham in the 1970s and returned in 2007. He is a retired real estate project manager. He was responsible for handling eminent domain and zoning appeal cases for BP Exploration Oil’s retail and distribution sites. He served as BP's information officer for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response team in the summer of 2010. He is currently president of the Cordata Neighborhood Association.)

Cerise Noah - Realtor/broker with Windermere Real Estate and President of the Whatcom County Association of Realtors. [Note: Edited on 13 August 2015 to add position with Realtors]

I must state up front that this discovery by no means suggests any member of the Bellingham Planning Commission is involved in nefarious activities based on his or her affilitation and appointment to the commission. What I do suggest is that we can surely have a more diverse body involved in our planning process. Of the tens of thousands of adults in Bellingham, are only those involved in development available to serve on the Planning Commission? How wide a net is cast at the time of an opening on the commission? Five of the current members will serve until at least 2017 (exceptions are Brown and O'Brien) thus ensuring an imbalance with development-related members.

Unfortunately, the one assured means of code-mandated neighborhood input into the planning process was rendered useless in 2012. The Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) was, by city ordinance, written into the process of neighborhood and comprehensive plan ammendments. The concept of discontinuing the involvement of MNAC (by ordinance) was proposed by Mayor Linville in late 2012, at which time the MNAC representatives foolishly voted themselves out of the planning process. (Note: I am a member of MNAC and voted against the mayor's recommendation.) With that single vote, they gave up one of the few opportunities for the neighborhoods, as a body, to officially weigh into planning and serve as a counterbalance of sorts to the preponderance of development-related representatives on the Planning Commission. The new city ordinance on the duties of MNAC (BMC 2.33.040) allows MNAC to merely offer advice: “The MNAC may elect to review proposed changes to the city's comprehensive plan and neighborhood plans and provide comment on those proposed changes for the Mayor to consider.” The agenda bill (19808) of early 2013 that was presented by the mayor to the City Council stated that dropping the requirement to review these plan ammendments would allow MNAC members to focus on “broader, city wide issues.” I am not sure what is more broad, city-wide or vitally important than neighborhood and comprehensive plan ammendments.

Not surprisingly, there also seems to be some confusion over the actual name of the commission. The city ordinance that authorizes the commission (BMC 2.24) refers to it as the Planning and Development Commission. The commission's bylaws, adopted in 2011, begin by saying, “The official name of the organization shall be the Bellingham Planning Commission.” The name, Bellingham Planning Commission, was expressly selected with the adoption of the commission's 2011 bylaws and the Bellingham Municipal Code was to have been updated at that time. It appears council action is still necessary. Although there is a small difference in wording, the implication of dropping “development” from the title reflects where the emphasis should be, i.e., directly and emphatically on planning. Perhaps the future composition of the Planning Commission will reflect that emphasis.

About Dick Conoboy

Writer • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Abe Jacobson

Apr 29, 2014

Dick,
Thanks for the informative HUMINT.

Stacking the Commission with development related folk has been a hoary tradition as far as I’ve witnessed how things work here. My time in Bellingham began with Mayor Asmundsen, followed by Douglas, followed by Pike, followed by Linville.

“Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

I have never- EVER -seen a single case where the Commission majority deviated from the case laid out by staff, i.e. the mayor. The Commission enthusiastically embraces the confined definition of their function set forth by the administration, which is to provide technical cover for why a project does, or does not, pass muster within the narrow criteria of zoning regs. The Commission has again and again proven itself unable or unwilling to examine meta-issues, such as, “Even if this proposed development complies with the letter of the zoning criteria, can we state that the proposal is not utterly stupid and destructive of the existing community?” Example: University Heights. Example: Huge public subsidy for private profit in the Port redevelopment.

Instead, the Commission embraces the idea that such meta-questioning has no place in their chamber.

I once applied to serve on the Commission, and the quick rejection I received makes sense in terms of their wanting “team players”.

They had for a while an independent-minded, deeply questioning member who was a professor at Western and had no ties to the development industry. He was given the heave-ho instead of re-appointment.

Thanks again for the HUMINT on this enigmatic place!

Abe Jacobson

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Wendy Harris

Apr 29, 2014

Great article by Dick and great comment by Abe. The Commissioner sent packing was done so at the urging of the staff, who convinced the Mayor that this person was trouble. In fact, the commissioner was the only one with an understanding of the law, and the only one unwilling to rubber stamp staff proposals. 

I have never heard anyone address the abuse of power by the administrative staff. They are not elected officials, yet they have a huge impact on policy. The problems this article addresses span beyond any particular administration, although it appears to have grown worse under Linville.  The city mayor is an administrator, not a technical expert, and needs to rely upon the staff. So even though the mayor sets the political agenda, he/she does so subject to what his/her staff advises is legal and possible.

Our staff keeps the planning commission (and the council, for that matter) uninformed on planning matters.  If someone asks an intelligent question, they get back muddled responses intended to create ambiguity and confusion. The staff keeps control and power through this method, and they are quick to try to take down anyone who gets in their way.

A big part of the problem is that all citizen advisory committees are appointed by the Mayor, who in turn, is guided by staff.  One solution might be to designate seats for particular stakeholder interests, i.e, environmentalists, neighborhood activists, social service activists, etc.

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Dick Conoboy

Apr 30, 2014

Abe,

Great comment but one small correction.  The University Ridge project never came before the Planning Commission as it fell under an approval process (consolidated) that only required the Hearing Examiner’s imprimatur.  However, the University Ridge project was instructive in that it exposed the huge holes in our planning process and the incoherence between city codes, zoning and the goals we as a city have created for development. 

Yes, HUMINT trained at Ft. Holabird by the U.S. Army.  Never thought such training would serve me well into retirement. :-)

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Terry Wechsler

Apr 30, 2014

From BBJ archives [Article on 15 top stories in prior 15 years]:

“5. The permit process
“If there were a permit center back when Rome was built, chances are the Pantheon’s builders would have complained about it.

“It seems developers have never been satisfied with the process of permit review. As the BBJ first began cutting its teeth as a local rag, the age-old issue was one of the first it reported on back in September 1993.

“In the story, Caitac USA blamed the city for hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses because of a slow permitting process for their planned motel/office/retail project on Meridian Street.

“A few years later, a relentless wave of developers sick of the process compelled a BBJ reporter to write a story entitled “Tips to ease your case of permit-itis,” in August 1999.

“Things started to look up in 2004 when the city built a one-stop permit center, initiated by then planning director Jorge Vega, but even those improvements couldn’t soothe the permitting headache.

“This year, The BBJ reported on the city’s effort to revamp the permit review process by adding a single city-appointed project manager to oversee a permit’s review, but developers remain skeptical and think the problems are inherent in the city’s code.

“Will the wounds between the city and developers heal? Only time can tell.”
http://sustainableconnections.org/about/news/media/BBJ Top 15 stories.pdf

For a lively FB discussion on Dick’s article, see also https://www.facebook.com/groups/whatcomwatch/permalink/10151993031032750/?stream_ref=2

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