Update Dec 8: Last night the Bellingham City Council did not give final approval to the street vacation request, but sent it back to the Hearing Examiner for further review. I will post an article soon with more information. - Tip
Author’s note: In haste, writing this article, I may have missed a very important point. See comment below.
Occasionally, an issue pops up that even the most retired public interest advocate can’t ignore. The proposal in front of City Council to vacate a portion of Douglas Avenue qualifies. Action on a ‘street vacation’ is scheduled for the December 7 City Council’s meeting, and consideration of this move is stimulating some hot public criticism. Why? Well, it stinks.
At issue is a proposal to sell rights to an undeveloped Douglas Street Right-of-Way (ROW) west of 21st Street. In legalese, this is referred to as a street vacation. The land features a trail built in 1994 by neighborhood volunteers and sanctioned by the City. One Greenways expert specified this trail and the land’s importance in supporting Greenway connections between Bill McDonald Parkway and Old Fairhaven Parkway. So it’s got the neighborhood’s attention.
But things are not looking good for the neighborhood. It looks like a done deal and the more you scratch, the worse it smells.
First off, the Applicant’s Representative, a land-use consultant, is former Chair of the Bellingham Planning Commission, Ali Taysi. O.K., that could be tolerable, but then come the procedural and circumstantial peculiarities.
The first peculiarity is that it asks for the entire ROW. Adjoining properties normally only get the adjoining half. In this case, Applicant Dick Skeers reportedly “inquired” and “determined” that the opposite adjoining property was not interested in their half, so asked for all of it.
Meanwhile, we’re having a pandemic. People are distracted, busy adapting, and paying attention to a lot of other things. This past summer, everyone was out and about, busy wondering about the fate of schools. So when long-time Greenways and trails supporter, John Blethen, advised that, “The two day public notice seems a bit sparse,” and predicted, “I am sure that you will be hearing from the neighborhood,” it barely registered. But he was right!
Daniel Kirkpatrick, who spearheaded the trail development in 1994, questioned “…whether the public process… was up to an acceptable standard. For example, I own property within 300 feet of that location and I never received notice of a public hearing relative to this ROW vacation.”
Those who have already been around the proverbial block know that most mailed notices go to banks that hold the mortgages, or attorneys registered as agents for property companies. Residents don’t usually get these notices and must therefore rely on the posted yellow signs or legal notices in the paper. Folks that still read papers usually don’t read the legal notices. So it’s kinda down to those yellow city signs.
In response to complaints about the lack of notice, city officials offered, “The site was posted… in the alley where parking and access is located for the multi-family units between 20th and 21st Streets.”
This in an alley at the back of the property, off the main road. The alley accesses parking lots behind college housing that face 21st Street. It is not an arterial for any significant population of the affected neighborhood, and sits at the very edge of the Happy Valley Neighborhood, on its boundary with the South Hill Neighborhood. There were complaints the sign was not visible. Maybe the sign was placed behind some dumpsters? One individual reported finding it dislodged in some bushes.
Hearing Examiner Sharon Rice’s Finding #13 states, “…Planning Staff testified that… he was not aware of the trail… so the notice… was posted where it would be seen by the most people in cars passing the site, which is a typical location for posting notice.” Apparently, they didn’t think to put another sign on the front of the property, on 21st, where most Happy Valley residents are likely to pass by car, bike, bus and foot. Or on 20th where at least South Hill residents would see it?
Not even the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association was notified - even though they’re developing other such ROW trails and actively pursuing any other opportunities to integrate trails into the neighborhood. A senior planner agreed, “… neighborhood associations should be notified from here forward on these. I regret the omission.”
O.K., maybe the City’s left and right hands don’t remember the trail that appeared on City letterhead decades ago as a shining example of community participation and neighborhood improvement. They could have looked. The trail is clearly visible on Google Maps.
And, O.K., perhaps the public notice was legally sufficient if not really adequate. But together it’s already looking bad. And wait, there’s more!
Other Hearing Examiner “findings” determine that the ROW is not needed for pedestrian circulation - despite the existing trail - and “… is not adjacent to/does not lead to a park, open space, view, natural area, or any other natural or man-made attraction.” Of course, one would need to know about, and actually walk the trail, to appreciate the territorial views of Samish Hill across Happy Valley or the Chuckanut Mountains. Whether the trail leads to other attractions I leave to readers’ imaginations, which are likely more fertile than those of the administration’s contributors to this proposal.
The Applicant’s Representative, Planning Commissioner Ali Taysi, joined staff in disclaiming any knowledge of the trail and, out of liability concerns, quickly agreed to a “spontaneous” staff suggestion for a narrow pedestrian corridor on the south edge of the property. Eric Johnston, of Public Works later argued that it might be better to let the “… vacation proceed. After the vacation is completed the Neighborhood association would be working with (a) single property owner and not the bureaucratic morass of the City.”
Nice try, Eric. The “bureaucratic morass” was already navigated in 1994, the trail was built and used for two and a half decades. It’s time to rethink this vacation and consider the value of the trail, the neighborhood’s effort and their vision. To start by wrecking the trail is starting off on the wrong foot.
Commissioner Ali Taysi, accepted that the pedestrian easement would be retained in the vacation, but was anxious to clarify“…the Applicant would not be required to construct a trail improvement.” Thus, an existing, meandering trail will be forced into a straight line, up numerous, steep concrete stairs - if the public can ever afford to build them. Applicant Dick Skeers property is maximized, a trail eliminated, and the public subsumes the liability of replacing the trail with stairs and dealing with injuries going forward.
If all that’s not enough, let’s look at the property valuation numbers.
The first thing to notice is that the requested vacation is larger than the petitioning parcel - 23% larger. Even adding Skeers’ identical adjoining property, it still increases their density footprint by more than 50%.
The next thing to pay attention to is that Skeers’ land is assessed lower than anyone nearby, and is still valued at over three times the appraisal of the proposed vacation.
Now consider Applicant Skeers’ neighbors, with valuations eight time higher than the ROW appraisal and two and a half times the value of Applicant’s land.
City officials are quick to grant that the appraisal looks low, offering that the ROW is “fully encumbered” by private and public utilities, so that no building could ever be constructed. Hmmm, a 7,000 square foot lot for $18,000. Seems like it might work for multiple tiny homes - and likely be more affordable.
Of course, “fully encumbered” isn’t always a problem in Bellingham. According to officials on November 24, Skeers intends to “… (utilize) the subject right-of-way for additional density on two parcels he owns north of Douglas.” Meaning that even though Skeers can’t actually build on the encumbered lot, he intends to add this vacated square footage to the square footage of the buildable lots and…yep, increase their density. Hearing Examiner Sharon Rice’s Finding #16 cites Commissioner Taysi”s discussion of the “public benefit” to “increasing density” on Applicant’s parcels, “consistent with underlying zoning, because this would help address the housing shortage in our community.” Won’t new residents need trails, too?
This stinks. If you want to give Skeers some density for cheap, sell the density, not the land. Transfer development credits. But keep the land and the trail, and work on more connected Greenways. Consider a limited partial vacation strictly to accommodate access to under-building parking. But don’t sell the farm for a few magic beans. I’ve heard that story, and remain skeptical.
Honorable City Council members and mayor, I do not recommend approving this deal. You will only get it on you. And it stinks.
If you decide to approve it anyway, please remember what happened with the shenanigans of Hoag’s Pond and the ensuing referendum that overturned a City Council’s decision. We know what to do: The 34 families on the original trail building sign-up sheet, their friends, users of the trail and other interested parties should be able to make short work of any requirements for a referendum. (Correction: an editorial error on re-elections has been deleted.)
Save yourself some trouble, council members: Keep this off the ballot. Retain our public rights of way and preserve the 25 year neighborhood trail. It’s the right thing to do.