Dirty Deal at Douglas and 21st

By
• Topics: Bellingham, Planning,

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.

Dawn view from trail of Chuckanut Mountain. Click to enlarge.
Dawn view from trail of Chuckanut Mountain. Click to enlarge.

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!

View east from trail. Click to enlarge.
View east from trail. Click to enlarge.

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.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

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.

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About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Comments by Readers

Bill McCallum

Dec 02, 2020

Hello Tip,

What was the date of the Hoag’s Pond referendum?

What was the date of the election in which four City Council incumbents were defeated.

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John Servais

Dec 02, 2020

Bill,

The referendum never went to a vote because the city council adopted the referendum recinding the corrupt land grant.  After Tip’s referendum was certified and approved to go to a vote, the city council had a legal opportunity to approve it and avoid a vote by the people.  This constitutes an admission that the council expected the referendum to be approved.  They saved themselves a little face.  

Regarding the election, that was an editorial error, not an author error, and has been deleted. Thanks for calling our attention to it. Of the four who were soon off the council, three chose to step down and one died. 

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Alex McLean

Dec 03, 2020

Wendy Scherrer knew instantly that this was a rotten deal for our neighborhood.

Here is what she found from poking through our City Council-approved Happy Valley Neighborhood Plan:

“Here are a few of the policies that were ignored,  from the HAPPY VALLEY NEIGHBORHOOD PLAN”

NATURAL AREAS, PARKS AND TRAILS

  1. 9  HV POLICY-1: Create neighborhood greenbelts and habitat corridors through a variety of means such as planting native plants in undeveloped rights-of-way, connecting open space tracts and natural areas, and establishing a neighborhood tree planting program including street trees.1 (See HVP-8, 32)

 Page 10; “The neighborhood has identified undeveloped rights-of-way as potential locations for trails and greenways. Because much of the western portion of the neighborhood has no trails or open space, developing rights-of-way for such uses could provide these needed amenities.

 P.13: HV POLICY-25: The cross section of the extra wide right-of-way within Douglas Avenue between 21st and 25th Streets should be aligned to include a greenway on the south side. (See HVP-8) Stormwater facilities should be included and designed as natural features with associated native plantings.

  1. Unimproved Rights-of-Way Vacating undeveloped rights-of-way should only be considered after carefully evaluating the request to determine if the vacation is in the public interest. These areas can serve a multi-purpose role as pedestrian/bicycle/view corridors, stormwater treatment facilities, and open space. Happy Valley Neighborhood
  1. 20 HV POLICY-32: Unimproved rights-of-way should not be vacated, unless in the public interest. (See HVP-1, 8)

 CONCEPTUAL Green Infrastructure Plan

Happy Valley (HV) residents desire a green community created through the restoration and maintenance of trees and forests.”

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Geoff Middaugh

Dec 03, 2020

A similar application was tried in the South Hill on what is the Adams Street ROW off Highland Drive in 2008.  The Neighborhood Association mobilized and commented to the Hearing Examiner.    In a complex decision, this is what the HE decided.  Hope this copies to the site and it doesn’t.   Go to the COB Hearing Examiner cases and its titled:  HE-08-PL-005:  Rutherford Subdivision Variance.   Excellent article and good public citizen journalism.   Thanks NW Citizen.

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Chris Webb

Dec 03, 2020

Thanks for looking into this Tip, I submitted a comment to the Mayor and Council.  Of note is that this trail appears on the City’s published Trail Map. Bellingham Trail Guide (cob.org) (page 16) The Trail does not show up on the CityIQ trails layer, but it should if its in the published Trail guide. 

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Tip Johnson

Dec 04, 2020

As mentioned at top, in my haste to write this article I completely missed noticing that documents actually show this was a set-up between Staff and the Applicant. As Chris Webb points out in another comment, the trail is featured on page 16 of the official City Trail Guide, so it’s hard to imagine our detail-oriented planners in their technical due diligence would not figure out it was there if they didn’t already know. Even the Applicant’s appraiser didn’t discover it?  Apparently they didn’t look very close.

Others have already outlned the neighborhood’s goals, policies and objectives regarding trails and pedestrian links.  Should these have figured into the technical review?

But the point is that the Applicant had the amazing foresight to hire an engineer to prepare an exhibit for the hearing of the very concrete stairs Staff would later propose to replace the trail.  That’s downright prescient. They even included insets of City standard design details for pre-fab concrete stairs, stairs our Planning Commissioner was quick to clarify the Appicant would not be required to build.  If they didn’t know about the trail and weren’t planning to build a stairs, why did they even draw it?

HE Finding # 15

“…Staff testifies that they just learned of the informal… path…” two days before the hearing on July 8.

“Planning Staff recommended that the requirement to retain… pedestrian access… be made a condition of… approval.”

HE Finding 16

Our Planning Commissioner testifies that “…neither the Applicant nor…” the other abutting property owner knew “…the informal trail existed.”

HE Conclusion #1
“…(the right of way) has a history of being used as a pedestrian connection between trail segments”.

City Vacation Policiy #1 (Cited in HE Report)
“The right of way must be determined to be of no value to the circulation plan of the City… assumed to include.. pedestrian… transportation”.

City Vacation Policy #8 (Cited in HE Report)
“Vacation is not mandatory…”

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Alex McLean

Dec 06, 2020

The proposed apartments here are a mere block from the entrance to WWU — if ever there was a sensible place to consider waiving parking requirements, which is is an admittedly contentious notion, this parcel would make way more sense than locations flung far into the hinterlands that nowadays declare themselves “student housing.”

 The City is vaporizing a public asset — guaranteed pedestrian trail access and trees — for no higher goal than to allow this developer to have “access to parking.” 

I’m surprised that none of the ideals of the Climate Action Taskforce seems to have trickled into Public Works or Parks or Planning department’s ideology yet: They’d rather pave this public resource for the benefit of parked cars? 

The Parks Recreation and Openspace (PRO) Plan, Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plans, Happy Valley Neighborhood Plan, Greenways Strategic Plan, and likely another half dozen relevant documents and ordinances should have raised a red flag here. 

Unfortunately, there’s an institutional hangover that lingers and perfumes all of these Departments after eight years of Kelli Linville’s leadership. It is crass and simplistic to say it this way, but the guiding philosophy seems to be that nothing whatsoever matters in this town just so long as the developers are made happy with unfettered access and demure supplication to their every wish.

 The PRO Plan is mandated by the Growth Management Act. Legislation far wiser than local mayors or department heads, at some point, apparently acknowledged that if you build a treeless and dehumanizing slum filled with concrete and no access to trails or trees, people will suffer in psychological Hell. 

Developers shouldn’t be the top priority on these publicly-owned tracts. Not when we know better, and not when we are meddling within the confines of a neighborhood that is already one of the poorest and most densely-populated in Bellingham which, I would add, has a failing Level of Service for Parks and open spaces identified in the PRO Plan.

 The offering of a concrete gutter with stairs hardly seems a good deal for Happy Valley’s future. It isn’t what we’ve been clamoring for, that’s for damn sure, and feels like a malignant afterthought rather than a boilerplate requirement of this vacation order.

In any case, concrete tops the list for the most carbon intensive building materials.

It should worry us that the policies and leadership right now seem to lean towards slathering over trees and trails with concrete, to make a developer happy, rather than bothering with the notion of protecting an existing asset for a neighborhood that has few remaining assets of this sort to dispose of so merrily and without thought. 

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Tip Johnson

Dec 06, 2020

There’s a fair bit of misunderstanding, especially on Nextdoor threads of this issue. The City doesn’t own any of this property.  The adjoining properties own their half of any right of way.  These right of ways were dedicated as larger parcels were subdivided. All the City owns is a right for public ways. That’s why the City sells right of ways for less than their value.  They are only selling the public’s rights, not the land.

In this case, a public way has already been developed, with City permission, resources and acknowledgements. It has been in use for two and a half decades.  This should be a no-brainer. Retain the rights, deny the vacation request. 

Besides, it otherwise stinks. 

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Nicholas Sotak

Dec 07, 2020

Tip,

Thank you for providing that clarification.  It’s imporant for understanding the issue.  It’s clear there’s a flaw in the City’s process if situations like this occur.  I’m sure there are many similar properties that are in danger of similar actions if the “right” people make decisions in a way that isn’t transparent.  Bellingham is more livable than many other places because it has these, what my wife and I like to call them, “sneak routes”.   We need more of this, not less.

 

 

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Michael Lilliquist

Dec 07, 2020

Update:  

At the close of the public hearing today, the City Council did not accept the Hearing Examiner’s recommendation to approve the requested vacation of the right of way. Due to concerns about unanswered questions and new information not previously considered, I requested that the City Council ‘remand’ this right of way vacation issue back to the hearings examiner for re-evaluation. A majority of the council agreed. I think it has become clear that not all of the relevant information was known at the time the Hearings Examiner wrote her decision. HV neighborhood policy is one example of information not included by the hearings examiner.

Please bear in mind that the City does not own this property, but merely has a public easement rights. The party that requested the vacation already owns the underlying property. The adjacent property can be developed regardless of vacation or not.  Moreover, the current footpath extends outside of this easement, and actually encroaches on private property. Part of the trail will be lost, even if the City retains the full easement.  The proposed solution was to push the public trail onto a narrower strip, which means some kind of a stairs rather than a switchback footpath.  The City council has requested a re-evaluation of this proposed solution.

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