Self-Determination or Self-Defeat?

Will Bellingham Neighborhoods wake up in time? Or will we experience the same failure of upzoning reform as our friends in Ballard?

Will Bellingham Neighborhoods wake up in time? Or will we experience the same failure of upzoning reform as our friends in Ballard?


“Is it ignorance or apathy? Hey, I don’t know and I don’t care.” - Jimmy Buffett, in a moment of joyful clarity after a few margaritas.

[IMPORTANT UPDATE: The December 7 Planning Commission Public Hearing on the ADU Ordinance update has been canceled. The hearing has been rescheduled to January 25 at 7 pm.]

Hello? Hello?! Is anybody out there? Are you paying attention?

Nine years ago, on back-to-back days in August 2008, I posted two articles on Northwest Citizen: Is anybody out there? and Jimmy Buffett, philosopher. In the first, I confessed that I hate writing articles for NWC and lamented the lack of genuine community dialogue. In the second, I expressed my concern that apathy undermines neighborhood self-determination and leads to self-defeat.

Can we get a little help for Jimmy here? Do we not know? Or do we not care?

Or does intent play a role?

Fiction or Nonfiction?

Rick Sepler, upon taking over as Bellingham’s newest Planning Director, posted a narrative on the city’s website entitled, Preserving Bellingham’s unique sense of place. Rick wrote:

“Memorable communities have a uniqueness that separates them from the cookie-cutter collection of spaces that characterize much of modern America… The art of planning is to preserve, in the face of change, those special qualities that contribute to a community’s unique sense of place... As a planner, I believe that no one knows a community as well as the people who live and work there.” (Emphasis added.)

But did Rick mean what he said? Or is this simply a beautifully written piece of fiction? Perhaps the answer depends less on Rick’s intent than our own.

Neighborhood Intent

What is our intent? Is it our deepest desire to be Ballardized, to suffer the failure of the upzoning reform now underway in and around the places we call home?

Is it our goal to surrender any sense of self-determination and hand over our fate to bureaucrats who claim they care about your “sense of place” but lack the integrity to do as they say?

Is it our dream to become just another “cookie-cutter collection of spaces” - to be torn down, bulldozed, and gentrified?

Do we prefer grassroot, bottom-up, organic visioning? Or top-down, unimaginative, boiler-place directives?

Why YOU Matter: Representational Government & Critical Mass

Rick Sepler understands that “no one knows a community as well as the people who live and work there.” But what good is your knowledge if it remains latent? How can we inform the people we elect to represent us, and hold them accountable, if we fail to communicate with them?

In many ways, governmental decision-making is impacted at the margin, a game of Political Final Straw. You matter because any one of us has the potential to be the straw that the breaks the proverbial camel’s back, the comment letter during a worksession, the testimony at a public hearing, or the signature on a Referendum Petition, that ultimately preserves Bellingham’s livability.

But that Final Straw is predicated on a critical mass of others who share common ground and purposefully unite. The Final Straw represents the cumulative effect of small actions taken by a critical mass of people with a mutual vision and shared goals.

RIP Neighborhood Planning?

Is neighborhood planning dead? Has the future of our neighborhoods been co-opted? Can we learn from the failed upzoning reform in Ballard to chart a different course? Do we recognize the DADU Trojan Horse for what it is?

If you’ve been paying attention, then you know we have a Runaway Planning Commission (PC) that has badly – and boldly - derailed. While we were distracted with life, they have taken over the reins of planning for the neighborhoods and have stolen whatever little power and influence we had over the process. If neighborhood power isn’t already dead, it’s certainly on life-support.

Do You Know? The DADU Trojan Horse

The issue du jour is an update of the city’s ADU (accessory dwelling unit) ordinance. Boring, right? Inconsequential? Meaningless?

Sure, but for those who’ve been paying attention (not me until recently, but people I know), it was understood that the ADU ordinance was the city’s opportunity to stick their nose inside your neighborhood’s tent. To offer their Trojan Horse loaded with all sorts of Weapons of Neighborhood Destruction (WND).

One of these seemingly benign weapons is the detached accessory dwelling unit, or DADU, affectionately known as the “backyard cottage.” DADUs are one of the nine Infill Toolkit housing forms that are currently not allowed in existing single-family residential zones.

When the city’s Infill Housing Toolkit was established in 2009, the city committed that toolkit forms could be added to single-family zones if a proposal was submitted by the neighborhood, property owner, or developer and a Type VI legislative process with public hearings was followed. This neighborly commitment ensured that changes would be done incrementally, not citywide, and that our “unique sense of place” would be preserved.

Breaching this commitment, our runaway PC has straw-voted to recommend that DADUs be legalized in ALL established single-family zones CITYWIDE. The ordinance that staff is drafting will include language that codifies this straw-vote.

And once DADUs are legalized in all single-family zones citywide, the DADU Trojan Horse will ensure that all other Infill Toolkit housing forms are as well. Next weapon: Citywide Upzoning Reform – the CUR DOG birthed from the bowels of the DADU Trojan Horse.

At the PC public hearing, which was originally scheduled for December 7 but has been moved to January 25, PC members will hear testimony on the ADU ordinance update, including the DADU Trojan Horse, and will vote on their final recommendation to Council.

Do You Care?

Neighborhood self-determination is predicated on both knowing and caring - and ultimately on taking action.

The city’s agenda, their undisputed plan, is to kill neighborhood planning. To destroy any neighborhood self-determination. This is true not only in Bellingham but in cities up and down the I-5 corridor and beyond. You don’t need a crystal ball to foretell this dystopian future.

More than two centuries ago, George Washington warned, “The people must remain ever vigilant against tyrants masquerading as public servants.

Are you prepared to be vigilant?

How can YOU make a difference?

Major changes to the city’s regulations that impact neighborhoods require legislative decisions by City Council and follow a Type VI legislative process described in Bellingham Municipal Code (BMC) section 21.10.150.

This process includes worksessions and public hearings by both the Planning Commission and City Council, which provide at least four opportunities for engagement: PC worksession, PC hearing, Council worksession, and Council hearing.

Citizen engagement includes submitting comment letters to the PC and Council, and providing oral comment at the worksessions and oral testimony at the public hearings.

Citizen engagement also allows for one-on-one dialogue with members of both the PC and Council, which is perfectly legal for legislative processes, unlike quasi-judicial ones.

And, if all else fails, Article X of the Bellingham Charter provides citizens with two powers of Direct Legislation: Initiative and Referendum.

If the city adopts an ordinance that will destroy Bellingham’s livability, a final engagement opportunity is a simple signature on a Referendum Petition, which refers the ordinance to a citizen vote. Together, with 1269 qualified voters, we can create an inexorable force of Armchair Legislators.

Ideally, a critical mass of those sharing common ground would participate at every PC worksession, PC hearing, Council worksession, and Council hearing. For the ADU ordinance update, a number of engaged citizens have already participated at PC worksessions, but certainly not enough.

The PC public hearing on January 25 at 7:00 pm is a critical moment. If you have any desire to influence the destiny of your neighborhood and Bellingham’s livability, NOW is the time.

How can YOU become informed?

It is impossible for any one person to know all there is to know about any of these planning issues. And, considering the DMV Principle, whereby individuals are easily Demonized, Marginalized, and Villainized, it’s beyond difficult for an individual to have the type of influence that a critical mass can achieve.

The only chance we have is to organize, organize, organize.

Having participated as a neighborhood advocate for more than a decade – and having had some success – I have found it is much more effective, and far more enjoyable, to advocate alongside friends who have a shared vision and common goals.

The Bellingham Neighborhood Coalition

More than a year ago, several friends formed the Bellingham Neighborhood Coalition (BNC) and developed a three-pronged, straightforward mission to: (1) help single- and multi- family neighborhoods preserve their vitality and character; (2) promote urban villages for future infill; and (3) ensure existing residents and taxpayers are not unfairly burdened with the costs associated with growth and development.

In my opinion, BNC is our best chance for neighborhood self-determination. People who are involved with BNC have participated in these planning issues and processes for decades. They are informed, welcoming, interested in sharing what they know, and devoted to preserving Bellingham’s livability for generations to come.

On Wednesday, November 15, BNC held its first public event – the Don’t Ballardize Bellingham premiere followed by a community-wide dialogue. More than 100 people requested reservations for the 80 available seats and, although there were a few cancellations, a full house enjoyed a genuine citywide conversation.

About Larry Horowitz

Commenting member • Member since Jan 16, 2008

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Nov 17, 2017

[I posted a version of this comment on a thread at NextDoor on the same topic] The ADUtopic is only one of several that the neighborhoods must contend with over the next year or so as the policies of the comprehensive plan are brought forward as action items for the city council. Along with ADUs, there is also a re-consideration of the subdivision ordinance, a relook at illegal boarding houses(rule of three), a review of the Infill Tool Kit and an ordinance to deal with vacation rentals. (How many of these are known to the public or to those reading these threads?) All of these topics are intertwined in a complex web but considered separately and because people do not pay attention over the long haul, these strategies are lost in a fog of legislative action that is directed by city staff to an unwitting citizenry and a compliant planning commission and city council. This is a divide and conquer strategy that confuses individuals and creates the kind of dissension we are now witnessing. Distrust of our city officials and especially city council members is a result of vague goals and changing strategies. The neighborhoods have been eliminated from the process since the mayor convinced her Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission to vote itself out of the formal planning process just after she took office. Neighborhood plans which used to be updated regularly have been left to languish. Not a single one has been updated in years. Citizen participation is reduced to a “lick and a promise”, your three minutes in front of the planning commission or city council at a hearing. Groups such as the BNC are obviously then a threat to the present order and vilified as some sort of aberrant citizen action whose very opposition is labelled NIMBY, racist, exclusionary and privileged so as to de-legitimize anything put forward.


Jon Humphrey

Nov 18, 2017

Larry, this is a fantastic article! Thank you so much for your contributions. I just have some comments on the importance of citizen participation in government. I recently made a 3 minute speech to the City Council about Public Fiber at the 11/13/17 meeting at 7pm.

Public Fiber was hardly the only topic on the agenda that night. For example, a 121 Million dollar budget was approved, based mostly on an overview, with basically no opposition. A homeless man in a bad situation pleaded with a largely unsympathetic council for legal help after an incident.  Some help for the homeless was almsot upheld based on a legal technicality, thank god for Michael Lilliquist pushing that issue or it would have been held up until the 12/4 meeting, because (said sarcastically) procedure is more important than people after all. 

In the end I’d be surprised if 25 people were there. 6 from the council, 1 recorder, 1 mayor, 1 public works director, 1 deputy administrator, 2 city lawyers, 4 WWU journalism students, myself, and the homeless man. 

At least from my standpoint we did make some significant progress, but on the whole, the lack of citizen participation in local government is killing our town. If they don’t hear from you, they kind of tend to do whatever they want. So yes, it’s time for an army of ArmChair, or better, legislators.  


Larry Horowitz

Nov 19, 2017

I am broken hearted this morning because I learned that the Referendum power cannot be used to protect the vitality and character of Bellinhgam’s neighforhoods.  Because of a technicality, the Referendum power does not apply to issues involving land use and zoning, the primarily legislative function that impacts the places where we live.

I am sad for my friends who don’t have a set of enforceable Covenants, Conditions & Restriction  (CC&Rs) to protect them from the people they elected.

If you are not yet concerned, consider viewing this 1-1/2 minutes (93-second) montage of  at the Nov 8 Housing Week Panel Discussion.  

The following comments were made by City Councilmember April Barker on Nov 8“A Neighborhood Association is like quasi-government. It has a lot of… it informs us as a council. It has a lot of political clout. It’s informing all of you that live in that neighborhood whether we’re doing good or bad in the eyes of those board members. And if those board members are always thinking about protection, about exclusion, that’s informing your council, and it’s making it very hard for this progressive community that’s electing progressive people to go and make these changes because when we start pushing into some of your privileges, you’re pushing back really hard.

“The land use environment is a major lever. Land use and zoning is something I can push and pull as a city councilmember, but it’s your neighborhood associations that are blocking a lot of that.

“Because if you believe in these things and you value these things, Bellingham would have no problem making these changes tomorrow. No problem. We could get stuff through tomorrow – literally, we could have zoning reform in 2018. You have the political will on your council.

So, it’s going to get uncomfortable, and we’re going to have to make some changes.”


Anne Mackie

Nov 19, 2017

City Council member April Barker’s statement that it will “get uncomfortable” in 2018 for neighborhood associations evinces arrogance, social engineering, and misinformation about an imaginary foe that she describes as neighborhood board members always thinking about “protection” and “exclusion.”

Are these the words of leadership? Throwing fiery barbs at an entire stakeholder group – neighborhood boards – radiates disrespect.

I don’t know where Barker was from 2007 to 2010 when York’s Neighborhood Board mailed out hundreds of notices to York residents inviting them to participate in the update of their neighborhood Plan. Our board of 15 held multiple meetings, published newsletter articles, mailed out meeting invitations and asked York residents to craft a vision for York’s future. And we voted – what a concept – on our Plan updates.

All across the city, neighborhood associations were invited – were encouraged – to participate in the City’s Planning Academies to learn how to rewrite their neighborhood plans. We stepped up and did the work. Those were Bellingham’s “Golden Years” of neighborhood-based planning.

Now, Barker plans to toss neighborhood-based planning aside and pull on that new shiny “zoning lever” she thinks she was elected to play with. I do not think neighborhood association boards are willing to sit by and watch as the Dark Ages of Overfill override our city. Let’s respect our neighborhoods and Don’t Ballardize Bellingham with the Infill Toolkit in single-family neighborhoods.

In a November 14 public letter to Neighborhood Presidents and Mayor Neighborhood Advisory Commissioners I asked Barker to apologize to the neighborhood association boards. I’m now waiting to hear her response.


Jon Humphrey

Nov 20, 2017

Yeah, again another personal story involving April Barker. I can’t get a handle on her either. The “Old Democrats” sent representatives to a Young Democrats meeting many months ago as part of an outreach effort. Andrew (sorry forgot exactly which Andrew it was) encouraged them to attend and backup April Barker on social policy issues. He did this after saying something along the lines of “she can’t get away with sticking her neck out too much, on these issues, without more support.” I was surprised, but not too surprised, to hear this from the Democrats who claim to care more about the poor than others. Still, I left the meeting thinking that April was big on social justice. I know the idea that she cares about social justice issues is widely believed about her, and at the time there was some good justification to back up that belief.  

Later, she was put on the CenturyLink team. At the 11/13/17 council meeting she was the only council member that dragged out the discussion on investigating a Dig Once policy which is one of the big steps that would lead to getting real internet connections to everyone going. We call this idea “Access for All.” Every other council member supported it. She also made a comment along the lines of “the staff needs to be told what to do, and claimed that it was unfair of us to expect them to do anything without a plan.” I would have agreed with this if we didn’t already provide them with lots of Dig Once documentation, and suggest they follow the Mount Vernon plan with the modification of replacing 2” conduit with 3” when it came up in the document. Essentially, she is suggesting we do the job, as volunteers, that the city should have engineers, the IT department, or the public works department do.

So the point I’m getting to is, if she is such a champion for working class people, and believes in social justice then why do we have to fight her on issues that would improve the quality of life for everyone and protect their rights? At the end of the same meeting she almost held up help for the homeless by stating that the council “may be out of procedure.” The city lawyers jumped on this opportunity to try to delay the signing of much needed aid until the 12/4 meeting. Thank God for Michael Lilliquist, who pointed out that delaying the signing of the document was unnecessary, since no changes had been made to it. I get the feeling that some of the Council Members are too disconnected to understand that their decisions effect real people. I really encourage everyone to watch the 11/13 meeting. (That is if it will load. Man what is going on with that server? )


Larry Horowitz

Dec 04, 2017

The December 7 PC Public Hearing has been canceled and has been rescheduled to January 25 @ 7 pm.


Larry Horowitz

Feb 01, 2018

The death of neighborhood planning has begun in earnest.  At the Feb. 1, 2018 Planning Commission work session on the ADU Ordinance update, Iris Maute-Gibson’s motion to legalize DADUs in single-family zoned areas citywide passed 4-2 as a straw-vote recommendation by the Planning Commission. In favor of citywide were Ali Taysi, Garrett O’Brien, Mike Estes, and Iris. Opposed were Lisa Anderson and Phyllis McKee.

Previously, Lisa did a wonderful job supporting the per-neighborhood basis of adding DADUs. Her motion failed 2-4.

Had Steve Crooks attended the PC meeting, I believe the vote would have split 4-3. It would be important for Steve to contact Council and let them know how he would have voted and that he represents the third dissenting voice on the PC.

Unless neighborhood residents awake from their apathy and get involved, neighborhood self-defeat appears more likely than self-determination.  

Is that the outcome we desire?

Here are links to letters submitted by the Bellingham Neighborhood Coalition (BNC) and by me:

1) BNC’s 9/26/17 letter to Mayor Linville

2) BNC’s 10/3/17 letter to the Planning Commission

3) BNC’s 1/17/18 letter to the Planning Commission & Council

4) My 1/20/18 letter to the Planning Commission & Council

5) BNC’s 1/25/18 Community Comment letter signed by 427 community members

6) BNC’s 1/30/18 letter to the Planning Commission & Council



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