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The Saga of Established Neighborhooods

Byy On
• In Bellingham, Planning,

Are the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods worth protecting?

First, some background…

The Growth Management Act (GMA)

The Growth Management Act (GMA), which encompasses Chapter 36.70A of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW), was adopted by the Washington state legislature in 1990. The first section of the GMA, entitled “Legislative Findings” establishes the primary growth concerns for which the GMA became law.

“The legislature finds that uncoordinated and unplanned growth, together with a lack of common goals expressing the public’s interest in the conservation and the wise use of our lands, pose a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety, and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of this state.” (Emphasis added.)

  • The environment.
  • Sustainable economic development.
  • The health, safety, and high quality of life enjoyed by residents.

The 1995 Amendment of the GMA: SSB 5567

By 1995, population growth had increased to the point where cities were feeling pressure to rezone established single-family neighborhoods to allow development of apartment buildings and commercial uses. These growth pressures prompted the legislature to revisit the GMA section pertaining to the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods.

In response to these growth pressures, State Senate Bill (SSB) 5567 was enacted on July 23, 1995 and amended section RCW 36.70A.070(2) of the GMA. The intent and purpose of this amendment was to “ensure the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods” by requiring “mandatory provisions for the preservation, improvement, and development of housing, including single-family housing.”

The law as it stands following the 1995 amendment includes a GMA requirement (not simply a GMA goal) to protect the vitality and character of established neighborhoods, including single-family neighborhoods.

But what does this mean?

Olympians for Smart Development & Livable Neighborhoods v. City of Olympia: Missing Middle Regulations

According to Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) members in their July 10, 2019 Final Decision & Order (FDO) for Case No. 19-2-0002c, “Neighborhood character is a nebulous subjective concept.” In this case, where Olympians for Smart Development & Livable Communities (“Petitioners”) challenged the City of Olympia’s adoption of Ordinance 7160 (the “Missing Middle regulations”), the GMHB members agreed that the Petitioners met their burden of proof that:

  • The Missing Middle regulations violate the density maximums established under the Olympia comprehensive plan; and
  • The Missing Middle’s reduced parking requirements fail to ensure that Low-Density Neighborhood character is maintained.

Clearly, in light of the fact that the GMHB concluded that the maintenance of neighborhood character must maintained, neighborhood character is not so nebulous as to prevent residents from challenging city ordinances. The GMHB concluded that Olympia’s Missing Middle regulations would substantially interfere with GMA Planning Goals 10 and 12 and imposed invalidity on the ordinance.

More Questions Than Answers?

The GMHB FDO validates the GMA requirement to ensure the character of established residential neighborhoods. But many questions remain:

- Is neighborhood character actually as nebulous as GMHB members claim?

A review of SSB 5567 indicates clear intent by state legislators to protect single-family neighborhoods from being rezoned (upzoned) to allow development of apartment buildings and commercial uses. This is the only new idea presented in the Final Bill Report for SSB 5567. Clearly, the requirement of “ensuring the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods” under RCW 36.70A.070(2) absolutely prevents the rezone of established single-family neighborhoods to include multi-family and commercial uses.

Given the legislators’ intent for amending the GMA in 1995, a strict interpretation of the GMA would enable established single-family neighborhoods to challenge any upzone to multi-family.

Which leads us back to our original question:

- Are the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods worth protecting?

- Are the community benefits provided by established neighborhoods worth preserving?

- And, if so, is the goal of our 1995 state legislators - to resist the pressure to upzone established single-family neighborhoods - worth honoring?

While I have my own opinion, I’m much more interested in yours.

Please, don’t be shy. Let’s have a robust conversation here on Northwest Citizen.

Thank you!

Comments by Readers

John Lesow

Jul 17, 2019


The original intent of the Washington Growth Management Act in 1990 was to protect resource lands (ag, timber) from development.  And to address the haphazard highway planning that was causing traffic congestion problems in the area.  You know that.  David Bricklin knows that.  Anyone with their eyes open  who was living in the Seattle area—or Portland area—as I was from 1970 to 1980—knows what the problems were back then.

The 13 provisions of the GMA were a mixed bag of compromises and political boilerplate necessary to get the legislation passed.   To the great credit of Bricklin and some progessive legislators at the time, the GMA was passed, not without objection from developers, and enshrined into what we have today.    

However, over the years the original goal of protecting resource land devolved into that loose definition of  “Accommodating Growth” which is now the mantra of SJWs , urban “planners” and development interests alike.  A perfect marriage of opposites. 

 That is why every city in the Pacific Northwest has bought into the idea of  getting rid of Single Family Zoning in favor of increased density.  Portland, Seattle, Vancouver B.C. and every smaller burg in between.  Including Bellingham.

 The question no one asks is “what is the social value of Single Family Zoning” ?  Will any of our cities be better off if we purge our  land use plans of all single family neighborhoods?  With their ample yards, cul-de-sacs, and closer knit community, these areas offer benefits that aging Boomers once took for granted.  Why  replace them with congested communities where you are unlikely to really know your neighbors ?

 The whole idea of “Multi-Family” zoning as a planning concept is flawed.  It is also lie, used as marketing tool for developers and their Amen chorus on the planning staffs of every city and town.  But really, how many “families” live in these developments ?  Call it for what it is.  Multi Unit.  At least it is a more honest assessment.  

 If you buy into the idea that it is possible to successfully raise a family above ground level you are dreaming.

Or that by permitting DADUs everywhere within the Bellingham city limits will improve the quality of life for families with young children.  Does anyone honestly think that living in a “multi-family” complex   is preferable to the traditional single family home neighborhood ? 

 Now we are hearing  that people want to move to Bellingham from Portland and Seattle for our better quality of life.  Portland  was once Valhalla as far as quality of life is concerned (I know, I lived there).  No more.  Crime, traffic and sprawl in the Tualatin Valley outside Portland have steadily lowered the quality of life for raising children.  

The current political fad of eliminating SF zoning is evidence that the pack-em and stack-em advocates in the development community have won the density battle. 

 At least until people come to their senses and realize that increasing densities in formerly single family neighborhoods comes with a social price.   


Wynne Lee

Jul 17, 2019

Driving around Bellingham today (let’s say 2 square mile radius) I was again struck by the huge opportunities for increased housing and business density by old fashioned, proven approaches to development & zoning - like replacing old 1 story buildings with 2-3 or 4 story structures, apartments on top. Truly walkable/public transit friendly, efficient.

I suspect there’d be no need to destroy/densify single family neighborhoods - not to mention trees, gardens, play spaces for families etc - if we made the most of such efficient time -proven strategies approaches were fully utilized.  (Has anyone evaluated this capacity, including big box stores and parking lots ?)

Obviously ‘densify all neighborhoods’ is the flavor/bandwagon-of-the-day, but what’s trendy isn’t always wise.


Larry Horowitz

Jul 17, 2019

John, thank you for taking time to share your views. 

I agree that the purpose of the GMA includes the preservation of natural resource lands (agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and mining).  It also includes the protection of the functions and values of critical areas (wetlands, aquifers, fish and wildlife conservation areas, frequently flooded areas, and geologically hazardous areas).   These purposes help to partially satisfy the environmental and economic aspects of the GMA, but not necessarily the public safety and quality of life aspects.

Many people have suggested that the GMA has become outdated.  As it relates to the “Legislative findings” section, I agree.  That section refers to “uncoordinated and unplanned growth” as if we could comfortably accommodate infinite growth as long as it is not “uncoordinated and unplanned.”  

Is it possible that many areas within the state have reached the point where growth of any kind is no longer beneficial and is, instead, detrimental?  That “coordinating and planning” for such growth will not prevent growth from impairing the environment, adversely affecting the economy, and degrading public safety and the community’s livability?

In other words, are we kidding ourselves that we can actually manage, let alone accommodate, whatever growth may come our way?  Has the Growth Management Act become a suicide pact in which cities and counties are required to accommodate an endless sea of growth regardless of the region’s carrying capacity or natural limits to growth?

What the GMA needs now is the incoporation of carrying capacity studies for urban and regional planning so we can realistically “examine not only what is environmentally and economically feasible, but what is socially, politically and legally acceptable in today’s world” and to ensure that we “hand over the planet earth with its environment clean and intact to the future generation.”


John Lesow

Jul 17, 2019


Could not agree more with your reference to carrying capacity.

Unfortunately, few, besides you, John McLaughlin and Wendy Harris have been articulating this consistently over the past decade.  Few pay attention. 

 And the idea of limits to growth has obviously not been incorporated into the political will of the City or the current crop of electeds and political candidates.

  Quite the opposite, in fact.  


John Lesow

Jul 17, 2019

Wynne Lee,

I could not disagree more with your assessment that replacing single family homes with 2-3 story buildings with commercial at street level and “family” housing above is successful. 

This type of construction has proliferated in Vancouver, B.C.    Great for developers, bad for people.  Unless you consider family living in an 800 square foot apartment an ideal life. 

 If your goal is to pack more people into more confined areas, that is a strange definition of success. 

Who out there would ever consider raising an infant or small child in a second or third floor apartment with a balcony?

If you want to raise children in a safe, wholesome environment at ground level, move to Point Roberts.   I lived there for 20 plus years and it was a great place for kids. Cheaper housing, too.

Woods, creeks, safe streets, lots of nature and a gated community to boot, courtesy of the U.S. Customs service.  Kids can actually leave home in the morning and spend the whole day at the beach during the summer months.  Without the interference of helicopter parents, constantly  watching  and worrying about their kids.     

I am sure Lummi Island offers similar benefits if one is serious about housing priorities with kids in mind.

There are still some true “single family neighborhoods” that exist in Whatcom County, but they are becoming more difficult to find because we have “densified”, primarily for the benefit of adults, not children.   




Wynne Lee

Jul 18, 2019

John, I fear you missed my main point, which was the value of considering more options that could help maintain single family, lower density neighborhoods in cities and towns while accommodating more humans and All Their Stuff in Whatcom County.

Some cities have long-time successful quite small scale mixed density housing.  I think looking to successful and unsuccessful examples and WHY they work or don’t is important. Political and planning staff who are in thrall primarily to whims and whinging of developers is, I suspect and you suggest, a direct path to ... shall we say, non-optimal approaches to housing challenges?


John Lesow

Jul 19, 2019


We’re straying too far from the question. 

 What is the advantage of eliminating single family zoning from all land within the city limits of Bellingham?   Why do local politicians (and many voters, apparently)  blithely accept that this is a good thing ?

I am looking for tangible examples that confirm the claim that higher density and “families” living in constrained circumstances—often above ground level—produce a societal benefit. 

In fact, they do not.  The results of ADU and DADU zoning have spawned many social costs in the form of increased policing,  traffic and parking congestion, and strain on existing infrastructure in the Vancouver area.  I pointed this out in some detail to the Bellingham Planning Commission earlier this year.  I used the Municipality of Surrey as an example.  

Please accept my invitation to visit Vancouver, B.C. to view the results of neighborhood densification resulting from rezoning SF neighborhoods to multi-use.  

  We can start with Moodyville in North Vancouver, where a whole neighborhood of  older single family houses was recently razed to make way for the wholesale construction of blocks of 4-5 story flats.

 The glass tenements may be great for childless renters, but hardly an ideal place to raise children.   




John Lesow

Jul 19, 2019

A  modest proposal to measure community/voter approval for “affordable” housing in Vancouver…..Planning Commissions…..what a concept


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