Bellingham: Beware!

Guest Writer David Donohue explains Sunnyland’s experience with City Hall’s promises, code enforcement, and follow-thru.

Guest Writer David Donohue explains Sunnyland’s experience with City Hall’s promises, code enforcement, and follow-thru.

[Guest writer David Donohue was born in Tripoli, Libya, is a 1987 graduate of Western Washington University's Fairhaven College, and has lived in Bellingham, WA for the better part of the past 40 years.  He and his family have lived in Bellingham's Sunnyland neighborhood since 1996.]

It’s 9 a.m., and the thump, thump, thump bass beat of the ramp-up music from the crew at Twin Sisters Brewing Company is filling my yard. I used to hear mostly songbirds as they went from trees and shrubs to the pond that makes up the backyard habitat we have been building at our home here on Grant Street for the past 20 years.

It is annoying, but we also live across the street from a light-industrial zone, where it is expected that the sounds of workers, and the business they are about, will filter our way as we all go about our days. I work from home, so I also notice the effects of the recently developed beer garden (50’ across the street) more completely than many. If our household had a good relationship with the owner of the brewery, I would engage them to see about putting up baffling or plantings that would diffuse the sound. I would ask them to let their employees know they should be sensitive to the rights of the residents across the street from their establishment, to be aware they want the “peaceful enjoyment of their homes,” as it is spelled out in the Bellingham Municipal Code (BMC).

When the beer garden was first proposed, I heard nothing about the possibility of turning the moving and storage company lot across the street into a high-traffic retail restaurant and extensive outdoor beer garden. When I did hear about it, I was told by Kurt Nabbefeld of city planning that there was no need for notification of neighbors, as there was “no change in use.” 

Thus began a process that would directly impact the residential lives of over 100 households within just 500’ of this development. We were about to learn we had absolutely no way to ask for remediation of the issues this large project on a light-industrial/residential boundary would entail. This struggle has happened in spite of the fact that those guidelines are fairly well spelled out in the BMC.

Then I found out the city had cleverly side-stepped it’s responsibility to engage the locals for their views and input and had enabled the beer garden owners to design a facility that specifically abuses the residents. I demanded to speak with the planning director. 

Rick Sepler was very responsive in getting back to me, and we quickly agreed to meet on the sidewalk in front of my home to discuss the process and why the city decided the matter the way they did. I was optimistic about the meeting, and felt I had the skills to make residents’ positions clear regarding how to live alongside a massive restaurant and bar designed to bring an unusually high amount of traffic to our neighborhood. I was naively mistaken.

While I stood on the sidewalk talking with Mr. Sepler and city traffic planner, Chris Comeau, the owner of the bar, Mr. Loren DeMuth, availed himself of our meeting. It was an uncomfortable meeting, and I soon had the feeling Mr. Demuth knew this would be happening and came over to add his weight to the conversation and make sure anything I said to the city was publicly counterpointed and discounted. 

I hadn’t come to tell anyone how to do the project. I wanted them to know that in the planning phase, they had neglected to allow the neighbors most directly affected by the project to have a say that was publicly recorded and officially noted. We thought this input might lead to changes that would make the experience of living close to this establishment better for all concerned.

My hopes were quickly dashed. While we were standing there, Director Sepler told me he didn’t know why we were concerned about the business, as it would only be employing nine workers, and be relatively quiet. There was no need to provide parking, as there was “ample parking on the street, as determined by the director.” 

This was the same day the Bellingham Herald excitedly announced the new restaurant and brewery was preparing to hire 100 full-time and 50 part-time employees to staff the massive endeavor. In front of the owner, Mr. DeMuth, I asked Director Sepler about this discrepancy. He looked at Mr. DeMuth, appeared to make a mental calculation, then just shrugged. So ended my input for the development of a bar and restaurant that significantly impacts my family’s daily life, as well as the lives of at least 100 households that are located within 500’ of this facility.

On the day of the grand opening three years ago, the beer garden put on a party. They hired the Groovebots, one of Bellingham’s best dance bands, and put the stage not 100’ from my front door, and turned the music up high. The city obliged by shutting this nonsense down after residents complained that the beer garden was attempting to have a music venue in a neighborhood where creating that sort of outdoor noise is specifically prohibited. The beer garden tried a few more times to get their party on outdoors, but the gist of the matter was that the city told them they were in violation of the noise code and would have to knock it off. Until recently. 

This summer, after three years (minus some months of COVID shutdown) of bar noise, personal threats, vandalism, and surly behavior from the beer garden management, the outdoor amplified music is back. But this time it seems to be okay with the city. Whenever I call to ask who made the determination this is okay, I am met with stonewalling, and sometimes a reply that seems to say, “What, me worry?”

For the past three years, the residents along Grant St. between Carolina and Virginia streets have endured what seems to be a designed hazing: At the corner of Carolina St, the beer garden restaurant poured a concrete slab in the right-of-way (not their property), for their trash and recycling, (which is noisily picked up early in the morning). The shape of the beer garden, which is backed by a number of flat, metal, sound-reflective building walls, sends most of the noise from the beer garden into my yard and living room on a daily basis. (The sound makes me think of the sound the ocean would make if it were drinking!)   The lights are inconsiderately placed for what appears to be maximum annoyance to the neighbors, including a large LED marquee that shines in my front window, and another gigantic marquee designed to be as large and imposing as possible.   

Beer patrons choke any available parking when the place gets busy, which is often, and have backed into our vehicles while turning around on a narrow, parallel-parking-only street. The other day, a few beer garden patrons were out in the street, urinating, after obviously being over-served, and became belligerent when asked by a neighbor if the beer garden didn’t provide bathrooms. It was called in as a DUI as the drinkers got in their rigs and drove off; but the call only went into the ever-growing bucket of calls about noise, parking, and such things that don’t merit a response from dispatch. We are often told that the police have more important things to do. Dealing with the behavior of drunken miscreants is now simply a condition of living here, as the city steadfastly refuses to even begin to publicly acknowledge what we are going through. Instead, they  appear to have created a system to bypass our concerns.

As an example, when the amplified music came back, I called 911 (as originally instructed by planning), and asked to make a noise complaint. I did this a couple of different days to no effect, and wondered what had changed. The last time I complained was on their 3-year anniversary party, when the beer garden hired “The Unknowns” to play, another outstanding area group. I called 911, got a commitment to investigate and respond, and felt like progress was being made. When the officer called me back, he noted he was out front of the building on Carolina street, and couldn’t really hear anything, so couldn’t do anything much. I told him the shape of the establishment makes the music not particularly audible in the front, as the building shields the sound waves. I asked him to come over to my house, where the sound is focused and exceeds any normal noise standard, even during operations without outdoor music. The officer reiterated that he couldn’t really hear anything out front of the building, and ignored my request that he come to my place for a listen. 

It would be easy to say the city and the landowner are in collusion to deny residents’ rights. It would be true. It would be wrong however, to attribute intent on the city’s part to what’s happening. Like most things where government is working with limited resources and personnel, decisions are made when allocating resources and deciding what values are important to uphold in order to maintain a livable community. What is happening on our block can and does happen elsewhere. It is a product of long-term neglect of the concerns of neighbors on the residential/light-industrial boundary. I am hoping that, in writing this article, I can contribute to an understanding that neighbors maintain living spaces that make the entire city a livable place. Allowing businesses to change the values that make our community livable should only be done with the consent of the residential stakeholders and through a publicly-transparent process. We currently seem to have the opposite.

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About Guest Writer

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jun 15, 2008

Since 2008, this moniker has been used over 130 times on articles written by guest writers who may write once or very occasionally for Northwest Citizen, but not regularly.

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Aug 11, 2021

 I wrote this 3 years ago in my article entitled: Just What Bellingham Needs - Another Brewery - And Amid Single Family Homes”

“Guaranteed, this brewery/restaurant will present a host of continuing issues with regard to parking, noise, and litter, none of which are susceptible to immediate remediation since there are insufficient resources to enforce these violations as they are committed. Nights and weekends are the worst as police attend to other, higher priority duties, parking enforcement personnel are not available and litter control is relaxing at home.Noise complaints, probably the most likely of nuisances here, cannot be resolved unless a police officer actually hears the noise and, we all know from sad experience, will not be available short of a major riot.

The residents will then face a death by a thousand cuts as nightly disturbances seep into their lives eliminating anything having to do with quiet enjoyment. This will be a “drip, drip, drip” process of families tortured by people who do not live in the neighborhood but treat it as if it was their living room and, at times, a toilet. A code complaint form is nothing more than a bureaucratic nostrum equivalent to warm milk and cookies… “take two and call me in the morning”.”

Oh, well…

 

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Paul K Schissler

Aug 12, 2021

Lessons from us over at Fairhaven Neighbors: City Hall will pay more attention when you hire an attorney to raise questions on your behalf. 

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Boyd Collings

Aug 13, 2021

Using test equipment meeting state standards I confirmed the noise from the Beer Garden exceeded state limits and complained to 911. After asking to have the responding officer call me back I positioned myself in a residential yard across from the amplified music and intoxicated revelry to observe enforcement’s r. during the hour I waited no call back. pparentmy officer was esponding D noise from the w end of the ry, 150 foot long, Beer Garden.

anyby David’s. ellingham’scode is worth about as much a speed limit without the miles per hour. Enforcement’s s in noise code assessment w. ad planning, nlike noise codes from England to Seattle, our planning department doesn’t have to consider noise impact when pa Planningsonsideration f existing noise an be in the words of one planner, “we don’t have to so we don’t.” Bad pinnocent The citizens should d a Beer Garden do over.

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Amanda Fleming

Sep 08, 2021

This situation is disgusting.  A number of deserving and long-time businesses in Bellingham have closed permanently due to the pandemic.  Why couldn’t this place be among them?

I have a few comments and suggestions.  Clearly you have dealt with this issue for a long time, and Dick Conoboy has extensive knowledge of this issue, so forgive me if I am being presumptuous and talking about issues you have already covered.

First of all, you talk about a light industrial/residential boundary.  Is the land on which your house sits specifically zoned “residential” or “light industrial”?  If the land where your house sits is zoned residential only you have a far stronger case.

Secondly, the mayor is in charge of all city departments.  City employees such as Rick Sepler report to him.   Sepler only has final say on this issue if the mayor lets him have it.  The police only have final say on what laws to enforce if the mayor lets them have it.  Have you met with Mayor Fleetwood?  If not, I would advise calling for an appointment and sitting down with him with all your documentation. 

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David Donohue

Sep 08, 2021

All housing is zoned residential multi/duplex.  This means if we had a big enough lot, we could build a duplex.  It is family housing.  

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Boyd Collings

Sep 10, 2021

In response to your comment question, both David and I live in the residential zoned block directly across the street from the Beer Garden. As to the Mayor suggestion, I did a walk thru the neighborhood with both Mayoral candidates before the last election and while Seth had the best appreciation of the problem and it’s city-wide implications no solutions were entertained. I have copied him on some of my correspondence to the city to show the problem is still active but have not received any outreach. I suspect his plate is pretty full with running a city during a pandemic and the real problem is bad code and enforcement anyway.

Being zoned residential doesn’t present a stronger case, unlike most noise codes, Bellingham doesn’t differentiate acceptable noise levels for Industrial, Commercial, or Residential zones. In all the noise codes I’m familiar with the Industrial upper noise limit is higher than Commercial’s and Commercial is higher than Residential, as one would expect. Our one size fits all inherently hurts the residents.

Still, zoning requirements do make a difference, as long as they are enforced. Our neighborhood plan and the city are in agreement that construction in Industrial zoning located next to Residential zoning is required to have a parking only 25-foot setback. This requirement is an effective residential noise reduction technique. When, in a phone conversation, I asked a planning compliance officer why it wasn’t enforced at the Beer Garden, I was told I was “crazy” to think enforcement was going up against the “planning director.” I sent multiple emails trying to get their lack of enforcement of the 25-foot set back in writing and never received a reply. Apparently, the Beer Garden owner’s boast the law doesn’t apply to him is fact. 

Boyd Collings
414 Carolina Street
Bellingham, WA 98225

360.756.0250

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