[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.