City Hall improved, friendlier Permit Center

This is a guest article. It is a tale of trying to simply update the heating system in a duplex home. We post this because we continue to hear Alice In Wonderland stories of dealing with city hall -

This is a guest article. It is a tale of trying to simply update the heating system in a duplex home. We post this because we continue to hear Alice In Wonderland stories of dealing with city hall -

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This was a guest article before Paul became one of our writers. It is a tale of trying to simply update the heating system in a duplex home. We post this because we continue to hear Alice In Wonderland stories of dealing with city hall - despite several musical chair changes in departments to improve things and a new mayor. This is in the form of an affidavit for following the events exactly as Paul experienced them. Let the chips fall where they may.
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My name is Paul de Armond and I reside at 1344 Humboldt St, Bellingham, Washington, 98225. I am the owner of the duplex at the dual address of 1344 / 1346 Humboldt. I am employed as the office manager at The Chimney Sweep, Inc., 913 Harris Ave. Bellingham, Washington, 98225, a licensed contractor (Registration # CHIMNSI055PD) and hearth products retailer.

As part of my duties as office manager at The Chimney Sweep, Inc., I make applications for mechanical permits to install wood and gas stoves and fireplaces. Since September 2006, I have obtained mechanical permits from the code authorities in Bellingham, Blaine, Ferndale Lynden and Whatcom County. Whatcom County and Lynden consistently provide the best service in terms of speed, efficiency, professionalism and politeness.

In rank order the quality of service declines from those standards through Blaine, Bellingham and Ferndale. The permit service in Ferndale is consistently rude, inefficient, incompetent and obstructive. This is so ingrained that there are signs on the walls of Ferndale City Hall stating that it is a crime to threaten city employees. Bellingham and Ferndale are the only code authorities who are unable to issue mechanical permits at the counter. Bellingham is the only issuer of residential mechanical permits who require plans to be submitted and approved for single runs of gas piping that serve a single appliance. This usually involves a 24 to 48 hour delay. Until October, 2008, the service in Bellingham has been polite and professional, though inefficient in regards to residential gas piping applications.

On or about October 15, 2008, I applied to the Bellingham permit center for a mechanical permit to install a wood stove and chimney. The clerk at the counter was a woman I later determined to be Mary Chisholm. I handed the application across the counter and said that I would like a mechanical permit. Ms. Chisholm glance at the application, tossed it back on the counter and said that she couldn’t accept the application because there was no gas piping drawing attached. Her manner was rude and abrupt. I asked what sort of gas piping drawing was required for a wood stove.

Ms. Chisholm made a face like she had swallowed something extremely foul-tasting and took the application and turned to her computer terminal. She then turned around and announced triumphantly that she was rejecting the application because my contractor’s license had expired. She then attempted to return the application to me. I left it lying on the counter and told Ms. Chisholm that we had just renewed our contractor’s license and that her database contained incorrect information. She returned to her computer terminal and then announced that our customer was not the owner of the property. I said that since the name of our customer and the name of the property owner were the same, it was very likely that they were the same person. I later discovered that our customer had a mailing address out of state. She then stated that there was “something wrong with the address” but that she would accept the application anyway. I paid the fee at the Finance Office and received a Bellingham mechanical permit.

When I returned to the office, our installer, Howard Lopeman, was on the phone. I took the call and he told me that there was a city limits sign in the front yard of the house and that the house was just outside the city limits. Based on the address, I had assumed it was somewhere in the vicinity of Whatcom Falls Park. In fact, it was on the far side of Lake Whatcom.

I looked up the property record in the Whatcom Assessor’s database to obtain the parcel number – which is required on Whatcom County applications, but not on Bellingham ones – and filled out an application for a Whatcom County permit. On my way to the county offices, I stopped by Bellingham City Hall to enquire about a refund for an invalid permit.

As I entered the permit center, Mary Chisholm was standing the aisle behind the receptionist area gossiping with another female staffer. As I entered the door, Ms. Chisholm said in a very loud and alarmed tone, “My God, he’s here again!” She said this loudly enough that several people turned to look at me. It was extremely embarrassing.

I went to the counter and told Ms. Chisholm that the permit she had issued was invalid because the property was outside of the city limits. She glared at me without speaking, so I showed her the record I had printed out from the Assessor’s website. At this, she said, “Thanks for telling me now.” I asked again about how to obtain a refund. Still glaring, she said in an abrupt and rude manner, “You fill out a form.” At this point, the other staffer stepped forward and handed me a refund form. Because I wanted to get away from the situation as quickly as possible, I turned to go. The staffer told me I could fill it out and submit it now. I told her that the federal government provided a service for delivering documents and I would be mailing it in. Then I left and got the permit at the county offices.

I have since sent in the application for the refund. To date I have received no reply from the City of Bellingham.

The next time I applied for a mechanical permit from the City of Bellingham was on Thursday, October 30, 2008. In this case, I had the dual role of both contractor and property owner. I am trying to install gas stoves in my duplex at 1344 / 1346 Humboldt St. because the existing heat is by two old and inefficient oil furnaces. Last winter, my tenant, a single mother with an infant child, two cats and a pet turtle, was unable to afford to purchase oil and had to rely on electric heat.

In early July, I applied to Cascade Natural Gas for the installation of a gas line and dual meter bar on the property. Due to delays on their part, including losing the application, initially locating the meter bar in an illegal location, failing to send the contract when it was ready, I did not get a contract signed with Cascade until September 11, 2008. The contract includes an additional “commitment charge” of $735.79 if the gas service is not active within 60 days. Because of the delay in getting the contract until past the beginning of the heating season, the earliest date I could schedule the gas piping work was November 8, 2008. I expected the plumbing and installation of both units to be completed by November 11, at which time I would be able to get the required inspections and approval from the city.

On Thursday, October 30, 2008, I went to the city permit center to obtain the mechanical permit for the gas piping and stoves at my home at 1344 / 1346 Humboldt St. The permit included the required gas piping drawing and floor plan of the duplex. I expected the permit would be issued on Friday, October 31 or Monday, November 3. In the last two years, I have only had one permit held up by the city and that was due to the owner having previously obtained a building permit and failed to cancel it when the work was not done. Based on Mary Chisholm’s previous unpleasant, rude and obstructive behavior, I hoped that I would not have to deal with her again.

Ms. Chisholm was working the reception counter and was rude, abrupt and hostile in her manner. She silently took the application and drawing for the mechanical permit and went to her terminal. She then announced that “there was something wrong with the address” and that she had to get a permit technician. She then directed me to the waiting area and left. I saw the nice Mary, whose name I believe starts with a V, seated at the table immediately behind the reception counter. I told her I wished she was still working on the counter and that the woman who had just left had given me a very hard time the previous week while issuing an invalid permit. She rolled her eyes and said, “That’s just Mary.”

After about twenty minutes, I was summoned to the plans counter immediately to the east of the reception desk and introduced to “Kirsten.” I later determined that this was Ms. Kirsten Hubbard. Ms. Hubbard told me that my application for a mechanical permit could not be accepted because I had an “illegal duplex.” I told her that must be wrong; the house was built as a duplex in 1926. She then turned her computer display so that I could see it. The display showed an aerial photograph of my house and the surrounding area. Overlaid on the photograph were the house numbers. She pointed to my house and I saw that there was only one address: 1346. I told her that the record was wrong; the house had two addresses when I purchased it in 1991 and it had always had two addresses. Ms. Hubbard replied that it was an illegal duplex and that I must obtain a certificate of non-conforming use before any building permits could be issued.

I asked what made it an illegal duplex and she told me that I had illegally converted the property by remodeling the house without a permit. I told her that no such thing had happened and that the house was always a duplex. She said I could prove that by getting copies of the listing in old copies of the Polk directory and that it was available at the city library. She said I would have to apply for a permit of non-conforming use and I have to talk with a planner on that since she could only handle the mechanical permit application. Ms Hubbard then took the mechanical permit application and told me I could wait. I told her I had another permit application to submit in Lynden and would return. At that point I believed the mechanical permit had been accepted, but might be delayed while the factual error about the missing address in the GIS database was resolved.

I then went to the reception counter and asked Ms Chisholm if I could pay for the permit now and return to pick it up. She told me that she couldn’t do that. I said I had another permit application to take to Lynden and I would be back. She asked me when I would return. I told her that I would be back when I returned from Lynden and it was about an hour drive round trip. She then asked me how long it was going to take. I told her that I had a mechanical permit application and I didn’t know how long it was going to take. She then said she couldn’t tell me anything.

I then went to Lynden and submitted that mechanical permit application to the friendly and helpful staff there. It is always a pleasure dealing with them.

I returned to the Bellingham plan center. Ms. Chisholm told me that no decision had been reached and that Kirsten would call me.

As I was leaving, I encountered Jerry Summers, the permit technician who usually processes my gas drawings. He told me that I was “in a great deal of trouble” because I had illegally converted a duplex. I told him that the house was built as a duplex in 1926. He told me that “there were no duplexes in 1926.” I said that if the permit was delayed, Cascade Gas was going to hit me with an additional $750. My expression must have showed my extreme dismay. He then said that I would get my permit and that I shouldn’t worry.

When I returned to my office, there was a note on my desk that Kirsten Hubbard had called and I should call city planner Ryan Nelson at 778-8368.

I called Mr. Nelson and he told me I had to submit an application for a certificate of non-conforming use and a land use permit. I said there was no change in land use and the house was built as a duplex in 1926. He said that I could prove that by submitting the “proper documents.” Mr. Nelson said that I should have anticipated this when I recently converted the house from a single family residence into a illegal duplex. He implied that he had proof that I had done this some time around 2004 – 2006. He specifically emphasized that period of time.

I later found out this was the period of the York neighborhood plan update and that the zoning for Area 5 was changed from multiple family to single family. According to Ms. Ann Mackie, who is very active in the York Neighborhood Association, there was considerable discussion about the zoning change and city staff had made assurances no problems would be created for the owners of existing multi-family residences. Ms. Mackie showed me a city planning map that was used in the plan update. It clearly shows my home with two addresses: 1344 and 1346.

Mr. Nelson guided me through the city website to print out a copy of the two application forms. The forms provide no guidance as to what constitutes “proper documents.” Mr. Nelson kept referring to “proper documents” – implying that there were improper documents – and not specifying what might be useful to him. After a long go-round, he told me that I needed to write an affidavit of the facts, Polk directories were the standard evidence of past address history and photos of the old dual coal gas meter manifold in the basement and other photos of the house would be helpful. He also said I needed to provide copies of the title showing it was a duplex. When I thought he was done, I started to end the conversation. At this point, he abruptly said that I should know the application fee was $530.00. I told him I expected some such thing and said goodbye.

That evening I went to the Bellingham Public Library and made copies of the pages in the 1931, 1932, 1933 and 1935 Polk directories showing the names of the residents at 1344 and 1346 Humboldt. These are the earliest directories showing street addresses. The 1935 directory could not be located. I spoke on the telephone with Zetta Bracher, the realtor who represented me when I purchased the property.

Ms. Bracher told me she would contact Whatcom Land and Title for what records were available on the property. They had handled the title search and closing. She told me that non-conforming use did not come up during the sale and that she never would have advised me to buy property that I could not rebuild. I also spoke with Jeffrey Bode, a lawyer with whom I have had a long acquaintance. He directed me to the city land use ordinances. I stayed up quite late that night, researching the city land use ordinances and locating the documents from the purchase in my files. I took measurements and began scale drawings for the property and floor plans. I completed the penciled drawing for the property and building before I went to sleep. I did not sleep well and was awake at 4:30 am the next morning. I completed the inking of the property drawing before I went to work at 9:00 a.m.

On Friday, I attempted to find out where the mechanical permit application was. I sent email to permits@cob.org and left a phone message with Jerry Summers. I thought from our conversation Mr. Summers was processing the application. I was hopeful that the permit would be issued but understood it might be a delayed in getting final approval until the mistake about the address was cleared up.

That morning I got a call from Ms. Bracher who told me that Whatcom Land and Title had no records that established the property as a duplex. I then went down to the Whatcom County Assessor’s office and got what information was available from previous assessments. I went to the Whatcom County Auditor’s office and located the previous owner’s deed from the estate of the original owner. I was not able to find any title documents with any information other than the legal description of the land. I went to my bank and got the property purchase documents from my safe deposit box. I filled out and had notarized the application for Certificate of Non-Conforming Use.

When I returned to the office, I got a telephone call from Kirsten Hubbard. She told me that she was returning the mechanical permit in the mail and that it would not be accepted until the application for a certificate of non-conforming use was approved and final. I asked if it was possible to accept both applications concurrently. She said that was impossible as I could not apply for any permits without a certificate of non-conforming use. I was exasperated because now I would not be able to do anything with the mechanical permit application until it was delivered on Saturday or Monday.

Saturday, I had such a miserable day at work that my distraction and inattention annoyed a customer so much that he came back on Monday morning and complained to my employer. This had never happened to me in any way my entire life and was very upsetting and painful. During the time since I had been told my home was an illegal duplex, it seemed to me like nobody I spoke to was either listening or able to grasp the simplest facts. Saturday night I stayed up late working on the scale drawings for the floor plan. I slept poorly again.

I spent all day Sunday working on the floor plan drawings. The house is very small and compact. Due to the design, not a single room has a rectangular floor, there being corners, returns walls, intruding chimneys, closets and stairways. This makes the process of measuring and drawing the floor plan far more detailed and complex than is usual. The total time for drawing up the required plans was about fourteen hours. The time for researching, locating and copying supporting documentation was about six hours. The time to fill out the forms and obtain notarized signatures was about one hour. The total time to prepare the application for certificate of non-conforming use was about 21 hours.

On Sunday evening, I was contacted by Mr. Doug Starcher, a neighbor who is completing eight years on the planning commission. Like everyone else, his first comment was “That’s ridiculous. You don’t need a non-conforming use permit.” He asked me to give him the entire file and he would go down on Monday morning and see if he could get things straightened out. With great relief, I agreed. I slept poorly that night.

On Monday evening, Mr. Starcher told me that he had spoken with Mr. Kurt Nabafeld, of the Bellingham planning department. According to Mr. Starcher, Mr. Nabafeld maintained that I had to obtain a certificate of non-conforming use, but that the city would accept both that application and the application for the mechanical permit concurrently. Mr. Nabafeld would be in depositions for a lawsuit all day Tuesday and would call me on Wednesday morning once he had spoken with staff. I slept poorly that night. On Tuesday morning, I called Mr. Nabafeld’s office and left a voice mail giving him my contact information.

By 11:30 am Wednesday, November 5, I had not heard from Mr. Nabafeld. I telephoned his office and left a voice mail asking about the status of the application process. He returned the call shortly afterwards: “Hi. This is Kurt from the city of Bellingham planning department just returning your call concerning the Humboldt street property. You can apply for your gas piping permit as long as you also apply for the non-conforming use certificate for that building there. And you can do that at the permit center. I don’t need to be there. I’ve instructed everyone around here what to do and how to work through the process. Just come down to the permit center and submit the applications and we should be able to process them for you…”

At about 12:20 pm, I went to the permit center in Bellingham city hall. Mary Chisholm was at the counter. She was effusively and insincerely smarmy. Ms. Chisholm told me that they did not accept applications for a certificate of non-conforming use at the permit center. I told her the gist of Mr. Nabafeld’s message. She asked me to wait while she summoned a permit technician. I asked her for her business card and found one in the rack on the counter. This was the first time I was able to confirm Ms. Chisholm’s identity.

I waited until I was summoned to the permit application area by a permit technician, a young woman with long dark brown hair. I do not know this person’s name. The permit technician said that they were not prepared to accept an application for a certificate of non-conforming use. I explained the situation to her and gave her the gist of Mr. Nabafeld’s phone message. I then asked her if she recognized Kurt Nabafeld’s handwriting and showed her a blue Post-It note bearing the words, “Legal non-conforming use.” This note was enclosed with the documents Mr. Starcher had returned to me on Monday evening. She said she would have to check into the matter. She left to consult with someone and returned saying that a planner was required to take the application. Mary Chisholm said “We should get Jackie.” I replied, “Yes, by all means, let’s get Jackie.” I suspect that the relief in my voice was unexpected, because both Ms. Chisholm and the permit technician appeared somewhat startled.

I waited at the seated permit counter and soon Jackie Lynch, a planner, appeared. Jackie said, “Rocky! What are you doing here?” I told her that I was a land use criminal. She replied that she assumed I always had been a land use criminal and expected that I would remain one in the future. Ms. Lynch and I have known each other both socially and professionally for over thirty years. She examined the application and said, “This is ridiculous. You don’t need a non-conforming use certificate.” I agreed with her and advised her to check it out. She departed and shortly returned, saying, “I guess we have to do it anyway.”

Ms. Lynch then looked up the address on the GIS terminal and turned the terminal so I could see the display of the aerial photograph with overlaid house numbers. At this point I became somewhat dizzy and disoriented. I believe I said, “My God! They’ve changed the database record! The last time I saw this there was only one address and I was a convicted land use criminal!” The address display now showed the dual address of 1344 and 1346. Ms. Lynch replied, “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything. We’re changing the records all the time.”

She then reviewed the application and complimented me on the thoroughness of the documentation, “I expected this since you are such a good investigator.” I replied that I found the situation ironic, considering all the time I had spent battling Wise Use, property rights zealots and the allied white supremacists. I told her that my great concern was the possibility Cascade Gas would hit me with a $750.00 fee if the meter set was delayed. She asked me “to write down what you just told me” and provided me with a 2” square Post-It note to do so. She then included this note with my application.

When I got out my checkbook to pay for the non-conforming use application fee, Ms. Lynch instructed me not to fill in the amount, since it should be possible to write one check for both the non-conforming use and mechanical permit applications. This required additional consultation with other staff. The final determination was that both applications would be accepted, but that I would not be able to pay the processing fee for the mechanical permit until after the permit had been issued. This is consistent with my experience that the city requires as many visits to city hall as possible and will not accept a fee at the same time as the application. There has only been one time in the last two years where fees for a mechanical permit were accepted at the time of the application and the completed permit was mailed back to my business. Doubtless this was an oversight and a violation of the clear and firm policy of maximizing inconvenience to customers.

I paid $531.00 at the city finance office for fees associated with permit # MIS2008-00098.

I then returned to the permit center with my receipt. There was a further delay while a permit technician was located to take the mechanical permit application. I gave Ms. Lynch my business card to confirm the contact information when the mechanical permit was ready. The total time I spent at the permit center was approximately two hours. Approximately fifteen minutes of this time was actually dealing with the applications. The rest of the time was spent waiting for decisions or for the appropriate staffer to be located.

I slept poorly Thursday night and awakened at 4:00 am Friday morning. Since I could not sleep, I began writing this deposition. I worked on the deposition until I went to work shortly before 9:00 am.

On Friday morning, shortly after 8:00 am, I telephoned the Cascade Gas call center and spoke to a customer service representative named Chris. I told her that I was concerned that there might be a delay in obtaining the gas pressure test on my duplex because the city had created a controversy over land use. I requested an extension regarding the “Commitment Charge” since I had no way of knowing when I would be able to get the pressure test. Chris said she would send an email to the field supervisor and I would get a phone call from him.

At about 10:30 am, I got a call from Gordon, the field supervisor. I explained the situation to him. He said that would be no problem. He was puzzled why he had received an email that morning informing him that I had illegally dug up a gas main and tapped into it. I told him that this sort of thing had become par for the course. Gordon told me that they tried to do meter sets within 24 hours of receiving a call for one and that they would do a meter set as soon as pipe was connected to the meter. I told him I was shooting for a pressure test on the morning of Wednesday, November 12. He told me to call as soon as I was hooked up to the meter bar.

I received no communication from the city by 11:30 am Friday. I then called Kurt Nabafeld to enquire about the status of my applications. He told me that the mechanical permit had been issued and was waiting for me at the permit center. He expressed some surprise that I had not been contacted.

At approximately 11:45 am on Friday, November 7, I went to the permit center to collect the mechanical permit. At the counter, I was greeted by a staffer whose name I do not know. She has light brown hair and is the same person that helped me with the form for the refund for the invalid mechanical permit on the address outside of the city limits. She was very pleasant and authorized the payment of the $75.00 fee. I paid the fee at the finance office and collected the permit and copy of the piping diagram. We then had a conversation in which she enquired about my business and I told her about the products and services we offered. Not including the conversation, the total time at the counter was less than five minutes.

On November 8, the gas plumbing was installed in my duplex. On November 12, I contacted Cascade Gas and requested a meter set that afternoon, as the stoves would be installed and ready for final inspection. The customer service representative said that she would schedule the meter set for the following day. Shortly afterwards, I got a call from the Cascade Gas supervisor confirming the work order. I asked if they were able to do the meter set that day. He said he would try if their schedule opened up. That morning, the city inspector showed up at my duplex for the pressure test of the gas plumbing. At that time, he signed the pressure test and final inspection, even though the appliances were not completely installed or hooked up. According to the technician installing the stoves, the only comment the inspector made about the house was that he admired my 1976 Rigid Tool calendar over the workbench in the basement. That afternoon, Cascade Gas called and asked me to meet their technician at my duplex to confirm the address for each meter so the meters could be installed. By 5:00 pm November 12, the stoves in both units were operating.

About Paul deArmond

Closed Account • Member since May 29, 2009

Paul de Armond was a writer, reporter and research analyst. He is the recipient of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force 2001 Human Rights Award. In the 1990s, he and Jay [...]

Comments by Readers

Bob Aegerter

Nov 17, 2008

I am sure you and Jackie Lynch are good friends because you are both so very through!

I have known Jackie since, I think, 1974.  Our paths have crossed several times in planning offices in Western Washington.

Working the front desk of a planning and permitting agency is not easy.  Since 1958 I have been filling out building permit applications, submitting plans, explaining details, and at other times in other jobs acting as back-up to permit desks so the folks in the high stress front lines could get some water and an aspirin.

Managing permit data bases is a difficult job.  And some of my favorite stories are of developers who were asking for impossible permits (one of them was my client).

There is very little Dan Pike can do to improve this situation.  He could spend full time on it for the next 2 years and still not solve the problem without money the City of Bellingham does not have and talent it cannot afford.

Give the folks behind the counter a break.  They are not the enemy.  As citizens, we demand good planning and strict zoning with fair and equal treatment of each property owner.  And then we go out and sign petitions demanding reduction in taxes and write letters to the editor saying how lazy and inefficient public employees are.

I have worked both sides of the fence and there is no greener grass.  I did find that green grass when I retired back to Whatcom County.  Enjoy a warm winter in your 1926 dupex!

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James J Johann

Nov 17, 2008

I have not met Mr. de Armond that I recall, but know of him and have a favorable impression of him through friends of mine in the city.  From what I know of him second hand I suspect that he heavily supports the political successes in Bellingham and Whatcom County of the politicians on his side of the political spectrum - those who are ultimately behind the machinations that frustrate him.

His tale is truly excruciating.  Unfortunately, the politicos on his side whom he supports really don’t care about his travails.  But Armond’s “property rights zealots and allied white supremacists”, we whom he assails and who decry overarching government intrusions, are somewhat happy about them. Shadenfreude.

Jim Johann

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