From the Political Junkie: A Petree-Eye View of Downtown

Editor’s Note: An interview is not an endorsement. The Political Junkie urges people to read his Expanded Voter’s Guide for more information on how to vote. As usual, read this post on its native site to see all the embeded images. Finally, my apologies for any misquotes or incorrect facts, I was flying without my pen and paper today.

For a man who’s future is being decided in one week by 80,000 people, Clayton Petree is remarkably calm. “Aside from the sleepless nights, I’m not worried at all.” He joked. We met at the Black Drop downtown for an interview about his independent campaign for the mayor’s office of Bellingham. He is joined in that race by Kelli Linville, Stephen Moore, and incumbent Dan Pike. Not content to just sit and talk, Clayton hops up to lead me on a tour of the city, highlighting what he sees as our biggest challenges.

Our first stop was a view of Old Town. From here, he points out the shifting boundaries of where Old Town is and has been. He gets right down to business. “We need infill. The neighborhood is ready for it, but no developer will break ground because it is not profitable.” He cites the city’s goals in their comprehensive plan. “According to the City’s own plan, we are going to add 70 residences each year, every year in the next decade. That is a great deal of new construction.” He talks about the various requirements imposed by the city and general safety, but gets back to the main point. “I think most people have the same goals for Bellingham. We all want to see our economy grow and our city to be successful, but you can’t do that without some change.” Petree sees parallels about the outsized expectations of infill, and the lack of actual development. “It just isn’t coming together.” Here’s a recent Herald article about just this concern.

Our next stop is Walton Place, a new subsidized affordable housing unit near the WTA bus station. TheWalton Place, and it’s recent expansion creatively named “Walton Two,” are two several story rentals overseen by Bellingham/Whatcom County Affordable Housing Authority. He notes that while this is a good step, the rent is still pretty steep for affordable housing ($650-$750 for a 1 or 2 bedroom apartment.) “And this was done with subsidies on a not-for-profit basis. How can we expect private businesses to build more rentals if we can’t even do it well like this?”

Noting that I am Generation Y, he spoke to how many people my age are living with their folks, because there are no reasonably priced rentals. “I don’t believe in universal home ownership. I think if we can get a roof over peoples' heads right now, while things are tough, that accomplishes that goal.”

Right now, the available rentals in Bellingham are at a critical low with barely a 1.6% vacancy rate, especially compared with the healthier 4.5% statewide. “We need to expand the capacity of our city. How can we expect people to move here, start businesses, and thrive if they don’t even have a place to live?” He noted that the building that used to stand where Walton Place is now needs to be considered when talking infill. “What did we replace, one story? Two stories? We aren’t gaining enough ground, often we are just treading water.”

On our way to the next stop, Clayton talked about living in the Lettered Streets. “That neighborhood has changed so much in the last couple of decades. When I was growing up, I had a paper route on F Street and it was a rough neighborhood. Drug dens, party houses, but it has really turned itself around.” As a cleaner, safer neighborhood, it is ripe for building up, and filling with people.

“What about landlord licensing?” I ask. Clayton thinks for a moment. “That is really aimed more at health and safety concerns than planning for communities. We have codes on the books about how many people can live in a space, and what makes sense. What we need is some way to better enforce them.” When I ask him how, he shrugs, “I don’t have all the answers, but I know as mayor, I would work to address these problems.”

We reach the construction site across from the Market Depot. He noted that city planners have this space zoned for two seventeen-story towers. I said it didn’t really look like they were going to build that. “Again, another example where our plans and reality don’t seem to line up.” He points me toward Part 4 of the Comprehensive Plan that talks about Bellingham receiving 62% of our county’s growth, yet in actuality it is closer to 10-20%. “Imagine you manage a business, most of your customers are coming down from Canada, do you set up your store inside the city limits, with all the restrictions and impact fees in place? Or do you move it a few miles north?”

I ask him if we should just do away with all those restrictions. He quickly responds, “Impact fees pay for the roads and if you are driving on the roads, you should be paying them. It isn’t fair that those who live in the county and commute in do not pay for what they are using.”

So are you a Republican or a Democrat? Clayton cracks a big smile, “I’m an independent. I just see things that need to be fixed and I think my experience with land use, planning, and all this stuff,” he waves his pile of staff reports at me, “gives me an advantage.”

What about the Waterfront? "There are so many other things we need to fix first, and the cost for the waterfront is going to be so steep, we need to build up our neighborhoods, like Old Town, first before plowing into the Waterfront."

What happens if you don’t make it? Clayton smiles. "Ken Mann said he wouldn't run again after he lost and look where he is now. I don't know, I'm going to leave that door open."

THE POLITICAL JUNKIE ANALYSIS: Clayton Petree is a bit of a cypher. Between placing ads in the Betty Pages, advocating for a bus-accessible downtown, and working to prevent sprawl in the county by encouraging infill, he would seem to fit in with my values, but then again, his thoughts of removing barriers to development makes me nervous. My biggest impression after our interview is that Clayton is clearly a Wonk (not a Hack), a man used to dealing with minutia and committed to changing our city. Regardless of how next week's primary turns out, I'm excited to see Clayton continue to be involved in the discussion.

About Riley Sweeney

Citizen Journalist • Member since Aug 10, 2009

Riley Sweeney, raised in the Pacific Northwest, moved to Bellingham during the Bush years, worked on a cross-section of political campaigns during the Obama years, and then fled to the [...]

Comments by Readers

Mike Rostron

Aug 09, 2011

Why do so many in this town want to make it in to the next Seattle (or Everett)?  Why should we encourage growth at all?  All these assumptions!  There are ways to limit growth, or at least ensure it happens at a manageable pace.  I happen to think 80,000 folks makes for a nice sized community, and if I want to experience Seattle or Vancouver it’s not that long of a drive.  There is no inevitability to population growth.  It is encouraged, for the most part, by developers out to get rich quickly—then many of them spend much of their time in more pristine or warmer locations.  Has anyone on this blog even read “The LImits To Growth,” or similar works?

We should be aiming for a steady-state in Bellingham and Whatcom county -  not growth at all.  For once I’d like to hear a candidate willing to have this discussion.  I would label such a person a “progressive conservative.”  One thing I agree with Petree on; we need to work on the existing downtown before we talk about development at the Georgia Pacific site.  In fact — would it be so bad if that just became a waterfront park, or community garden space? 

The discussion the city should be having is about preserving its unique semi-rural character, the wonderful historic homes, buildings, and neighborhoods, and how to augment the existing downtown.  If you want to see examples of what the infill toolkit will look like you need look no further than Northwest Ave,  Sunset, or Telegraph, or similar blighted tracts.  (No coincidence that the toolkit was developed by Seattle consultants.)  If a developer wants to be hero in this city and do something useful I suggest taking any one of the derelict but historically significant buildings along State and refurbishing them as has been done in Fairhaven.  There are many older empty buildings in this city with real potential, and remodeling and refurbishing existing buildings usually uses less resources than building new.   

“Infill” has not yet become a dirty word, but if it continues to be used as a euphemism for shoving undesired and ill-conceived development down the throats of residents in neighborhoods that do not desire it, or in areas within neighborhoods where it is inappropriate (how about the infill toolkit in Edgemoor - lots of room there!); rest assured the word and the concept of “infill” will become anathema to the citizens of this town.  Let’s preserve what we have first—while we still have it! 

I moved here in 2002 (after having attended Western in the early 80s, and visited many times throughout the next two decades) because I liked the city at its present population, not because I hoped it would become the next Seattle.



Rob Stratton

Aug 10, 2011

Mike do you even see the hypocrisy in your statement?

You added to the growth by moving here. So you want your piece of the pie and don’t want any others to have theirs?

I grew up in the alpha ghetto, “I” street. It irks me is the amount of outsiders like Mike who have moved here and then want to then tell us what we can or can’t do because they want to preserve their fairy dream of a non growth place. I guess anyone of us who want to make a living and support our family need to move away to a “growth” area.

We can’t have affordable housing and then regulate and charge the developers so much money that building an affordable home is unattainable. They have to recoup their costs or they won’t build. And the city shouldn’t be spending tax payer dollars on “building” anything, leave that to the public. Even affordable housing.


Larry Horowitz

Aug 10, 2011

Yes, Mike, I have read the 30-year update to ?Limits to Growth?, along with Herman Daly?s ?For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future? and E.F. Schumacher?s ?Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered?.  Unless developers can transmute the laws of physics, we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet.  I agree, our goal should be a steady state economy.

As opposed to Rob, I don?t see any hypocrisy in moving to Bellingham and desiring a steady state economy.  Net growth is the sum of births, deaths, in-migration, and out-migration.  Assuming births and deaths cancel out, for every person who moves away, one must move here to prevent the population from falling.  Most people who move here purchase existing homes from people who move away, resulting in no net effect on population growth.

Rather than address each growth misconception here, perhaps those who are genuinely interested will visit the website of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) (1) and read about the Myths & Reality of growth (2) and the Infinite Planet Theory (3).

The straw man argument that you want your piece of the pie and don?t want others to have theirs is a logical fallacy.  People are free to move wherever they want, and no one is preventing anyone from pursuing their dream.  There is no shortage of homes available for sale in Bellingham and Whatcom County.  That being said, anyone who does not presently live in Bellingham or Whatcom County and wants to live in a place that promotes population growth, might be happier elsewhere.

(1) CASSE website:

(2) Myths & Reality:

(3) Infinite Planet Theory:


Mike Rostron

Aug 10, 2011

No hypocrisy at all.  No reason to cast stones, at some point we or our ancestors all came from somewhere else.  You have your “piece of the pie” compliments of the earlier residents who moved here, who in turn had displaced the Native Americans who lived here previously.  I imagine they too were somewhat “irked” by those outsiders moving in and telling them how things should be. 

People like to move around, but there is no particular reason why our area should encourage rapid growth.  My point is that builders and developers can make a perfectly good living by providing structures that people want in areas of neighborhoods where they want the growth, and in some cases by refurbishing existing structures.  There is no reason at all why we should encourage or even allow any one property owner (developer) to control what gets built on large tracts of land in our city or county, and many reasons why we should oppose such monopolistic behavior and concentration of wealth, power, and control. 

I have been a builder for nearly forty years, and I own my own home.  I can imagine my neighbors would want to have some input should I decide to try and have my lot up-zoned for multifamily so I could build an apartment complex!  The fact is, property rights are always negotiated by the community to some extent.  None of us really “own” the land; we are just temporary stewards, as many Native American sages have wisely pointed out.  We should be developing our city with an eye to what our descendants will inherit.

I am disturbed by the general lack of concern by local politicians for historical preservation in this city.  Yet, if you look around at neighborhoods such as Cornwall Park, Columbia, Sunnyland, York, and so forth, and especially at the single family zoned areas of those neighborhoods; you see a remarkable and encouraging sight.  Everywhere individuals and families are improving and restoring the homes.  The change has been nothing less than phenomenal.  As I mentioned I have been familiar with this city since the early 80s when many of these same areas were run down and sorry-looking.  The change is remarkable, and developers had nothing to do with it!  At the same time the developers were creating the blighted areas.  So who do we want to encourage?  The developers build for profit —home owners who live in their homes build or improve to live, admittedly hoping that if they sell their homes will have increased in value due to their efforts. 

The problem is that many developers aren’t satisfied with making a living, they want to make a killing, so the citizens and neighborhoods need to have legal mechanisms in place to moderate the process.  That is democracy, and we need more not less of it.


Christy Nieto

Aug 11, 2011

I’m glad you finally interviewed Petree, way overdue.


Shane Roth

Aug 12, 2011

While Clayton Petree is undeniably a long shot, it is still appropriate to cover his campaign.

The electorate gets a better quality election when more people run for an office, particularly and office like the Mayor or Bellingham.

I believe that Clayton’s participation has had an unambiguously positive effect of the Mayor’s race in specific, and the public election process in general.

This interview was a great idea, and I hope that other more traditional media follow suit.

Clayton Petree strikes me as an optimistic person who believes in the system and believes in participating in the system.

This is not a spectator sport, and we should do everything we can to encourage more participation in the election process. Not less.


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