In what could be an appalling and game-changing precedent for many of Bellingham’s single-family neighborhoods, a megaplex of three seven-bedroom (five bedrooms plus two “bonus rooms”) single-family homes is planned for three adjoining lots on Iron St (1623, 1625, and 1627) in the York Neighborhood by local developers David and Jon Hansen under Cottonwood Units, LLC. A recent, but since removed, Craig’s list advertisement had listed the yet-to-be-built homes for rent (beginning in September) at $3,500 per month plus a security deposit of $250 per adult. The intent to peddle these houses as rentals and not as single-family homes is clear – and illegal.
One small home, built in 1910, currently sits on the middle lot of the three adjacent properties. The plan, according to a demolition request submitted by the owners, is to raze the existing structure to pave the way to build the three “single-family” homes. This request has occasioned a SEPA (State Environmental Protection Act) review process since the house is within a national historic district. However, it is unlikely the review will result in anything but a DNS (Determination of Non-Significance). The neighborhood is protesting the demolition of the home due to the intrinsically adverse consequences of the destruction of old homes within historic areas.
More strikingly obvious, though, is the immense damage done to neighborhood character by creating three outrageously oversized houses solely for the purpose of renting each of them to seven or more persons. This is a violation of the Growth Management Act, which mandates the maintenance of neighborhood character. Imagine the effect of having 21 or more tenants on three adjacent single-family lots. This is little more than multi-family housing being created in a single-family-zoned area and is a clear warning sign of a potential domino effect, reminiscent of “block busting,” in which other older homes in the York Neighborhood are bulldozed for the purpose of building other “McMansion” rentals that are nothing but small apartment buildings. It is not lost on the local residents that the Hansens own 33 properties in the York Neighborhood, any of which can subsequently and similarly be targeted for “renewal.” Other single-family neighborhoods ought to be paying close attention, watching to see if the city decides to allow such blatantly inappropriate construction.
As for legality, renting these homes to more than three unrelated people is a violation of the Bellingham Municipal Code 20.08.020(F)(1) - definition of family. Like it or not, the code is currently on the books and was used as legal justification by the Hearing Examiner to limit the size of units in the now-defunct University Ridge project in which the developer illegally proposed four-bedroom dwelling units. The ordinance was the subject of a paper for the Bellingham City Council several years ago in which the so-called “rule of three” was reviewed by the city attorney. As indicated in the Agenda Bill of the time, aside from some federal and state exemptions, such codes are constitutional, having been declared so by the US Supreme Court in 1974 in Belle Terre v Boraas.
One might also ask about the number of parking spaces that are necessary for three seven-bedroom houses. The total is 18. Given the very narrow alley at the rear of these lots, the only viable method to provide parking would be to pave the entire back portion of the lots to accommodate the vehicles, not only adding to the footprint of impervious surfaces even beyond the footprint of the “McMansion” rental structures, but also removing any vestige of existing greenery. Moreover, the size of the lots and the calculations for a parking area for 18 vehicles will not pencil out. It will become a parking blivet*. The argument that the tenants will not have cars because they will bike or take public transport has scant basis in fact, although planners will regularly cite use of alternative transport to support infill, however inappropriate - think of the recently approved Forest Garden dormitory project that is to house over 400 students at the former site of the Adventist Church. Taking a bus to work or school does not rule out vehicle ownership for other activities. Not surprisingly, York residents did not just fall off the turnip truck. [Note photo below. These four five-bedroom snout-houses on the 100 block of Ashley St. were built in 2002 solely as rentals. There are regularly 20+ vehicles parked at or around these homes which are located several hundred feet from the WWU Lincoln Park and Ride lot. So much for the contention that the tenants will not have vehicles.]
The York Neighborhood Association has sent a letter to the Planning Director asking for review of this project on several issues, not the least of which are among those I mentioned above. The neighborhood has also initiated a petition to the city council to request that it, "(1) direct its attention to and investigate this project, (2) provide direction to the Planning Dept. as to appropriate infill for this property located in a Single-Family zoned and National Historic District, and (3) direct the Planning Dept. to begin work on development of Design Guidelines for new construction in residential historic districts."
*An impossible thing that will not fit; ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag.