Motivated Reasoning Yields Useless Planning

When Bellingham Planning Department staff think “view corridors” are good things for the Fairhaven Neighborhood Plan, even if they are not needed, they get put into the plan. Such thinking is called motivated reasoning - and it was on full display as the Bellingham City Council rushed the plan to completion this month. Here we examine only one example of several possible.

For months, staff urged the Bellingham Planning Commission and council to include a view corridor down McKenzie Avenue with reduced future building heights of 42 feet - in areas with otherwise 56 foot heights according to the plan. This is a huge area, from 9th down to 4th Streets along Harris Avenue. But reducing heights for a 100 foot swath right through the middle of a building lot takes millions of dollars in future value away from a land owner.

At the June 18 council planning committee meeting, Seth Fleetwood specifically asked staff to explain the reduction to 42 feet, exactly what view would be impacted, and from where. Planning staff displayed a photo of the view down McKenzie and then, using a pointer, showed just how those 56 foot buildings would block the view of Bellingham Bay and the islands to the west. Then, they showed how 42 foot buildings would allow the bay and islands to be viewed from 12th Street and McKenzie.

The council duly kept the 42 foot right of way corridor. At the council meeting on July 2, they made their final tweaks to the plan and closed the planning process. They then instructed city staff to bring the finished plan to the August 6 council meeting for the routine vote of adopting it. This plan will have a 20 to 40 year life - and it is extremely difficult for a property owner to get zoning changed once the plan is adopted.

For months some of us have been telling the staff, then the planning commission, and then the council that this view corridor was useless and unnecessary. We pleaded for the facts to be established. And thus Seth's question on June 18 and again on July 2. After all, council members want to be able to trust city staff to give them facts so they can make reasoned decisions.

So, last week, a couple of us set out to establish the facts. We already knew a 56 foot building would not hurt the view because we can read a map. The city planning department's own GIS map showed contours that made it clear a 56 foot building would not interfere with views down McKenzie Avenue. So we citizens spent our own time and money to set up a simple experiment. We put a mechanical lift in the center line of McKenzie Avenue at 6th Street and raised it to 51 feet - which meant the 6 foot tall guy in the bucket was at 57 feet. Actually, because of sloping land and other calculations, he stood some 5 feet higher than any 56 foot building would stand.

At the top of this page is a photo of him taken from the sidewalk at McKenzie and 12th Street - the exact spot where the planning staff person took the photo shown to the council. Can you see him sticking out above the trees, blocking the horizon line? No? Well, you cannot see him because he is below the trees that border Padden Creek - a city greenway where the trees are taller than 56 feet.

Just below this article, is the staff photo used at the June 18 committee meeting - with the pointer showing a supposed 56 foot building height way up in the power lines. Just not true. But it caused the council to leave the 42 foot view corridor in the plan.

The Bellingham Planning Department has no process for verifying information it presents to council as fact. Indeed, this is true for many other aspects of the Fairhaven Plan - something several of us have watched during the 6 years of this process. The 42 foot view corridor is useless and unnecessary. Fifty six foot tall buildings will preserve the view just fine.

Will the city council delete this useless view corridor on August 6? Some of us hope so. It is the last time it can be done.

Some of us look forward to a very cool Fairhaven in the future and this is a prime area for a beautiful development: maybe a grand hotel; maybe a beautiful, modern, northwest style, multi use building. This is near the Alaska Cruise Terminal, the Amtrak Station, and the docks where charter boats depart for whale watching and San Juan Island cruises. It's where boats sailing the islands anchor or dock so as to come ashore and enjoy Fairhaven. It is a fantastic area with potential. Many of us in Fairhaven want the zoning to allow for something great down there, not a narrow compressed concept of 1890s style buildings. We look forward to the future with confidence, not back 120 years to imitate the past.

If you want to delve further into this issue, here are some links and information. The staff presentation was at the June 18 council planning committee meeting and can be seen in the video of the afternoon session from minute 94:00, (minutes:seconds) with the screen shot below taken at 96:26. The discussion of the view corridor ends at 98:15. The height staff shows for a 42 foot building is actually the height of an approximately 65 foot building. With the wind blowing, we did not want to go higher in the lift. But city hall, public works, and the planning department certainly have the ability to check heights and give the council accurate information. If they wanted to. I invite them to verify or check this evidence.

At the July 2 council meeting, they discussed this for almost 10 minutes trying merely to learn the facts. You can view the video from minute 233:30 until 242:22, with some especially edgy dialog by Cathy Lehman and Seth Fleetwood from approx 238:00 to 241:00. Staff shows a computer model of the view that is inaccurate, but has been used for much of the Fairhaven planning process. All this time spent to learn if a 42 foot corridor is needed - a simple question of fact. Staff gets it wrong.

About the additional photos posted below. In order to see the fellow in the lift, I moved uphill to 13th Street behind Haggens grocery store - some 15 feet higher. Two photos show this - first a wide view of where I'm standing next to Haggens. I then cropped the photo to only show the center area, and you can just barely make out the person standing on the platform with orange railings right in the center of the photo. By the way, the council approved zoning to allow a 56 foot building beside and abutting Haggens. Thus the view corridor will not benefit anyone east of 12th Street for several blocks. And as soon as one walks down to 11th Street, the trees block the bay and horizon.

One last ironic fact. See that tall brick condo building on the right blocking the view of the bay to the right? That is Harris Square, a 60 foot building at 10th and McKenzie. City planning made a “mistake” and allowed the building to extend 5 feet into the McKenzie Ave right of way - thus intruding into the existing and useful view corridor of the bay and islands. This was reported about 5 years ago in the Whatcom Independent when I was publisher. We never did get an explanation from city hall for how that happened.

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About John Servais

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

John started Northwest Citizen in 1995 to inform fellow citizens of serious local political issues that the Bellingham Herald was ignoring. With the help of donors from the beginning, he has [...]

Comments by Readers

Tip Johnson

Jul 24, 2012

Please correct me if I m wrong, but I recall that Harris Square not only was built egregiously into the right-of-way - established as a view corridor at the time a portion lower down was vacated for the Tennis Club - but the building was also built over the normal setback, adding several more feet of Planning oversight to this “irony”.

Or is morony a word?  Because if it is, this is a great example of planning morony.

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