There are several continuing and grave concerns regarding the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Ordinance update process that I initially wrote about last December in a piece entitled “City’s First Step to Rezone/Upzone Single Family Neighborhoods.”
Questions still remain: Has the city honored its prior commitments? Has the city complied with the terms of its contract with the neighborhoods? Moreover, has the city met the legal requirement – and the intent – of the Growth Management Act (GMA)? The chronology below indicates that the answer to each question is “NO.”
At a Sept. 7, 2017, work session, Assistant Planning Director Greg Aucutt promised the Planning Commission that his staff would present the commission’s recommendations to the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC), obtain their input, and then report that input back to the commission. But since the planning department staff did not meet with the neighborhood group as promised, none of that happened. Which left the commission without vital input from the neighborhoods to assist in their deliberations. (See exchange at the 0:40 second mark of the video at this link)
Then, at the Nov. 6, 2017, meeting of the City Council’s planning committee, Mayor Linville promised that staff would engage each neighborhood association in a dialogue, “prior to throwing something out there.” But staff has not met with every neighborhood, and the ordinance has already been drafted. In other words, staff is “throwing something out there” before meeting with each neighborhood association as Linville promised. (Her remarks are at the 1:34 mark of the video at this link)
The problems began at the earlier Sept. 7, 2017, Planning Commission work session, when commission members dramatically broadened the scope of the ADU Ordinance update: they recommended legalizing Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs) in ALL single family neighborhoods. By contrast, city staff’s recommendation was to adopt the Happy Valley pilot project and allow DADUs in single-family zoned areas “on a per neighborhood basis.” The “per neighborhood basis” process was first instituted when the Infill Housing Toolkit was adopted in 2009 and has never been changed. The commission’s decision is not only a rejection of staff’s recommendation, but a reversal of a longstanding process.
A second problem is that the public was not made aware of the extraordinary expansion from just one neighborhood to all neighborhoods. The public was not informed in the notice for the Sept. 7, 2017, work session. Nor were they made aware of this scope expansion when meeting materials for future work sessions were published. Nor was this extraordinary change mentioned when the notice of the public hearing was published, originally scheduled for Dec. 7, 2017. And, once again, this expansion of scope was not mentioned in the published notice to reschedule the public hearing to Jan. 25, 2018.
Finally, on Dec. 20, 2017, after-the-fact, the change that would allow detached accessory dwellings in one neighborhood, but was quietly expanded to all neighborhoods, was mentioned when staff re-issued a notice for the Jan. 25, 2018, public hearing. Staff’s failure to notify the public of this significant expansion of scope for three and a-half months brings us to a third problem: violation of the GMA’s requirement for “early and continuous public participation.”
The public cannot be expected to participate, on an “early and continuous basis,” if they are not informed about the content of the proceedings for three-and-a-half months. Expecting the public to randomly attend a Planning Commission work session or watch it on BTV does not meet the GMA requirement for “broad dissemination of proposals.” (RCW 36.70A.140)
A recent public comment to the Planning Commission about engagement is telling:
“You can’t just have a work session where the public was allowed to attend and have that qualify as including all the stake holders. You can’t have a dialogue or even receive input on an issue by “Educating” the citizens as to your position on that issue. Having a dialogue requires listening; and listening requires that you do more than just hear words. You must understand the concerns and acknowledge them as well as work collaboratively to find solutions to those concerns. While this process takes time and effort it is the only way to avoid the sense of alienation and distrust that the city has created with some of the neighborhoods.”
In 2009, the City Council committed to a process for adding Infill Toolkit housing units to single family zoned areas. That process is being pushed into the city’s memory hole. The ordinance that implemented the city’s Infill Toolkit (Ordinance No 2009-08-047) includes two clauses that describe the extensive public process, negotiation, and consensus-building involved in adopting the city’s Toolkit legislation.
In conjunction with the adoption of the Infill Toolkit Ordinance, the city also published the Infill Housing Toolkit Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) Sheet. This FAQ Sheet remained on the city’s website from the inception of the Infill Toolkit until just a few months ago when staff removed it. Item 3 of the FAQ Sheet documents the agreement regarding application of toolkit housing units in single-family zoned areas. This was a negotiated agreement between the city and the neighborhoods. It is a promise, a commitment, a contract that says “the Toolkit will not apply in single-family zoned areas.” The agreement specifies how Toolkit housing units be added to an existing single-family zone. The negotiated process requires a proposal by the neighborhood association, a property owner, or a developer using a Type VI legislative rezone. Notably, legalizing Toolkit units in all single-family zoned areas based on a recommendation by the Planning Commission is NOT part of that negotiated process; which is the fourth problem in our current process.
Because DADUs are specifically listed as one of the nine Toolkit housing types, the above process also applies to the legalization of DADUs in single-family zones, i.e, they are prohibited. The commission’s recommendation to legalize DADUs in all single-family zoned areas citywide violates this contract, which first requires a proposal by the neighborhood association, property owner or developer. Only the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association submitted a proposal using the Type VI process. No other proposals were submitted.
In November of last year, I wrote to the planning director about his remark that since attached ADUs were already allowed, adding DADUs was only a change in bulk and dimension. According to him, it was not a city-wide change to single family zoning and not really a rezone. I said:
“With respect to your comments about DADUs changing only bulk and dimensional requirements is a red herring. The fact is that DADUs were included among the dwelling types placed in the ordinance by the city council under the rubric of the Infill Tool Kit. That makes DADUs a Tool Kit form that REQUIRES a Type VI process and not some verbal gymnastics that redefine by administrative fiat what was defined as being included by council many years ago but now proves inconvenient. …I am baffled that the city now seems ready to spend considerable political capital and force this action forward for a housing type you have described many times and in different venues as not being one that will solve the city’s housing problems. Is this worth trashing a social contract with the neighborhoods? I think not.”
So, has the city acted in good faith? Honored its commitments? Complied with the terms of its contract with the neighborhoods? Met the legal requirement – and the intent – of the Growth Management Act (GMA) and their own Infill Toolkit agreements? Taken together, the four actions listed above serve to erode citizen trust in city government. The city should comply with all GMA requirements and honor each of these commitments, especially its contract with the neighborhoods to legalize Toolkit housing types, including DADUs, on a per-neighborhood basis.
[Note: This article is an edited version of a letter from the Bellingham Neighborhood Coalition to the Planning Commission. The original letter can be found here.}