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Padden Trails Rezone – You Should Be Worried

By On

The owners of the 113 acres in the Samish Neighborhood known as Padden Trails have filed for a rezone of their property (click here ) from single family (20,000 sq. ft./unit ) residential to multi-family residential (10,000 sq.ft./unit). The land, located immediately east of I-5 and south of Connelly at the outermost edge of the city limits, is characterized by steep slopes and wetlands and has been zoned since 1969 for about 246 single family homes. Since the terrain will not readily allow such use, the developers have sought to rezone the property and paraded forth, in part, the Infill Tool Kit ordinance in an attempt to justify building 492 housing units. In essence, these developers bought a pig in a poke and are now asking the city to bail them out via a Type VI rezone (click here) and ignore the desires of the Samish Neighborhood as well as the inappropriateness of placing dense zoning on the outskirts of the city. When you think Padden Trails, think spot rezone.

[Note: The Infill Tool Kit was designed for urban villages, not neighborhoods zoned as single-family. Those of us who fought the Tool Kit thought the city understood this, in spite of its having been approved by the City Council. Unfortunately, one need go no further than the present Sunnyland Neighborhood opposition to the rezone of the former DOT site. This was an early prime example of the attempted misuse of the Tool Kit to provide financial well being for a developer at the expense of the desires of people who actually live there.]

Of primary concern with the respect to this rezone is Padden Creek. It flows along the northern boundary of the property and the runoff from this more intense development would flow through other neighborhoods on its way to the bay. These terrain features did not just pop up last year like a pimple on your date’s nose on prom night. The owners want to plant 292 single family homes (i.e., Infill Tool Kit types such as cottages and townhomes), plus 200 multi-family units, for example, condominiums. To date, the Coalition of South Neighborhoods has written in opposition to this rezone (click here). Given the downstream effects of such a development, they will be the recipients of this polluted runoff.

Not only is the property far from the inner core of the city and any urban village, but also there is only one street exit onto Connelly just east of the I-5 access ramps. This dumps all traffic from the planned 492 housing units onto an arterial that is ill-suited to absorb such volume. In one direction, the traffic immediately encounters the already poorly designed I-5 interchange, and in the other direction, the traffic will have to contend with the “stair step/faux arterial” route to Samish Way. Alternative routes include 34th and 36th streets northbound, neither of which is designed as an arterial. The Transportation Commission has already turned a skeptical eye toward this aspect of the development during its October 2011 meeting (click here) and the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) was equally unconvinced at the October 2011 meeting on various counts they will convey to the mayor in a letter. Moreover, the area is not now served by public transportation, nor is it likely to be in the foreseeable future given the wretched fiscal state of our transit system.

In his presentation before the MNAC, Samish Neighborhood Board President Joe Carpenter opined that we might also think about the likely appearance and use of this development down the road a few years. Given the relatively lower cost of these units, one might reasonably imagine reversion to rentals and the kind of degradation seen already in the Magnolia Hills development (south of the Clean Green site). In this area, investors swooped in after the initial cohort of owner-occupiers sold these small lot homes. Today, the area is a rental horror show, full of cars, trucks, boats, and similar such objects that seem to be prized in this city as lawn ornaments. Given the total lack of parking restrictions, the roads within Magnolia Hills can barely accommodate a single lane of traffic. Need we recreate that within Padden Hills?

The developers say this will not happen with Padden Hills because restrictive covenants will be placed on the properties to avoid degradation. Although, in theory, covenants are meant to prevent deterioration within a development, in practice, covenants pit neighbor against neighbor, ultimately forcing problems into the civil court system at cost to be borne by the homeowners. In contrast, existing city ordinances, many of which are unfortunately and selectively ignored in this city, are enforced by the municipality that represents the entire populace. Citizens should not have to resort to private, civil and legal engagement for enforcement processes that already exist in city code for the common weal.

One of the most exasperating aspects of this rezone request is that the Planning Department, in the staff report to the Planning Commission and City Council (click here), has already provided wording for a change to the Samish Neighborhood Plan Narrative as it relates to area 6 of the Samish Neighborhood and the rezone (see page 4 of the Staff Report). This calls into question the enthusiasm of city government for the opinions of the very neighborhoods whose engagement the city claims to welcome. It seems the rezone is a fait accompli for the Planning Department.

In the staff report, the Planning Department also attempts to comment on the long term benefits and best interests of the rezone to the community. However, this seems a question best answered by the community, not the city’s Planning Department. The community’s judgment of its best interests should, at a minimum, be given greater weight considering these people are speaking about THEIR collective interests.

Under each of the conditions for approval of the requested rezone, the staff report juxtaposes Padden Trails LLC’s responses with those of the Planning Department. (Click here) This approach omits the comments by the Samish Neighborhood and others who have sent written opinions. (You can read the Samish neighborhood’s letter to the Planning Commission here) Placing all of the objections and other points of view from the public in the annexes and attachments, forces the Planning Commission, and eventually the City Council, to flip back and forth through the report to view specific objections of the public as it considers each item in the staff report. This grossly minimizes and degrades comments from citizens who already operate from an institutionally created disadvantage. The staff report is a conversation in which those who are most affected, the PEOPLE, are left out.

These observations are but a few examples regarding not only the inadvisability of this particular Padden Trails rezone, but also the distorted planning process and inherent disadvantage for neighborhoods attempting to resist Type VI rezones. This ill-advised rezone goes before the Planning Commission on December 1st. (Click here, here and here for more information)

* The original request in Nov. 2010 for docketing was for 6,250 sq. ft./unit. The next application in Jan. 2011 to the Planning Commission called for 8,000 sq. ft./unit. Then the developer reverted in July 2011 to 10,000 sq. ft. /unit calling for 292 single family units and 200 multi-family units.

[Note: For the purposes of disclosure, I am a member of the Board of Directors of the Samish Neighborhood. My comments above are in no way meant to represent the position of the Board of Directors or the members of the Samish Neighborhood Association. ]

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About Dick Conoboy

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

John Watts

Nov 15, 2011

The Toolkit adopted is a good thing, but how it’s used is the real test. For the property in question, the number of single family dwelling units seemed already high, so an up zone for twice that number seems unreasonable and unjustified. That’s why this is a request, not a done deal.
Looking back at the Birch Street development several years ago, that was also excessively zoned for the terrain and access. In that case, 42% of the property was considered un-developable, so the building footprints had to be reduced to accommodate the zoning density, using a cluster approach -generally regarded as a useful tool to reduce impervious surface area.
Birch Street developers wanted 172 houses, but since only one full time entrance/exit was there, the City limited the number of homes to 100 -the maximum number historically allowed for a cul-de-sac. Fire Dept wanted no more than 30; Planning wanted no more than 50, but had allowed up to 100.
I suspect this property might be subject to similar restrictions; if more than 100 DU’s are approved, that would mean a second, full-time entrance/exit would be required; good luck with that!
Search Hamstertalk for ‘Birch Street’ for more info.

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Dick Conoboy

Nov 15, 2011

John,

It was quite clear during the debate that ran up to the adoption of the Infill Tool Kit by the City Council, that the Tool Kit was to be used for infill in the “urban villages” and the city center and not in single family zoned areas, especially those on the city’s edge. There appears to be no recognition of this with the planning staff’s report.  It’s just “Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full’, while they blabber about how to get around all the sticky wickets. We who opposed the Tool Kit said that this was going to happen, and it is now coming true.  Our former planning director who orchestrated all this has slithered off to Mercer Island and is no longer available to answer for the subterfuge or remind the planning staff of the agreement with the citizens. We are tired of being taken for chumps.

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Wendy Harris

Nov 15, 2011

This is an extremely poor planning effort.  Just try to reconcile the Staff report, the zoning application and the supporting documents, including an Amended SEPA checklist.  The final application is for 615 housing units, while the supporting documents are for 492 units. Why was a SEPA determination and Staff report drafted for units that do not correspond to the application? 

The City references site plans and building schematics that were submitted in support of the application, but then admits that the site plan and schematics contain inadequate information for a substantive review, and have not been reviewed for feasibility or consistency with City Code.

If an area is too steep and environmentally sensitive to allow much development, as admitted by the City, it should not be rezoned residential multi-family.  Note that even after the proposed rezone, this will remain a low density area.  Infill is being used here not to increase density, as intended, but to provide for development “flexibility” and clustering (i.e., inappropriate development in critical areas.) 

It is clear that the City did not want to say no to a project that the developer intended to develop in the future.  Intentions do not vest… only land use applications vest.  The rezone is an attempt to justify development that is discouraged under current land use regulations.

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Dick Conoboy

Nov 16, 2011

Wendy,

Thanks for an altogether different perspective.  There is just so much wrong with this proposal from any number of angles that it is hard to formulate a coherent response. 

The number of units has varied over time in that the developer has been flopping about,trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear to please the city and to attempt to gain the support of the neighborhood.  The neighborhood is not buying.  Nor should the Planning Commission.

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Tip Johnson

Nov 16, 2011

Someone wise once said, “All politics is local.”  A corollary is that 90% of local politics is land use.  That’s why bad planning contributes to hostile local politics.  Contention, confusion and disappointment are a bad basis for civic dialog.  It used to be that contentious land use issues finally ended up before the City Council, where neighbors could rely on some vestige of representation.  City Councils are statutorily charged with “conditioning” development requests in the community’s best interests. Over the years, the administration has systematically assumed - shall we say, the council has abdicated - that responsibility.  Now, neighbors must front hundreds of dollars to have the Hearing Examiner decide, and usually follow the recommendations of planners.

This project could become a premier example of why neighbors don’t trust the Planning Department.  Sure, the upzone is inconsistent with the goals, policies and objectives of the Neighborhood.  Planning doesn’t care because they feel they have broader city-wide objectives to pursue.  It’s not just because the toolkit will be applied where it was not intended.  Planners really want to try that stuff.  The kicker for me, and the point that will likely have the longest political effect, is the bait-and-switch deception of the Padden Creek daylighting project.

For years, the City has suckered environmentalists into supporting the daylighting project on the grounds that the poor salmon can’t make it through the tunnel under Old Fairhaven Parkway.  Daylighting the creek would improve fish habitat, they said.  Of course, also on their minds was the FEMA flood plain in Happy Valley, a designated problem that upstream development would exacerbate.  With downstream constrictions removed, upstream development is freed.  Now comes the test.  Will development be sensitively designed to protect against destructive peak flows and toxic loads inimical to fish habitat?  Or will planners dense-pack the upper reaches of the watershed, turning Padden Creek into a storm sewer?  We shall see!

Until we reinstall neighborhoods in the process of zonning and land use approvals, planners will be trying to engineer them, abstractly, from their books.

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Dick Conoboy

Nov 16, 2011

Tip,

Thanks for your comments which are “spot on”, in the current lingo.  :-)

I wish these zoning struggles only meant hundreds of dollars to the neighborhoods but to adequately oppose developers who have 24/7 assistance from lawyers and consultants we are really talking about thousands of dollars.  There is also the purely voluntary time and effort put forth by neighborhoods to bring some common sense into the conversation.  But neighborhoods are filled with everyday folks who just don’t have the time, information and stamina to oppose developers who descend like so many gnats.  Samish neighborhood is in the (un?)enviable position of having a large quantity of undeveloped land and will,no doubt, continue to be confronted with rezones and Tool Kit (mis)-use requests that do not fit the Neighborhood Plan.  As you have so nicely articulated, the council, which should be standing for the community, rolls over in the face of a glib presentation from the Planning Staff and the razzle-dazzle preseentations from the consultants to the landowners.

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John Watts

Nov 16, 2011

I do agree this is a serious matter, but often lightening up a bit may help one see where it fits in a community discussion.
The old ‘system’ of involving each neighborhood every time a Comp Plan revision was due was simply unworkable.
Also, the practice of having the sitting City Council weigh in on every land use decision was unworkable -and for multiple reasons. One is the inordinate time requirement that Tip remembers so well, but which also drags in staff and citizens to attend meetings that often did nothing but stir controversy, waste time and result in decisions no one really supported. Another, more important reason that Council’s involvement was inherently inconsistent, and sometimes illegal or unfair, and promised results that weren’t reasonably possible -sometimes leading to unnecessary legal actions and delays that cost the City & citizens much more than they were worth.
I know many still believe the old ‘system’ was better, and in some respects it was; but in most instances I experienced that ‘system’ was really a lack of any system!
That is why I strongly supported the very common practice of assigning complicated land use decisions to a competent Hearing Examiner, with the proviso that exceptional cases would continue coming to the Council for resolution. And, that system has worked rather well with few exceptions.
The matter of neighborhood involvement is always important, but it too, is rife with potential problems; like who actually represents a neighborhood any better than its elected representative? What constitutes a neighborhood? Do only established neighborhoods have a ‘character’. What about the rights of a property owner? Does every disagreement rate multiple meetings? Would a neighborhood Ombudsman help?
What about the overall planning goals the City must adopt and periodically update?
Sure, ‘common sense’ is important, but obeying the laws & regulations are the things by which we govern ourselves! Want to throw all those out? What would replace them?
This subject is always one that will beget arguments and controversy, but its our choice whether to participate in every ‘cause’ someone can dream up.
The elected officials have a job to do, other than listen to continuous complaints about things they often have little control; after all there is a City to run as well as funding and time constraints that are real.
If citizens do not trust their elected officials to do what they want, there is one sure remedy; vote them out -or run yourself -that would be an education to almost everyone I know!
One last thing bears repeating; don’t forget to lighten up!
Here is one prior attempt at humor, which may likely again fail, but hey, I tried: http://bellinghamstertalk.blogspot.com/2009/06/toolkit-complaint.html

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Wendy Harris

Nov 16, 2011

Another problem that I see is the infestation of Asian clams in Lake Padden. In Lake Whatcom, the infestation spread to Whatcom Creek, but the City has not yet determined how far and if other tributaries are affected.  Because a similar situation could (or perhaps does) affect Lake Padden, the City should not be upzoning this watershed until it has a handle on the situation and has determined a plan and source of funding.  The City can not continue to blame the County for actions that harm water quality and quantity while ignoring its own.

Sorry, John. I think you are right about not getting so upset, but I am not sure how unless I stop following these matters completely.

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