As a result of receiving notification of the plans to rezone two properties in the Samish Neighborhood, I found that the company spearheading each of these rezones was owned by a member of our seven-member Planning Commission. In and of itself, this was not a problem, if the particular Planning Commission member recused him/herself from the consideration and vote on these rezones when they came before the commission. However, on further investigation, I learned that every member of the our present Planning Commission is involved with or has/had close ties to businesses that owe their existence to development, i.e., real estate, consulting, construction, architecture, etc. Here is the rundown of the currentmembers and their affiliations/employment:
Tom Grinstad – Architect with Grinstad and Wagner
Jeff Brown - In his application he describes himself as a long term owner of multiple properties who has navigated land use issues. Prior work involved consulting on solid waste collection contracting. Additionally, his wife works for Northwest Ecological Services which advises clients on wetland and shoreline permits for development. [ Note: Edited on 26 May 2015 - a previous version of this entry identified Jeff Brown as the Assistant Executive Director at Park Lane at Bellingham, a nursing home. This was in error.]
Garrett O'Brien – Volonta Corp. - A construction firm
Ali Taysi – AVT Consulting – Land use and permitting (His company is involved in the two rezones I mentioned above.)
Phyllis McKee - Investment real estate management
Steve Crooks – Petrol NW Consulting (He spent several years in Bellingham in the 1970s and returned in 2007. He is a retired real estate project manager. He was responsible for handling eminent domain and zoning appeal cases for BP Exploration Oil’s retail and distribution sites. He served as BP's information officer for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response team in the summer of 2010. He is currently president of the Cordata Neighborhood Association.)
Cerise Noah - Realtor/broker with Windermere Real Estate and President of the Whatcom County Association of Realtors. [Note: Edited on 13 August 2015 to add position with Realtors]
I must state up front that this discovery by no means suggests any member of the Bellingham Planning Commission is involved in nefarious activities based on his or her affilitation and appointment to the commission. What I do suggest is that we can surely have a more diverse body involved in our planning process. Of the tens of thousands of adults in Bellingham, are only those involved in development available to serve on the Planning Commission? How wide a net is cast at the time of an opening on the commission? Five of the current members will serve until at least 2017 (exceptions are Brown and O'Brien) thus ensuring an imbalance with development-related members.
Unfortunately, the one assured means of code-mandated neighborhood input into the planning process was rendered useless in 2012. The Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) was, by city ordinance, written into the process of neighborhood and comprehensive plan ammendments. The concept of discontinuing the involvement of MNAC (by ordinance) was proposed by Mayor Linville in late 2012, at which time the MNAC representatives foolishly voted themselves out of the planning process. (Note: I am a member of MNAC and voted against the mayor's recommendation.) With that single vote, they gave up one of the few opportunities for the neighborhoods, as a body, to officially weigh into planning and serve as a counterbalance of sorts to the preponderance of development-related representatives on the Planning Commission. The new city ordinance on the duties of MNAC (BMC 2.33.040) allows MNAC to merely offer advice: "The MNAC may elect to review proposed changes to the city's comprehensive plan and neighborhood plans and provide comment on those proposed changes for the Mayor to consider." The agenda bill (19808) of early 2013 that was presented by the mayor to the City Council stated that dropping the requirement to review these plan ammendments would allow MNAC members to focus on "broader, city wide issues." I am not sure what is more broad, city-wide or vitally important than neighborhood and comprehensive plan ammendments.
Not surprisingly, there also seems to be some confusion over the actual name of the commission. The city ordinance that authorizes the commission (BMC 2.24) refers to it as the Planning and Development Commission. The commission's bylaws, adopted in 2011, begin by saying, "The official name of the organization shall be the Bellingham Planning Commission." The name, Bellingham Planning Commission, was expressly selected with the adoption of the commission's 2011 bylaws and the Bellingham Municipal Code was to have been updated at that time. It appears council action is still necessary. Although there is a small difference in wording, the implication of dropping "development" from the title reflects where the emphasis should be, i.e., directly and emphatically on planning. Perhaps the future composition of the Planning Commission will reflect that emphasis.