Changes May Be In Store For The City Planning Commission

Byy On

Update Sun afternoon, Nov 13: We have added a link below Dick’s article to a 4 page pdf by the Responsible Development organization that provides an action plan on the issue Dick explains.

In a bold move, Council Member Terry Bornemann is bringing forward an ordinance amendment that will alter the composition of the city’s Planning Commission (BMC 2.42) by allowing no more than three members with certain ties to the development community. The amendment will also prohibit the appointment of more than two members in the same profession. The goal is to reduce any tendency toward group bias in commission recommendations by ensuring involvement by citizens not tied to the building and real estate trades and to increase citizen confidence in the commission’s decisions. Here is the text of Bornemann’s proposed change:

“C. No more than three voting members of the commission may engage principally in the buying, selling, developing, construction of, or investment in real estate for profit as individuals or be members of any partnership, or officers or employees of any corporation, that engages principally in the buying, selling, developing construction of, or investment in real estate for profit. This paragraph also applies to professionals, consultants, and advisors who contract directly with clients and customers that engage principally in the buying, selling, developing construction of, or investment in real estate for profit. The limitation of this paragraph includes, but is not limited to: real estate investors (land and real property), realtors, real estate developers, development and environmental consultants, architects, appraisers, contractors, and landscapers. This limitation also applies to those who actively engaged in any of these activities or
occupations within the last five years.

“D. No more than two members shall be engaged in the same kind of occupation, business, trade or profession.”

The crux of the rationale can be found in a 2004 article by planning commission expert, Dr. Jerry Anderson, entitled “Is the Wheel Unbalanced?: A Study of Bias on Zoning Boards”. “Zoning [planning] board decisions affect countless citizens in profound ways every day. The power to change a zone from residential to commercial or even industrial use can mean that your peaceful neighborhood may become a nightmare. A variance granted can mean increased traffic, more noise, light pollution, or obnoxious odors. Every decision a zoning board makes affects the daily lives of the city’s people - what they see or hear, where they have to drive, where they can walk, how they live.”

Because land use and zoning decisions typically involve large stakes - often pitting developer profits against the health, safety, and welfare concern of citizens - the issues of planning commission ethics and group bias are beginning to receive more and more attention. Several years ago, I wrote about our own Planning Commission (PC) [here] and its composition. More recently (October 19th) the topic was discussed at the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) having been brought forward by an MNAC member who, as I have done, questioned the current composition of the commission. The mayor was very cool to any suggestion that the composition of our PC be further regulated in spite of comments from MNAC representatives. One might ask why.

Bellingham’s 7-member PC is currently dominated by 6 members who benefit from development projects, including a(n):

Land use and permitting consultant;

Owner of a construction firm;


Real estate investor and property manager;

Landlord whose wife is an environmental consultant for
development projects; and

Real estate project manager (retired).

This composition has changed little since my article in 2014. The only difference is the appointment of Lisa Anderson, a longtime neighborhood association member, to replace Cerise Noah, a real estate agent who resigned from the PC. Prior to that, all 7 members were associated with development projects or the industry.

The perception that planning boards are often biased arises from the fact that they are often filled with individuals who have a built-in predilection in favor of development projects because they are engaged in, or retired from, occupations that benefit from these projects. Citizens who might be more sympathetic to the complaints of the neighbors impacted by development are typically left off of these boards. The potential impact of group bias is so great that the Oregon legislature chose to prohibit the selection of more than two commission members who engage in the buying, selling or developing of real estate. Additionally no more than two members can have the same occupation. (ORS 227.030). Oregon’s law has been on the books in its current form for more than 40 years.

It is all about good governance. There is nothing wrong with having a development consultant on a planning commission. Or an architect, realtor, contractor, developer, or environmental consultant. But when 6 of 7 members are engaged in these types of occupations, the entire commission is at risk of group bias. Biased decision makers not only threaten accurate decisions, but also undermine the legitimacy of governmental processes. The result is that people lose trust in their government.

Council member Bornemann deserves our support on this measure to correct the current imbalance. He can be reached at with copies to the entire council a Let
the mayor know that you support this measure at

Attached Files

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

Larry Horowitz

Nov 07, 2016

Councilmember Bornemann’s proposal is a vital step toward leveling the playing field for the average citizen interested in preserving Bellingham’s livability.

Attempting to influence a planning commission that is absolutely dominated by those who profit from endless development is one of the most frustrating experiences you can imagine.  We cannot continue to adopt policies and regulations that favor “growth for the sake of growth, at any cost.”

We deserve a more balanced and unbiased planning commission.  Mr. Bornemann’s proposed modification of the commission’s membership rules is an excellent way to accomplish that.  Every city throughout Oregon has been utilizing a similar rule for more than 40 years, and studies have proven that Oregon’s model is working the best.  This is not new; but it is essential.

We need this ordinance.  And Terry needs our support.  Please take a moment right now to email Council and let them know you support the ordinance that addresses planning commission bias. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

If you can make one call, please call Councilmember Dan Hammill and leave a message on his councilmember phone: 778-8213.  Dan’s vote is critical.

This is a remarkable opportunity.  Let’s make sure we make the most of it.


Bill McCallum

Nov 09, 2016


The ordinance proposed by Terry Bornemann is unnecessary. The problem can be resolved by voting against a nomination.

Mr. Bornemann voted 10 times on the current members of the Planning Commisssion and didn’t oppose any of them. Three of the members, Tom Grinstad, Jeff Brown and Garrett O’Brien have been confirmed twice.




Larry Horowitz

Nov 09, 2016

Bill, please allow me to offer an analogy.  It’s not a perfect analogy, but I hope it illustrates my point.

We know that there is a 2-term limit on PC members.  Using your logic, we could eliminate the 2-term limit and allow Council to oppose an appointment for a third term.  Instead, we retain the 2-term limit because we understand the benefits of having new PC members on the commission and providing a certain level of PC membership turnover.

Similarly, we recognize the benefits of having a balanced and impartial planning commission and understand the need to limit the number of PC members who stand to profit from their decisions to a minority (three out of seven).  The Oregon legislature agreed that such a limit is wise and adopted similar legislation that has been in its current form for more than 40 years.  Every city in Oregon has followed this law for four decades.

We shouldn’t require Councilmembers to voluntarily vote against a nomination in order to prevent an imbalanced and biased planning commission.  We should establish a legal limit that prevents the PC from having the potential of institutional bias.  That is what this ordinance does.  It removes the possibility of human error and sets a legal limit.  Just like the 2-term limit does.


John Lesow

Nov 11, 2016

Terry Bornemann’s proposed ordinance is long overdue.  I urge readers to support it and attend the Bellingham City Council meeting on Monday, November 14.

 My submission to Council follows:

Mayor Linville and Honorable Councilmembers:

I request that you support the referenced ordinance to address the public perception of occupational bias and ensure balance on the Bellingham Planning Commission.

I served two terms on the Whatcom County Planning Commission from 2005 to 2013.   From 2005 to 2007, the County Planning Commission held extensive public hearings on proposals to increase land areas and densities available for development in Bellingham’s Urban Fringe.  

As  County Planners, we had the opportunity to meet jointly with the Bellingham Planning Commission over the course of these hearings.   I observed first  hand the pro-development attitude of the Bellingham Planning Commission members, with the exception of Tom Barrett and David Auer.

I suggest it was the County Planning Commission that represented the positions of a large majority of Bellingham residents regarding environmental preservation and quality of life in  neighborhoods.  Particularly as they related to containing urban sprawl, the Caitac/Larrabee Springs project and the overambitious land use proposals for the Yew Street UGA.

County Planning Commission members are appointed by a majority vote of the Whatcom County Council.  Yours is appointed by the Mayor.  That should change.

The Bellingham City Council should take an active part in the choice of citizens that are tasked with the most predominant function of both City and County government.   Land Use.

At the time, our County Planning Commission consisted of 9 citizens from these diverse backgrounds:

—-One Orchard farmer and businessman

—-One Dairy farmer and businessman

—-One Sociology professor at Western

—-One realtor

—-One attorney

—-One Oyster farmer and business owner

—-One business owner specializing in the restoration and development of downtown Bellingham buildings

—-One County building contractor

—-One marketing manager for a manufacturer of material handling equipment

Of these (9) Planning Commissioners, only three could be categorized as being employed directly in the local construction and real estate business.

I can tell you from personal experience that this Planning Commission was efficient, effective and transparent.  Judging from the crowds at some of our meetings, which sometimes exceeded 100 citizens, I can confidently say that our Commission had a higher degree of public trust and support than previous—and subsequent—Planning Commissions.

I strongly urge that you pass Councilmember Bornemann’s ordinance and restore a balance that is now lacking in your present Planning Commission.

Thank you.

John Lesow




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