The Rule of Law - Bellingham Style

Byy On

Tonight the Bellingham City Council - after seven years of a confused, delayed and intimidating process - figured out how to force an illegal plan amendment onto the Sunnyland Neighborhood. For seven years, city planning has been trying to push their own agenda, but the residents used Bellingham city code - the planning code - to stop the city and have worked toward getting their own plan adopted. City planning law was on the residents' side.

The Bellingham City Council, made up of elected politicians, always showed great verbal support for the residents. Some council members almost swooned in their great affection. But in the end, it was all just for show. The council kept delaying and not approving the resident’s plan.

Council basically ignored the Sunnyland Neighborhood residents. Why? Because the residents - the property owners who will bear the impact of the plan - did not go along with the planning department and agree to the city’s plan. When the neighborhood refused to fall in line - guess what happened? The city simply suspended the planning process and waited a couple years. When they finally got back around to it, the city dragged out the process. And the council - the same folks who went to great lengths on Monday evening to explain themselves - allowed the planning department to delay and confuse the issue.

Tonight - with no advance notice or hearing or open process - the council simply changed city law to accommodate what they wanted and quickly voted in changes for the Sunnyland Neighborhood. Yep. If you cannot win under the rules, change the rules. And our City Council did that tonight. So much for the rule of law in Bellingham. See the illustration above for their insertion of the killer words into the Bellingham Municipal Code. Easy peasy.

Before they voted to degrade the Sunnyland Neighborhood, several council members spoke to an empty council chamber pleading their angst over this issue. It is actually funny to watch given the quick butchering they were about to do to city codes and a neighborhood.

One council representative said we should not criticize current planning and city officials because they were not there seven years ago. Well, excuse me Gene Knutson, but we citizens demand legal process in making laws - and we have the right to, and will hammer, the council for violating the law and our city processes. The council approved the Sunnyland Neighborhood plan amendment on Monday evening - not because it was the better plan, but just to get it off their plate.

Council members deserve personal criticism for caving to the planning department. Pinky Vargas was almost tearful as she claimed she did not deserve criticism. Sorry, Pinky, but you are responsible for not representing residents. And it is personal. Cathy Lehman would build skyscrapers there if she could; she never met an excessive building height she did not like. Gene Knutson voted for it because he is tired of dealing with it. Michael Lilliquist voted for it because, as he explained to us, he understands all this much better than we do. And finally, Roxanne Murphy, a resident of Sunnyland, has ignored her own neighborhood and shown little interest in the project, but she voted for it. Only Terry Borneman voted against it. Jack Weiss was absent.

This article is about a process I have seen on a routine and almost regular basis by our City Council for many years. Gene may say we should not blame these new members, but in truth they are upholding a long-standing tradition of the council by kowtowing to the planning department. Changing the law with no advance notice when obeying the law is inconvenient is the same as not having laws. Changing a law should require advance notice, a chance for citizens to participate - in short, an open process.

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

Walter Haugen

Aug 12, 2014

“Michael Lilliquist voted for it because, as he explained to us, he understands all this much better than we do.”

Spot on!


Tip Johnson

Aug 12, 2014

BMC 20.04.030 Purpose.

A. It is the purpose of this title to promote the health, safety, and general welfare of the citizens of Bellingham by coordinating and guiding both public and private development of land by means of a comprehensive land use plan which is, in part, carried out by the provisions of this title.

B. The regulations and standards of this title are intended to promote high standards of development for living and in the operation of commerce and industry in order to help assure a pleasant environment for the people of Bellingham.

C. In utilizing the comprehensive neighborhood plans as a basis of land use implementation, it is recognized that Bellingham is made of many unique and diverse areas each with its own characteristics, and further it is recognized that to treat these areas uniformly – on a citywide basis – would not conserve or encourage those peculiarities which distinguish Bellingham from other communities.


Mickey McDiarmid

Aug 12, 2014

What mostly infuriates me is they accepted the “sunnyland plan” and then went with the newly proposed plan from the city, which as we all know was never docketed to begin with. Why didn’t they stay honest and say they were going to accept the city proposal?. Gene stated we can’t always get what we want but we the people of bellingham and the residents of the neighborhoods should have a FAIR say. We weren’t expecting everything we wanted, we had already compromised for Mr Eddlestein we knew this would be a compromise too, but not so grossly changed to where there is nothing other than a former zoning label (that has been changed to unrecognizable). Not some manufactured special circumstance so the city can achieve, what they have changed rules and process to do, for 8 years. I feel we have been duped into believing there is a process in which we have a role only to find it so corrupt that it’s pointless to use our energy to become part of the process. This is what all dictatorships do, is make it impossible to oppose them.


Tip Johnson

Aug 12, 2014

Just back from a meeting with DOE on the waterfront remediation plan. It became clear that “public comment” has no intrinsic relation to the “preferred plan”, and that citizens who desire “influence” will have to take legal action.

Meanwhile, someone independently suggested we explore crowd-sourcing for legal action on matters of protecting the Salish Sea. 

Legal action may be an ideal application for the utility of crowd-sourced funding.

If you have interest and money you can slow or change things. Pay to play.  That’s the game these days.

Game on!


John Servais

Aug 13, 2014

Totally missing the point, Ralph Schwartz in today’s Herald writes how the council tried to satisfy the Sunnyland residents but had to do a little “... bending its rules ...” to achieve their plan.  He never revisits those words to explain and so the Herald fails totally to inform readers of the council’s very illegal actions.

I have tried to get a council member to address this issue - and the one will only talk about how the neighborhood should be happy.  They will not go near explaining why several city law procedures were violated to achieve this zoning change.  And the Herald is, as usual, giving cover to the council and not informing its readers of the news.

The issue is not about the plan but about the total violation of city planning codes to achieve the plan.  After seven years of confusing the process, in the end the council just decided to ignore city codes and do what the Planning Department wanted.  This is not compromise.  This is criminal action by the council.  That is why I wrote about this. 

Which neighborhood is next?  Yours?


Mike Rostron

Aug 13, 2014

Business as usual in Bellingham. Airport expansion without citizen input. 100 Acre Wood. The Padden Lake debacle. …and so it goes. Zoning and development decisions are made by the developers with collusion of the planning department, while citizen input is given little more than lip-service. The recent fearless leader of our planning department—like those before and those to come—simply moves on, leaving the residents of the neighborhoods to deal with the mounting costs and burdens of the developer’s latest schemes to increase population growth at artificially pumped-up rates, regardless of resident’s desires.

Meanwhile political office-holders and folks who should know better put forth spurious arguments for adding population density to neighborhoods willy-nilly.

They say such infill will help protect to farmlands. Malarkey! The only way to protect farmlands is by having the courage to zone farmlands for farming and to enforce those zoning laws.

The “so-called progressives” say people are buying properties in rural areas because they can’t afford homes in the city. Nonsense! Without exception, the people we know who have bought land in the rural areas of the county have done so because they chose to live there. These people want enough land to have horses, cows, or chickens, or they want to grow their own food, or they simply want to live in a quieter environment. In many cases they have paid more than they would have for a similar sized home in the city.

Meanwhile, valuable time and resources are allotted to ensuring that carpet-bagging development corporations get their greedy hands on the old toilet paper factory acres while the downtown languishes, and historic old buildings lie empty, threatening to turn our city center into a Lilliputian version of Detroit.

When most of our politicians are part of the pro-growth pro-developer cartel the average resident’s voice has little weight. Rather than just continually grousing about this situation, we are here proposing a possible step towards a more thoughtful and democratic process, to wit:

*We propose that Bellingham citizens unite and give neighborhoods, through their already established neighborhood associations, the power of veto over all proposed zoning changes within their boundaries. This would function as a check to balance the inordinate power that the planning department and development corporations are exerting at present.

*The way to do this is through the Initiative and Referendum process as described in the Bellingham Charter, Article X. We should put this idea to a public vote. We hope other neighborhoods will join us in this effort to give residents a true voice in preserving and enhancing the characteristics of their neighborhoods. 4,963 approved signatures are needed to refer this to a general election. It would be an initiative, not a referendum.

If the council and planning department knew that their decisions on zoning changes were subject to approval of the affected neighborhood residents, perhaps they might be more sensitive to the wishes of their constituency, and less beholden to the developers.



Hue Beattie

Aug 14, 2014

What is good for the neighborhood is good for the city.

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