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.