You can’t fight city hall: city hall doesn’t fight fair

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Pat McKee guest writes this. He is a resident of Sunnyland and was a leader in their seven year planning effort.


The future look of Bellingham's distinctive single family neighborhoods will soon be on display in Sub Area 8 of the Sunnyland Neighborhood. Sub Area 8 is located between Sunset Dr. and Illinois St, adjacent to the blue dome of St Sophia Church. The four acre area is commonly referred to as “the DOT site.”

The Bellingham Planning Department staff took extraordinary, unprecedented steps, so you can see what they're going to do to your neighborhood in the near future. The planning staff amended the infamous “Infill Toolkit Code” Chapter 20.28.020.A by simply adding the words “and in Area 8 of the Sunnyland Neighborhood.” For the first time, in a “residential single-detached” zoning area, all infill housing forms can now be constructed in Sub Area 8. Everything from courtyard apartment buildings, townhouses, triplexes, cottage houses, carriage houses, and detached ADU's are permitted. Normally, amending city code requires 30 days public notice, followed by Planning Commission and Bellingham City Council public hearings. Letters are sent and public testimony is recorded. None of the above was done in this case.

Mayor Linville and her staff are planning to insert tool kit housing forms into older center-city neighborhoods. The mayor no longer uses the term “infill housing.” The mayor and Council Committee Chairman Weiss are working on ways to locate “innovative housing” in areas where infrastructure, and transit are in place. Translated, that means the distinctive, older single family neighborhoods we know and love, will be in-filled.

In 2007, the Sunnyland Neighborhood Association (SNA) held large neighborhood meetings, distributed questionnaires, and conducted neighborhood surveys. There was a strong consensus in the neighborhood that Sub Area 8 should be rezoned similar to the surrounding single family zoned areas. SNA drew up an amendment and rezone proposal for Sub Area 8. The zoning was “Residential Single, Detached.” Density was described in dwelling units per square foot. Lot sizes were flexible. This was intended to make the most efficient use of the land available. SNA estimated that lot sizes would range from 3600sf. to 5000sf. Seven dwelling units per acre, or a total of 28 dwelling units would be permitted on the site. Craftsman-style home design standards were required. The plan offered a possible future option of two unit, owner occupied townhouses fronting on Sunset Dr. In 2008, Bellingham Planning Director Tim Steward stated that the SNA Sub Area 8 amendment and rezone proposal met all of his criteria, and he docketed the proposal for consideration by the City Council.

Ever since 2008, planning dept staff have wanted to use Sunnyland's Sub Area 8 as a stage on which to display infill housing forms. The SNA Sub Area 8 rezone plan was largely a traditional single family zoning proposal, and did not fit in with planning staff goals. City staff tried to discredit, and block the SNA proposal. From 2007 to 2014, the Bellingham Planning Department never scheduled a City Council public hearing for the SNA rezone proposal.The planning department pulled every trick in the book to block or delay the SNA proposal from consideration by the City Council. In February 2010, after waiting for two years on the city docket, the planning dept dropped the SNA proposal from the docket. SNA was given no notification or explanation. In July 2012, the City Council put the SNA proposal on the annual docket for the second time. The planning department delayed a City Council public hearing for two more years.

In July 2014, the City Council held a public hearing to consider the SNA DOT Site rezone proposal. At the hearing, planning staff submitted a completely new alternative rezone proposal for the council to consider. The City Council rejected the staff proposal, and referred the SNA proposal to the Council Planning Committee. The next Council Planning Committee meeting on August 4th was supposed to discuss the SNA rezone, but once again the planning department staff brought another alternative proposal. The planning department proposal permits townhouses, cottage houses, carriage houses, detached ADU's, and small detached houses. The plan allows 35 primary dwelling units. ADU's will likely bring the actual dwelling unit count to over 40 units. The zoning is “Residential-single-detached/mixed.” The use of the “mixed” qualifier permits attached housing like townhouses and leaves open the possibility for multi-family housing with future Sub Area 8 code changes. This time the council committee dropped the SNA proposal, and accepted the planning staff rezone proposal.

On August 11th, the full City Council approved a planning staff amendment and rezone of Sub Area 8 in Sunnyland by a 5-1 vote. The well paid, full time city staff made certain that the hundreds of hours of volunteer citizen work that went into Sunnyland's proposal was never considered by City Council.


About Guest Writer

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jun 15, 2008

Guest Writer is for over 100 articles by individuals who are not regular writers. Their actual name and brief info is listed at the top or bottom of their articles.

Comments by Readers

Gene Knutson

Aug 22, 2014

City Hall doesn’t fight fair, well paid staff, unprecedented steps, are very sad words Patrick. I do agree that you and your group got a raw deal from the last two planning directors and two past mayors but this council and mayor and staff have bent over like pretzels trying to find something that works. Let me quote from the code that has everybody all worked up, The council can modify,change,reject or come up with there own plan when it comes to a docketed plan. Again this plan was not vetted by the planning dept but it is not our fault or the current directors fault either. You quote the Toolkit, Terry and I tried to get that out and were told by you and others no we have to keep it in, then Mr. Edelstein gave in and told staff he would try it and so Greg brought forward an amendment and it was passed. Nothing illegal or deceptive just an idea that was agreed to. The council worked very hard to keep that area single family and I think we did.


Patrick McKee

Aug 23, 2014

The Growth Management Act limits changes to Comprehensive Plans to once a year. Bellingham uses an annual docketing process to comply with State law, and consider Neighborhood Plan amendments once a year. The docketing process is spelled out in City law. A key provision of that law is BMC 20.20.020.A, “Only the city council can place a proposed amendment on the review docket”
    The City Council placed a Sunnyland Neighborhood Plan Amendment on the annual docket for review in July 2012. The proposed amendment will get a city council public hearing on July 21, 2014. The Council can “Approve, Modify or Deny” (BMC 20.20.020.B) the proposed amendment.   
    Since the SNA amendment was docketed in July 2012, the Planning Dept has never met with the SNA Board to discuss possible modifications to the SNA amendment. The Planning Dept chose to ignore city law, and write their own new proposal. The Planning Dept has added this “Alternative Proposal” to the July 21st agenda to be considered for approval by City Council. The SNA proposal and the Alternative Proposal are fundamentally different. One is a “single-family use type” proposal. The other is a “multi-family use type” proposal. The SNA proposal envisions an area dominated by single-family detached homes. The “Alternative Proposal” does not require even one single-family detached house to be built on the site.
    The Planning Dept is misusing the amendment process to make changes to the Comprehensive Plan, which were never docketed by the City Council. The Planning Dept is taking an applicant’s proposed amendment and turning it into something the applicant never intended.
    The Planning Dept “Alternative Proposal” was not docketed by the City Council, as is required by BMC 20.20. Therefore, the proposal should be dropped from the July 21st Public Hearing agenda.