Without horrendous effort on the part of a neighborhood, or even with horrendous effort, neighborhoods are hard-put to fend off unwanted development, some in the form of rezones. The rules of engagement are stacked against a public that plays second fiddle to developers who are aided and abetted by planners, an acquiescent City Council and a stacked Planning Commission. The mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission, that was statutorily in the planning process, has removed itself (albeit initiated and encouraged by the mayor) from any meaningful role, thereby abrogating its responsiblity as an official voice of the neighborhoods. The present Type VI process (for rezones and other shenanigans) is the poster child of unfairness. Its approval criteria are vague and subjective, the bar risibly low for developers and unbeatably high for citizens. Which is why over the past year, three rezones were approved in the Samish Neighborhood, none of which the citizens wanted in the form presented (with the exception of a few households). Each one represented a divergence from many of the stated goals and interests professed by the city through its own Comprehensive Plan and other planning documents. Yet instead of learning from our mistakes, we continue to piecemeal our rezones and review our stated policies and procedures later.
801 Samish. This was approved for a rezone from Residential Single to Commercial Planned (office only). The Planning Commission, consisting entirely of developers and related businesses, saw no reason to vote no. The city is crying out for residential infill but the council chooses to rezone almost two acres of prime residential land to commercial use to accomodate one business. So much for consistent planning.
Area 9 Samish Way - This was approved for a rezone from Commercial (non-retail) to Commercial Planned in order to accomodate the building of apartments. It was rubber stamped by the same Planning Commission. So much for citizen representation. The city laments having little in the way of affordable housing but asked nothing along those lines from this developer. We will now have another rental complex that will seek market rates, leaving the working poor in the lurch again. So much for consistent planning.
100 Block Ashley St. - This was approved for a rezone from Commercial Auto to Commercial Planned also to accomodate an apartment complex. The Planning Commission, not surprisingly, saw no alternative to this rezone. The city claims that most people moving to Bellingham are looking for affordable single family homes. Again, in an area that is rapidly becoming overcrowded, the council asked nothing from the developer of land that would have been ideal for the small and affordable houses proposed in the infill Tool Kit. So much for consistent planning.
[The consistency of the real estate and building industry is also in question. In none of the cases above did these groups come forward to implore the Planning Commission or the City Council to consider rezoning these parcels to include single family homes, especially affordable ones such as cottage housing. At the same time, they have been appearing before the Planning Commission begging them to consider maximum growth figures and adding several new UGAs to the city.]
Note that only a property owner can apply for site-specific amendments. The neighborhood is consulted only after the rezone has been framed by the city and the developer/owner in a pre-application meeting to which the public is not invited. This immediately places the neighborhoods at a considerable disadvantage by effectively discarding other options at the outset. (BMC 21.10.180 "An applicant is required to conduct a neighborhood meeting prior to the submittal of an application and after any required preapplication conference. The director may provide standard notice formats and guidelines for conducting the meeting. The notice shall include a brief description of the project, date, time and location of the neighborhood meeting and name and phone number of the applicant or their representative.") A ten day advanced notice of the meeting is required. This provides little time for residents to gather information and arrive with a modicum of familiarity with the issues. The meeting then becomes a venue for a sales pitch, framed and presented to an uninformed public. Nevertheless, while operating at a constant disadvantage, the residents vociferously opposed the three Samish rezones. Every time it was to no avail and the character of the Samish Neighborhood continues to degrade.
With the current work on reviewing the Comprehensive Plan, this ought to be a moment to study the processes that inform and direct (or misdirect) our planning. Instead, we seem to be piecemealing our efforts by rezoning first and only subequently reviewing policies and procedures.