It appears the Bellingham Municipal Code regulations on the number of unrelated individuals who can rent a dwelling unit may produce a big dent in the income stream of University Ridge for Ambling University Development of Valdosta, Georgia. The hearing examiner’s decision (you can read the document here) states in part:
1. The proposed use for Purpose Built Student Housing may be conducted on the site provided the units conform to the requirements for multi-family residential dwelling units and contain no more than three bedrooms per unit. The use of the property for four Boarding and Rooming Houses with 576 beds in 164 units, most of which contain four bedrooms, is not permitted.
2. The number of dwelling units on the site may not exceed 176, or the number of units to which the property is vested, whichever is less; provided that the number of units is limited to 164 unless the Applicant obtains a Transportation Concurrency Certificate for the requisite additional trips and complies with all other requirements of the Bellingham Municipal Code arising out of an increase in the number of units.
3. Occupancy of each dwelling unit is limited to one family, as defined in the Bellingham Municipal Code, which, with exceptions for disabled individuals and children with familial status, allows no more than 3 unrelated individuals. [See BMC 20.08.20 (F) (1)]
4. Use of the property for the proposed Purpose Built Student Housing shall be consistent with the materials and representations submitted by the Applicant in support of the proposal, including, but not limited to, the following:
a) Professional, on-site, 24-hour management,
b) Lease agreements that establish a no-tolerance policy for unacceptable behavior that could result in undue disturbance to other residents and neighboring properties,
c) Provision of a shuttle service for residents to and from the Park and Ride facility, WWU, downtown, and other locations, to reduce traffic to and from the site, and
d) Provision of parking spaces at a ratio of at least 0.75 parking spaces per resident/staff (or the number required in Paragraph No. 9 below, whichever is greater).
This means Ambling’s plans for four bedroom units will not be permitted. The company had designs to separately rent each of four bedrooms in an apartment unit for approximately $650 per bedroom, with each bedroom carrying its own lease. This would bring in a combined rent for each 4 bedroom unit of $2,600, a hefty price for a unit that size. Most single family homes in Bellingham rent for less than that and landlords regularly fly under the radar with respect to the “rule of three” so that renters can often share a home with 5, 6 or more friends at a monthly rate substantially below Ambling’s $2,600 (or $1,950 when limited to 3 bedrooms). Further complicating Ambling’s plan is the recent modification of the development of multi-family rental apartment units just south of Fred Meyer on Lincoln St. The first phase of this project calls for 175 units, consisting of studios, one bedroom and two bedrooms) that reportedly will be marketed to the student population. [You can read about the development here]
There may be some controversy over the “rule of three” portion of the BMC, however, Bellingham’s city attorney has already produced a paper attesting to the legality of that code portion. (This assessment can be read here). There may be philosophical objections to the rule but the constitutionality of this kind of density control by municipalities was decided in 1974 by the Supreme Court in Belle Terre vs Boraas. (Click here to read that decision.) The code could be changed by action by the Bellingham City Council, however, that will likely not be of present value to Ambling. Even if the council were to change the code, the hearing examiner has foreclosed on Ambling's proposed density as not being appropriate for the site as noted in paragraph 1 of Permitted Uses (above). Furthermore, the council may not have an easy task changing the code portion on family since the definition of family is applicable to other portions of the code and may prove difficult to modify. This is among the reasons the council did not pursue changing that code portion several years ago.
A critical areas permit for hazardous areas will be required, according to the hearing examiner who already gave such a permit to Ambling for the wetland/buffer area. [“13. There is insufficient information to grant a critical areas permit for the geologically hazardous areas. A permit is required prior to land disturbance activities in this area and must be obtained.”] A portion of the property bordering Puget St. has been declared a landslide hazards area.
The height variance to 58 feet was granted for two buildings proposed by the developer that are nearest Puget St. on the eastern edge of the property. This is, unfortunately, a gift to the developer that was not necessary to reasonably develop the site. The upper floors of those two buildings will provide endless annoyance to the Puget St. property owners as the balconies open toward Puget St.
To the hearing examiner’s credit, she invoked the principle from the Growth Management Act of “neighborhood character.” Mere statements by the developer that the project would fit in splendidly with the surrounding neighborhood were seen, and rightly so, by the hearing examiner as so much twaddle. Trying to merge the concepts of college dormitory and single family homes is cognitive dissonance at its greatest and makes one run about screaming and tearing at one’s hair.
Perhaps Kathy Bell meant well in her NOTICE OF DECISION statement when she stated “Affected property owners may request a change in valuation for property tax purposes through the Whatcom Assessor’s Office.” However, this declaration leaves one slumped against a dormitory wall in utter stupefaction and exhaustion. It is as if saving a few hundred dollars in taxes is any meaningful compensation for the loss of property values and the constant disturbance this project will produce, around the clock, in the lives of the adjacent property owners. It is also a tacit acknowledgment of the tremendous negative effect of allowing this development to move forward.
The hearing examiner has given both sides until the 13th of November to file an appeal in Superior Court. Three weeks from the hearing examiner's decision date is a ridiculously short time period for the residents of Puget and Samish Neighborhoods to mount any sort of legal challenge. Lopsidedly, on the developer’s part there is money and a ready team of experts with attorneys whose job it is to ensure all legal challenges are met. Some say both sides are burdened with the same constraints. This is like saying both the rich and the poor have the right to eat steak any night of the week.