On 21 July the City Council bypassed the Planning Commission and the Samish Neighborhood by considering for docketing a comprehensive plan rezone “application” that arrived at the Planning Department just days earlier. The rezone request is to convert zoning on property now occupied by the Church of Christ at 801 Samish Way. The ” application”, in the form of a letter (scroll to page 2), was hand delivered on 16 July by ZenderThurston, the attorneys for Pacific Harbor Holdings, LLC. which is the corporate entity of Pacific Harbor Psychology. The psychology group wishes to relocate from its present offices on Bellwether Way at the port. Its representative sought to assure council that it only intends to operate a psychology practice on the site, but for that it needs a rezone to Commercial Planned. Council discussion revealed that the present church on the site is operating under a conditional use permit.
As outlined at the City Council meeting, the site specific rezone would change the property zoning from Residential Single to Commercial Planned. Therefore, if the potential buyers ever decide to move to another location and sell the property, any building type allowed under Commercial Planned would be permitted. A rezone would permanently modify the current Residential Single designation and allow for activities such as a restaurant/pub, a service station, an apartment building, a heavy farm equipment sale site or even a motel; all these and more are permitted under Commercial Planned (BMC 20.38.050 C).
However, the council ignored the fact that docketing comprehensive plan ammendments (BMC20.20.020) is a Type VI process. This process involves notification of and meeting with the public and a hearing before the Planning Commission. Neither of these took place prior to the council meeting on the 21st. See Bellingham Municipal Code (BMC) sections 21.10.150, 21.10.170 and 21.10.180.
Furthermore, however laudable the claims of intent by Pacific Harbor Holdings, they are not guarantees. The Samish Neighborhood has heard these declarations of intent many times from those who proffered University Ridge and Padden Trails. These unenforceable assurances are irksome. The list of possible problems following a rezone is long: business partners die, management changes, business entities collapse, bankruptcies occur, partnerships disintegrate, etc, etc… No organization is immune. The Samish Neighborhood then becomes the “stuckee.” Pacific Harbor Holdings and ZenderThurston will be long gone. Future councils will exclaim, “How did that happen?”
This action by the church (Church of Christ), the buyers (Pacific Harbor) and the City Council demonstrates a manifest lack of concern about the thoughts and opinions of the neighborhood. Especially egregious is that the applicants are self-described churchmen and mental health professionals who ostensibly ought to be operating with integrity, not sneaking last minute rezone requests in the door without even approaching the neighborhood association. On the other hand, Mr. Taysi, the representative of the two other scheduled Samish and Ashley rezones met with the neighborhood to take our comments into consideration.
An acceptance by the council of this church property rezone proposal is, consequently, a slap in the face to Mr. Taysi and his clients who, foolishly it seems, played by the rules. Consequently, residents who cared at least had an opportunity to speak knowledgeably about those two rezones at the hearing or to provide written comments. No such requirements were made of the third (church property) rezone applicants. The Samish Neighborhood was not provided the opportunity under the BMC to comment on the Docketing Criteria of the church property rezone. With no apparent overriding rationale, the council moved to act unilaterally.
The manner in which city planning staff handled this issue is also most problematic. The letter from the applicant indicates that planning staff members “recommended that this request be submitted to the city council.” This indicates the planning staff and the rezone applicant were having discussions prior to 16 July. Furthermore, the letter was essentially buried by the staff in a pdf within the agenda packet item entitled Public Comment and Mailing Labels. So much for transparency. Without comment, staff essentially dumped it in the lap of the council with a non-committal shrug and an approving nod from the city attorney’s office that the council can do pretty much anything it wants with this last minute, stealth rezone. This reinforces a growing resentment among citizens, feeding a perception of laissez-faire activities within the planning process.
If the council can move unilaterally to accept any rezone application skulking through the door, it makes hearings on the docketing of some comprehensive plan rezones and not on others an absurdity, a useless exercise that only serves to enrage a public that is already deeply concerned about lack of integrity within its governing bodies.
Council actions on this rezone were an especially telling de facto dismissal of concerns of a neighborhood and the requirements of the BMC on Type VI processes. The council ought to withdraw further consideration for the rezone of the property at 801 Samish, now occupied by the Church of Christ, and inform the parties that they can resubmit their application in 2015 with concomitant discussions with the Samish Neighborhood as the BMC specifies. Manufactured urgency on the applicant's part does not translate into a need for precipitous action on the part of the council that ignores established procedures.