Update Sun afternoon, Nov 13: We have added a link below Dick’s article to a 4 page pdf by the Responsible Development organization that provides an action plan on the issue Dick explains.
In a bold move, Council Member Terry Bornemann is bringing forward an ordinance amendment that will alter the composition of the city’s Planning Commission (BMC 2.42) by allowing no more than three members with certain ties to the development community. The amendment will also prohibit the appointment of more than two members in the same profession. The goal is to reduce any tendency toward group bias in commission recommendations by ensuring involvement by citizens not tied to the building and real estate trades and to increase citizen confidence in the commission’s decisions. Here is the text of Bornemann’s proposed change:
“C. No more than three voting members of the commission may engage principally in the buying, selling, developing, construction of, or investment in real estate for profit as individuals or be members of any partnership, or officers or employees of any corporation, that engages principally in the buying, selling, developing construction of, or investment in real estate for profit. This paragraph also applies to professionals, consultants, and advisors who contract directly with clients and customers that engage principally in the buying, selling, developing construction of, or investment in real estate for profit. The limitation of this paragraph includes, but is not limited to: real estate investors (land and real property), realtors, real estate developers, development and environmental consultants, architects, appraisers, contractors, and landscapers. This limitation also applies to those who actively engaged in any of these activities or
occupations within the last five years.
“D. No more than two members shall be engaged in the same kind of occupation, business, trade or profession.”
The crux of the rationale can be found in a 2004 article by planning commission expert, Dr. Jerry Anderson, entitled “Is the Wheel Unbalanced?: A Study of Bias on Zoning Boards”. “Zoning [planning] board decisions affect countless citizens in profound ways every day. The power to change a zone from residential to commercial or even industrial use can mean that your peaceful neighborhood may become a nightmare. A variance granted can mean increased traffic, more noise, light pollution, or obnoxious odors. Every decision a zoning board makes affects the daily lives of the city’s people - what they see or hear, where they have to drive, where they can walk, how they live.”
Because land use and zoning decisions typically involve large stakes - often pitting developer profits against the health, safety, and welfare concern of citizens - the issues of planning commission ethics and group bias are beginning to receive more and more attention. Several years ago, I wrote about our own Planning Commission (PC) [here] and its composition. More recently (October 19th) the topic was discussed at the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) having been brought forward by an MNAC member who, as I have done, questioned the current composition of the commission. The mayor was very cool to any suggestion that the composition of our PC be further regulated in spite of comments from MNAC representatives. One might ask why.
Bellingham’s 7-member PC is currently dominated by 6 members who benefit from development projects, including a(n):
Land use and permitting consultant;
Owner of a construction firm;
Real estate investor and property manager;
Landlord whose wife is an environmental consultant for
development projects; and
Real estate project manager (retired).
This composition has changed little since my article in 2014. The only difference is the appointment of Lisa Anderson, a longtime neighborhood association member, to replace Cerise Noah, a real estate agent who resigned from the PC. Prior to that, all 7 members were associated with development projects or the industry.
The perception that planning boards are often biased arises from the fact that they are often filled with individuals who have a built-in predilection in favor of development projects because they are engaged in, or retired from, occupations that benefit from these projects. Citizens who might be more sympathetic to the complaints of the neighbors impacted by development are typically left off of these boards. The potential impact of group bias is so great that the Oregon legislature chose to prohibit the selection of more than two commission members who engage in the buying, selling or developing of real estate. Additionally no more than two members can have the same occupation. (ORS 227.030). Oregon’s law has been on the books in its current form for more than 40 years.
It is all about good governance. There is nothing wrong with having a development consultant on a planning commission. Or an architect, realtor, contractor, developer, or environmental consultant. But when 6 of 7 members are engaged in these types of occupations, the entire commission is at risk of group bias. Biased decision makers not only threaten accurate decisions, but also undermine the legitimacy of governmental processes. The result is that people lose trust in their government.
Council member Bornemann deserves our support on this measure to correct the current imbalance. He can be reached at email@example.com with copies to the entire council a firstname.lastname@example.org. Let
the mayor know that you support this measure at email@example.com.