Singing the Comp Plan Blues

As the city council takes up consideration of the comprehensive plan, citizen input is critical. Otherwise in a few years and in response to housing and land use changes, you will hear the uninformed say, “Who approved that?”

As the city council takes up consideration of the comprehensive plan, citizen input is critical. Otherwise in a few years and in response to housing and land use changes, you will hear the uninformed say, “Who approved that?”

• Topics: Bellingham,

As the city slides down the razor blade of the comprehensive plan process, the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission took up the discussion in a lively session on 18 May.  Twenty or so journalism students from WWU got an earful and a bird's eye view of the reality of city planning.  Several members of MNAC had expressed in February a desire to discuss the comp plan but the session was delayed from March into April at the request of the mayor who was to be out of town.  At the April meeting with the mayor in attendance, the agenda topic suddenly morphed into a discussion of the "process" of the comp plan when it was the clear desire of some representatives to discuss the actual plan elements or at least the most contentious ones.  Finally, at the May session, Rick Sepler, our planning director, attended and was ready to discuss not only the comp plan but also the city's level of service proposals, commercial rezones and the subdivision ordinance, all in the space of two and a half hours with an hour set aside for the neighborhood "roundtable" where reps report on their latest nooze.  This clearly upset a group of MNAC reps (this author included) who moved to make the comp plan the sole topic of discussion and to leave the other issues of less immediacy for a future meeting.  After all, the initial hearing on the comp plan is scheduled for 6 June and an in depth MNAC discussion after the hearing would be of little use.

After a short presentation about the comp plan by Lisa Pool of the planning department, the discussion began and centered around a three page letter from a group of citizens to the City Council, delivered to the council at its 16 May session.  The letter can be found at the link at the end of this article.  The group consisted of about 15 residents from seven neighborhoods and focussed on the following topics related to land use, housing and transportation:

1.  Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), attached and detached, and the need to have an accurate inventory of the existing units both permitted and unpermitted to have a baseline PRIOR to any discussion of revising the present ADU ordinance.

2.  The need for publication and enforcement of the owner occupancy requirement for detached ADUs.  Enforcement is spotty or non-existent of the necessity of the owner to live in either the ADU or the main house. 

3.   A determination of the true density of our individual neighborhoods that does not depend on the generalized census reporting and takes into account the overfill caused by unpermitted ADUs and illegal rooming houses (single family homes rented to large groups of tenants). 

4.  Policy statements regarding the use of non-conforming provisions of the Infill Housing Tool Kit in single family neighborhoods.  These housing forms were approved many years ago for use in the urban villages and in multi-family zoned areas and specifically forbidden in single family zoned areas. 

5.  The County-wide Housing Affordability Taskforce (CHAT) report that is now almost a decade old is included by reference in the comp plan update.  The report supports code changes that are not consistent with Bellingham's residential zoning.  The group that created the report was not representative of Bellingham's neighborhoods.  No neighborhood reps were invited to join the task force.  The report should be deleted from the comp plan.

6.  The half-mile wide transit corridors proposed in the comp plan should be taken out or re-written.  As presently offered, these corridors would alter zoning (increase density) along 1/2 mile wide swaths (e.g.,along WTA GO lines)  through single family areas.  This would devastate the character of these family oriented neighborhoods.  This is rezone by bus route and not at all compatible with good planning.

7.  Incentives for development should only be for affordable housing.  Each incentive, either in the form of a tax break or the reduction in impact fees, is a cost born by all of us just so the developer can maintain a level of profit he/she feels is proper.  Citizens ought to be informed of the actual costs of these incentives overall in the outyears especially since the city is now facing a severe budget crisis. 

There are a lot of rather small but significant items, as outlined above, in this comp plan that if put into effect overall would radically alter the zoning throughout the city to the detriment of many neighborhoods.

Let us also talk frankly about affordable housing, fairness and incentives across the board. Nobody is talking about an obvious remedy to high rents...let's all whisper rent control!  Stop the rent gouging rental industry.  Also, everything is more affordable if you are paid a living wage...let's all whisper a truly livable minimum wage increase! A great incentive for workers.  Now those are great additions to a genuinely comprehensive plan!

Attached Files

About Dick Conoboy

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

To comment, Log In or Register