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Anatomy of a Development Proposal - Part I The Variance

By On
• In Bellingham, Planning, WWU,

Publisher note: This is the first in a series of articles that will dissect the proposal for a privately owned student domitory complex planned for the Puget Neighborhood. Dick Conoboy writes this first article and will be joined by other writers in the coming weeks. NWCitizen - featuring citizen journalism - has existed since 1995 to inform about government actions that are either not reported or are barely mentioned in the old media. We thank Dick and those working with him for their efforts to show us what an unusual proposal this is and how the city applies the codes that govern the approval process. We have a new category - University Ridge Dormitory Series - which will show all the articles on this project.


In late 2012, Ambling University Development Group of Valdosta, Georgia made known its plans to the Puget and Samish Neighborhoods to develop 11 acres of land in the Puget Neighborhood to build a complex of four dormitory-like buildings intended to house nearly 600 student renters under the rubric of a boarding house for students. The land, located between Puget St. and Nevada St. north of Consolidation Ave, is owned by Irv and Joan Hawley of Lopez Island. An initial proposal submitted by Ambling in early 2013 was withdrawn and later resubmitted in May 2013. (Earlier NW Citizen articles on this project can be found here, here, here, and here) The developer asked that consideration of the application be made as a consolidated process under the Bellingham Municipal Code (Type IIIA process).

The consolidated process under Type III does not include consideration by or vote from the Planning Commission and the Bellingham City Council, but relies on decisions by the Planning Director and the Hearing Examiner. Notice of Application and Pending Action was given by the city on 10 June 2013. You can view that notice here. Because it is a consolidated process, in this case the Hearing Examiner will be the ultimate approving authority. The reason for this is a height variance that is being considered as part of the consolidated process for two of the projected dormitory buildings, and the height variance can only be granted by the hearing examiner. A staff report from the Planning Department and the SEPA review will also be considered by the Hearing Examiner. The variance request can be read here.

In my analysis of the variance request I will demonstrate that the applicant has failed, on multiple counts, to meet the criteria established under the Bellingham Municipal Code for approval. The code (BMC 20.18) is very specific on the criteria that must be met. You can read those criteria here.

The developers have contended from the outset that this site cannot otherwise be reasonably developed; however, this is not supported by any evidence whatsoever. There are various reasonable and alternative uses, such as development as single family lots, as was done along Nevada St. and Marionberry Ct. to the west of the property (zoned also multi-family residential) and as an Infill Tool Kit development under BMC 20.28 Infill Housing, ideal for transitional areas between single family zoned areas and multi-family zoned areas. “These regulations (BMC 20.28) are intended to implement comprehensive plan goals and policies encouraging infill development, more efficient use of the remaining developable land, protection of environmentally sensitive areas, and creating opportunities for more affordable housing. The housing forms listed in this chapter are intended for use in city neighborhoods, urban villages, and in Bellingham’s urban growth areas as described in BMC 20.28.020.”

The owners bought this property with full knowledge of the difficult terrain and drainage issues/wetlands just as surrounding land owners purchased their properties with the full knowledge of the limitations placed on their parcels. Compliance with existing land use regulations is a reasonable requirement as the variance process was not intended to be used to maximize the economic development of, and return on, a particular parcel, nor was it intended to be a loophole for developers to skirt these land use regulations. Other perfectly reasonable development vehicles, including restriction of buildings to the prescribed height limits, are available as I mentioned above. There is no indication Ambling University Development will not proceed with this development absent a variance. The city need not reward or ensure positive outcomes of speculative land purchases.

The developer claims the development may improve views for about a dozen homes to the east of this parcel, however, what they don't mention is the negative effects of having the upper floors of the two buildings nearest to Puget St. visible from the homes above, largely due to the requested height variance. The developer’s request for variance attachment entitled “Proposed view from 808/824 Puget St” with the imposed images demonstrates that all light and noise from these easterly facing upper floor units will shine on and disturb these homes. Of particular note is the existence of balconies on these units where residents can congregate outside at all hours. Additionally, the fact is that most of the area is to be cleared for this project, with or without a variance. Clearing the trees and excavating the ground for the terraced building and parking in the areas is essentially the same given the need for parking lots and roadways. The hillside will be gouged and the trees shredded regardless. In any event, there is no data presented by the developer supporting the contention, “we will be able to disturb less of the existing land.” As for the developer’s reference to less restriction or impact on access to “light and air,” there are similarly no empirical data to support such a generalized statement. The meaning of such a phrase in the context of this variance request is indecipherable.

This project is in violation of the Growth Management Act as it now stands, by not maintaining the character of the neighborhood. [Follow this link to read the appropriate section of that statute] The site is surrounded by single family homes on three sides. At present the percentage of rental units in the immediate area is substantial but still tolerable. Many of these rental homes are now poorly maintained and operated, an issue the neighboring homeowners have complained about over the years to little avail. To the south, along the 100 block of 41st, 42nd, 43rd, and 44th Streets, are single-family homes on small lots, 36%* of which have devolved into rentals, to the utter dismay of the remaining homeowners who must abide the unplanned increase in density, parking issues, noise and poor maintenance. Along Nevada St. near Lakeway Dr. 20-25%* of these older single family homes are now rental housing with groups of students or young workers, each with an automobile along a narrow stretch of the road with limited on-street parking due to unimproved shoulders and non-existent sidewalks. The addition of nearly 600 renters will likely provide the impetus for abandonment of the owner-occupied single family homes to investors, thus ensuring the eventual total transformation in the character of the neighborhood surrounding these dormitories. Another rental ghetto will have been created à la High, Indian and Garden Streets, not to mention the totality of Bill MacDonald Parkway and Ferry Ave.

The developer statement that it “has heard that the Puget neighbors support our project” is totally unfounded. They provide absolutely no proof that this is the case, no written statements and no supportive documentation whatsoever. In fact, as mentioned above, the additional height of the buildings nearest Puget St. will actually increase the easterly dispersion of light and noise emanating from the upper floors of the buildings, especially with the addition of balconies that will invite residents to congregate outside the unit where noise can easily be propagated. The several meetings of the Puget Neighborhood residents, including the one sponsored by the developer on 3 Jan 2013, have been filled with homeowners objecting to this dormitory project.

The owners have already deeded 15 acres of land north of the site to the city and now want to use this gesture as a sign of good will to support their demands. This is totally irrelevant, as this deeded area is a wetland upon which nothing can be realistically built. To try to justify the need for a height variance on the remaining acreage to the south based on this claim has no merit whatsoever. Equally meritless is the developer’s claim that the views of the residents to the south will not be affected. Placing four massive 5 storey buildings within several hundred feet is not inconsequential to the 360 degree views of those residing along Nevada St., Marionberry Ct, 44th St., 43rd St., 42nd St. and 41st St. One should not confuse “views” with panoramas of the bay and city.

The developers claim that the “impact to the character and quality of the neighborhood will be a positive one” is a stunningly disingenuous statement given the nature of four dormitory structures with nearly 600 residents in an area surrounded by single family homes, given the massive influx of cars from the dormitory residents and their guests, and given the noise created by outdoor activities of hundreds of young students in a confined area. Promises by the developer to mitigate noise and other nuisance behavior are unenforceable and unrealistic. Sale of the developed property at a future date simply erases any such feeble assurances and dooms the area to perpetual tumult. Such buildings, essentially designed as dormitories, will prove to have little in the way of adaptive uses should this venture fail or ultimately be sold.

This property was purchased with full knowledge of the limits of the terrain, i.e. “the applicants own action.” That the owners now contend they cannot build the largest and most profitable edifices due to restrictions applied to all similarly zoned property is not a reason to grant a variance. A number of reasonable alternatives remain available to the developer such as housing under the Infill Tool Kit (BMC 20.28) or the subdividing of the buildable acres into lots for single family homes as was done to the property to the west along Nevada St. and Marionberry Ct., all zoned multi-family but built out as single family homes. In fact, the current owners of the University Ridge property owned the land that was developed about 7 years ago into the single family homes along Nevada’s east side and on Marionberry Ct. in conjunction with Cypress Partners Joint Venture and at that time did not shy away from an alternative use of that property zoned multi-family.*

There is absolutely no quantification of the developer’s claims of less dense development with the height variance. Without such figures, their claim is meaningless. Even if the claim were to be judged valid, the difference, which has not been provided by the developer, may be insignificant. However, one cannot make any such judgment absent the data. Again, the developer contends there are residents who support this “proposal as it will improve their privilegeson their property, however, no documentation to that effect has been submitted. If the developer is speaking of alleged supportive homeowners along Puget St. (a dozen homes), which is not altogether clear, The applicant is also ignoring all those along Nevada St. and Marionberry Ct. who have voiced their disapproval of this massive invasion of their backyards. Even the developer acknowledges considerable negative reaction from the homeowners at the 3 Jan 2013 meeting hosted by the developer. The developer’s statements such as “granting of this variance will not be unduly detrimental to the public welfare nor injurious to the property or improvements in the vicinity and subarea where the subject property is located” make no sense. Their plan is to cram over 600 residents into approximately 5 acres of developable land, (i.e., over 100 residents per acre,) in an area largely surrounded on three sides by single family homes where the density is about 12 people per acre.

The developer claims the variance will be “less detrimental to the public welfare and less injurious to the property and neighbors” and that “the proposed project is less dense than is allowed, leaves more open space and natural areas than would otherwise be allowed, and likely improves the views of the easterly neighbors” might be credible if they had informed the neighbors along Puget St. that light and sound from the upper floors of the dormitories closest to Puget St. would propagate across the roadway to their properties. Likewise, the prospect of 4 five-story buildings looming over the backyards of the existing single family homes to the west is not among the developer’s view considerations.

Ambling offers nothing to support their contention that the intent of the city’s land use ordinance was to provide height restrictions based solely on level terrain. One might as easily contend that the restriction was to prevent looming structures and shading, as well as to preserve or enhance views. The “perceived height” they refer to works from all directions, so that although the Puget St. homeowners might be spared their view, the other nearby property owners to the west, south and north must contend with four massive structures within a few hundred feet.

This variance should be rejected by the Hearing Examiner as not having met the criteria outlined in the Bellingham Municipal Code.

*Percentage calculated by reviewing the ownership data for each home on the Whatcom County Assessor Parcel Search site.

[Dick Conoboy is a member of the board of the Samish Neighborhood Association and the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission. His opinions above do not necessarily reflect those of either of these organizations.]

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About Dick Conoboy

Writer • 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 [...]

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