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Seth Fleetwood for Mayor

By On

I’m a little baffled by the claim that single family zoning is exclusionary and therefore racist. Zoning is a government police power and was always intended to be exclusionary. But it was meant to segregate things like slaughterhouses, factories and quarries from residential areas as a matter of public health. Yes, people can be racist and some have employed covenants for ethnic segregation, but those are instruments privately affixed to deeds of private property, not a feature of government zoning. However, these instruments have long been deemed illegal, as has the “redlining” of districts that banks once used to limit housing loans on a racial basis.

Yes, segregated neighborhoods frequently emerge, essentially “ghettos” both rich and poor with every manner of ethnic group. For instance, Skokie near Chicago, Hamtamck near Detroit, Harlem in New York, many others. But the driving forces are economic and social, not a matter of zoning. There are plenty of justice issues that create disadvantage for many, but zoning only establishes “use type designations”. It’s our economic model, the real estate market, bank loan policies, utility and regulatory costs (as with hookup and permit fees) that tend to sort people into neighborhoods by economic class. Yes, economic classification creates ethnic “pockets”, but it is less a function of zoning or race, and mostly about income.

Trying to address social and economic injustice through zoning is like trying to solve traffic problems by building more roads. It won’t work. Traffic “solutions” only shift old problems around while creating new ones. Zoning solutions for social injustices will do the same. I support inclusionary zoning. New development should have an obligation to address community needs. But disrupting existing neighborhoods creates instability and opportunity for the “cut and run” mentality that makes things worse for those who would build community.

I have been involved in Bellingham planning since the formulation and adoption of the first comprehensive plan - and through many later updates and changes. Until recently, these have all been based on citizen participation and neighborhood based planning. This includes property owners and residents of all stripes, and for nearly forty years has been based on encouraging stable neighborhoods to assure residents that they can safely invest in putting down roots and building community - whether or not they own. If that can be considered racist, I would counter that using police powers to disrupt that aim is equally fascist.

The effects of such disruption are all too obvious. When the university started peripheralizing their traffic and support services, buying a few properties and implementing non-conforming uses, a stable neighborhood was disrupted by increased impacts, and people started considering moving. The university acquired and destroyed eighty homes. There are many examples of “zoning creep” when developers apply for an upzone with the rationale that past actions already wrecked an area up to one point, that the impacts make their use designation infeasible, so wrecking it a bit more is the solution, usually involving an upzone.

A developer once traded forest lands with the state to acquire what is now Bellis Fair mall. At the time it was a tree farm with a covenant on the deed specifying it was to be used as such in perpetuity. Another covenant, predating the state’s acquisition of the property, specified that it could only be sold to persons of European descent. The developer correctly argued that racist provision was unconstitutional, and further that all the covenants should thus be vacated. The judge agreed, a rezone was approved that had the effect of stripping retail anchors from the city center and throwing downtown into a decades-long tailspin. Instability.

We can go to almost any point in this city and see the effects of this syndrome. Happy Valley eventually had to fight for a line of demarkation at Knox to prevent the outward university housing creep. It is a looong stretch to label Happy Valley racist, as it is quite diverse and has always advocated for affordable, mixed and alternative housing. The DADU movement recently adopted commenced in Happy Valley as a pilot project that never was. Instead it was unwisely adopted citywide, without any thresholds of neighborhood “infill equity”, and with excessive size allowances - up to 40ft tall under the height definition. Anyway, with all the fees, and remaining under market pressures, they are not going to be affordable. This has the effect of reducing affordability, especially relative to the unpermitted units that were always designed to remain inconspicuous.

There are some ways zoning can be used to modestly improve affordability. New housing projects should be required to provide affordable units. Zoning for manufactured homes, and even RV park sites could create lower entry levels and create a gentler slope up the steep housing cliff many face when looking at local housing options. The university should be required to provide more housing for their enrollment, easing their excessive, imposed demand on local housing stock. But zoning is only one, and a minor, factor in the market pressures that add up to unaffordability.

Supply and demand is probably the biggest factor. Ironically, anti-sprawl policies probably contribute much to supply shortages that drive prices higher. The best way to protect housing from market pressures is to take it out of the marketplace with more public investment in permanent public housing. However, this can lock people into rental situations and make achieving an equity position in the community more difficult. The argument has been made that private property itself is the problem, but that is a systemic consideration we are unlikely to address - and one zoning cannot affect.

I support transitional camps and think much more could be done, as with tax incentives to adaptively re-use empty box stores and even their parking lots, or a public fleet of movable units for interim housing on property banked for future municipal uses. We must respond to a lack of basic shelter. But that is only the lowest bar. We need to build community.

Folks with some “skin in the game” tend to take a longer-term view of community. I think , given our system, it is advantageous to encourage home ownership. If we are going to use zoning, it should be to create new neighborhoods where people can afford to get started, not to perturb established neighborhoods folks have worked to maintain and improve.

Whatever neighborhoods we create, I hope they are such that residents can collectively develop and appreciate a sense of place. I’ve always liked NIMBYs. I think it a good sign when folks are willing to stand up and protect their neighborhoods. We will have lost the war when neighbors quit fighting the battles. The claim that folks are racist for giving a damn about the place they live is so far afield from the reality on the ground that, for me, it categorically discredits the ideas of anyone uttering it.

I think one of mayoral candidate understands this dynamic best, and it is why I support Seth Fleetwood for Bellingham’s next mayor.

Comments by Readers

Geoff Middaugh

Oct 15, 2019

Well said, and spot on.   Canidates that divide us, should not be supported.   Those that bring us together, should be supported.   You got it right.

 

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Wynne Lee

Oct 15, 2019

I basically agree, Tip. 

I further don’t think its racist, facist, socialist, capitalist, communist, elitist, Republican, Democrat, Green, sexist or selfish (choose your favorite bugaboo) or even merely ‘shameful’ to advocate strongly to preserve and expand areas of lower human population density. Lower human density generally affords higher population density for trees, flowers, gardens, farms, forests, fruit, birds, worms, mushrooms, bees and all our other fellow Earthlings and the habitats they need to thrive.

Can we all perhaps agree that governments (and their many business and activist enablers) should no dictate that *all* humans to be crammed into the densist possible housing, and that that’s a miserable primary goal of housing and zoning regulations. 

‘As dense as feasible’ is one of the favorite trophs in current dystopian fiction (has been for decades). I don’t accept that we peons (that is, all others than the 0.1% wealthy) should just humbly accept that we will ‘have’ to live in spaces just large enough for a bed, maybe table, clothes pegs and plugs for our e-addiction devices; maybe a toilet that you lift up your sleeping pallet to use.  Or on the street. Or in slums.  Or in communal apartments (described vividly in the real-life memoir “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking”, one kitchen per 18 families). 

We need genuine diversity in housing options, including - though absolutely NOT exclusively - single family residence zoned areas. Arguments that high density is always ‘more efficient’, the ‘best and highest use of land’ and fulfills the popular mantra “but people have to live *somewhere*.  Somewhere does not need to mean everywhere.

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 16, 2019

I wholeheartedly support Seth.

But if we are not also talking about limits of growth NOW, then all this zoning stuff is meaningless.  What conversation about growth will we be having in 10 or 20 years when options will be severely restricted?  What happens when 3,000 or 5,000 people per year want to move here from California’s hellacious climate?  How many UGAs will that take?  Like the teenage neophyte driver who looks no farther ahead than the hood ornament, we are failing to ask some of the most basic questions such as, “What happens even if we altogether eliminate zoning?”  

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Tip Johnson

Oct 16, 2019

The City with (Almost) No Limits
https://urbanland.uli.org/industry-sectors/city-almost-no-limits/

“Imagine a boomtown of 2.1 million inhabitants that sprawls jaggedly over 600 square miles (1,600 sq km), but without a multicolored map to denote areas for specific land uses or a formal zoning ordinance …”

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Larry Horowitz

Oct 16, 2019

Dick, thanks for acknowledging the elephant in the room:  GROWTH.

As you know, back in 2015 when the county and its cities were updating their comprehensive plans, many of us participated - or at least attempted to participate - in the population growth forecast dialogue.

More than four years ago (which feels like an eternity), I submitted a lengthy comment letter to City Council with the subject line What’s Growth Got To Do With It?,  asking councilmembers to consider a host of decisive issues, including the question, “Is additional growth beneficial or detrimental?”  On page two, I wrote:

“Growth in Bellingham, Whatcom County, and throughout the world has become both an addiction and a fetish.  But have we adequately considered whether additional growth is truly beneficial?  

  • Is it possible that the costs associated with growth exceed the benefits we receive?
  • Have we exceeded our Optimal Scale to the point where growth in Bellingham and Whatcom County has become uneconomical?

“Before committing ourselves to even more growth, isn’t it time we have a genuine dialogue about the costs and benefits that additional growth will bring? 

“Two months ago, I asked Planning Director Rick Sepler to engage in a dialogue in which we honestly address the question ‘to grow or not to grow?’.  I pointed out that this subject is generally skipped when we start talking about where and how we should grow.  

“Rick responded by explaining that the question to grow or not to grow “is not part of the GMA construct” so there was no benefit in arguing that issue.  I disagree.  Before adopting a Population Growth Forecast, I believe there is a great deal of benefit to be gained by comparing the costs of growth with the benefits. 

 “Isn’t analyzing the costs and benefits of different proposals something governments do all the time?”

Rick Sepler has turned out to be a huge disappointment.  Regardless, our new mayor has the opportunity to address this issue and others in my letter, including:

- Infinite growth in a finite world

- Exponential Growth vs. Logistic Growth

- Carrying Capacity and Limits to Growth

- Preserving Bellingham’s unique sense of place

- Affordable Housing realities

It is impossible to serve two masters.  Anyone who claims that their two top priorities are protecting the environment (including global climate change) AND stimulating local economic growth must be, by definition, schizophrenic.   As the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy asserts, “Economic growth is rapidly becoming the biggest threat of the 21st Century.  Growth, especially in wealthy nations, is already causing more problems than it solves.”

We need real leadership when it comes to addressing future growth, and I hope Seth will provide that.

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