Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Council to Take Comprehensive Action

At last night’s City Council meeting the council members (Terry Bornemann was absent) voted to not continue pursuit of changing the definition of family for the time being but to look at a host of related issues, six being offered by Jack Weiss. Today’s Herald carries an article on the meeting. Click here to read that article.

First of all, I would like to thank all of those who turned out to speak against changing the definition of family and who provided accounts of illegal rooming houses in their neighborhoods. Second, I would like to thank the council for listening. I am encouraged by the list of issues which the council is about to consider. Perhaps someone was secretly reading my blog. A city planner and other staff are to be working on these issues, to wit:

Decriminalization of parts of the Bellingham City code to ease enforcement.
Landlord licensing.
Changing, in some manner, the definition of family.
Enhancing enforcement of code violations (upgrade of Litter Control Officer position).
Upgrading the nuisance ordinances.
Beginning a dialogue with the new WWU administration under its new president.

All of these are laudable efforts, however, as always "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." This should not deteriorate into simple noodle pushing. Over the next several weeks I will write separately on these six topics.

On August 13th, this blog celebrates its first anniversary. To fete the occasion, I have reproduced below my first blog entry, which was initially sent as an email to all the candidates running for city office. It is as relevant today as it was then. Perhaps I will not have to wait until August 2009 to write the closing chapter.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Single Family Zoning is the Issue

The candidate for any city office who wants my vote will have to provide some concrete solutions to end this mess the City of Bellingham calls zoning. Someone has to get out in front of this issue for once and for all. Who will be the one to lead? All the candidates are speaking to the issue of growth but none is bringing up the subject of the lack of enforcement of the "single family" residential portion of the Bellingham Municipal Code. Everyone wants to sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya. The problem cannot be solved as long as the city nibbles about the edges of the issue. By nibbling I mean treating the single family home matter as if it were a case of bad rental property owners, alcohol abuse, littering, public urination, parking, etc. These are all symptoms of a more basic problem regarding the approach to zoning enforcement in the city. We spend inordinate hours reviewing, rewording, revising and restructuring our neighborhood plans. Density issues remain a top subject among the citizens and the candidates. All of this becomes meaningless when the basic definition of what constitutes a single family (which is at the core of what constitutes a single family zoning area) purportedly remains elusive. Lack of enforcement has turned parts of this city, zoned single family, into rooming house districts.

I have heard countless times that the current code is unenforceable as it is somehow "unconstitutional." My suspicion is that this mantra of "unenforceability" has been repeated so many times that the assumption is that it is, indeed, valid. Would that someone prove me wrong. Yet, I found after only 5 minutes on the web that Bloomington, IN; Allentown, PA; Lincoln, NE; Binghamton, NY; and Ann Arbor, MI, to name a few, have prevailed in court appeals on their definition as to the makeup of a single family for zoning purposes. If I found these references after only 5 minutes on the Internet, would it be too difficult for candidates to determine if their solutions would be applicable to Bellingham?

Additionally, which candidates will ask that Western Washington University, Bellingham's 800 pound gorilla, step up to the plate in a much more substantial manner? The university just received $47 million dollars for renovation and expansion of their facilities. What role is the university intending to play in the housing of all the students they plan to attract to the expanded university of the future? Who is talking about that? What about the thousands of students each year who are forced by lack of dormitory space to find affordable housing? Not being stupid, they make the economically viable choice, forming group houses. Unfortunately, however, that practice violates the municipal code. Landlords turn a blind eye as do our enforcers. Even if there were no violations of related codes (noise, litter, parking, etc.), the mere footprint of 5-10 people in a single-family home creates a substantially different footprint in a neighborhood where the norm is a family with a few children. The efforts of the Campus Community Coalition are laudable and should continue as an educational process for the students, but to pretend that this will solve the problem of zoning and density within the city limits is to bury one's head in the sand.

Which candidates will stop wringing their collective hands over the issue of the city enforcing its own laws? If candidates are convinced that the current code is unenforceable, will they have the courage to ask that the council remove it from the books so that city will not continue to play with the minds of the citizenry? If we then need something to replace the definition, which I assume must be done to preserve a basic description of "single family zoning", will candidates, once in office, compel the city's legal "experts" to do their homework and reach out to jurisdictions where zoning is a meaningful concept? This cannot remain in the too-hard-to-do column.

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