Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Infill Tool Kit Still in the ICU

When last I wrote about the Infill Tool Kit on 13 Feb (click here to read that blog entry), I compared it to Rosemary’s Baby (of film fame) which (who?), unfortunately, had been allowed to be born. The Tool Kit is now in ICU as its parents (our municipal fathers and mothers) are fighting to save it and, it seems, successfully so. Part of the medical unit participating in the revival efforts is the Planning Commission that will meet on 16 April (click here to read the material) for a “Public Hearing - to consider amendments to the BMC to adopt an Infill Toolkit consisting of development regulations for selected housing forms.” This benign statement of purpose hides the fact that there are some very real problems with this “problem child” which, if the law is passed, will prove costly in the future.

For those of you who may have missed the “Town Hall” meeting of 16 March on the Tool Kit, you can view a video (click here) of the session on the Bellingham City website. This poorly attended meeting (by the very public it was meant to inform) was yet another part of the steps the city needs to take as it pushes this legislation through the required process. Fortunately, there were some citizens in the audience who actually read thoroughly the Tool Kit and voiced their concerns.

Foremost among the problems with this toolkit is that, in spite of the assurances from the city that it would not apply to single family neighborhoods, it indeed can apply, if someone simply asks that it does. That would kick off a Type VI legislative rezone process (click here to read about the process) to gain approval. (“In single family residential zones, these housing types may be permitted if approved as part of an amendment to this title through a Type VI process.”) This sentence should be removed from this proposed legislation. Our municipal management would have you believe that this relatively benign process is one that is capable of stopping such approvals; however, trusting in such is folly. As the Arabian adage goes, "If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow." Or, once the monied interests are involved, the pressure to cave to the dollars will overwhelm the process.

I am not categorically opposed to the types of housing in the tool kit. Truth be told, I would prefer to live in a town home myself. Unfortunately, there is not one sentence in the proposed legislation with regard to the manner in which all of this will be enforced, especially several years down the pike (pun intended). We already have one overloaded full-time code enforcement officer who did not have time for the additional duties of enforcing complaints on illegal rooming houses. This enforcement task was foisted upon our Litter Control Officer whose job was already in full time mode. Furthermore, these less expensive forms of housing will initially be owner-occupied but, as time goes by, live-in owners move up or out and renters will move in with attendant over-crowding but no effective control. You need go no further than the area of Wildflower Way and Sweetbay Dr. to see such effects in a neighborhood of small homes and small lots where the original owners are mostly gone and the remaining live-in owners are left to contend with the rentals (which are not controlled at all) and the overcrowding with all its disadvantages.

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and carriage houses, which, inexplicably, are exempt from the density rules under this Tool Kit, already present a problem in that codes requiring that ADUs must be registered with the city are not now enforced. City staff admits that there are only 71 registered ADUs in the city and even found that a laughable figure during the Town Hall meeting on 16 March. (If you do not believe me, watch the video) This egregious admission of an inability to control ADUs now while at the same time advocating for increased use in the future of ADUs and their more upscale cousin, the carriage house, is mind-boggling doublethink.

We probably would not be having this discussion were in not for the fact that around 50% of our single family housing stock consists of rentals and that we have, if you count those attending the community colleges, well over 10,000 students seeking housing on an annual basis. None of this transience is controlled in any way, shape or form by the city or the university. This situation further distorts the rental market and leads also to an uncontrolled, de facto infill to which the city turns a blind eye while exhorting neighborhoods to come on board with the infill tool kit. Chutzpah incarnate.

Paradoxically, as the city asks the neighborhoods to ”step up to the plate” on the Infill Tool Kit (they had no choice with unplanned infill à la illegal rooming house), the city effectively has abandoned the review of neighborhood plans and the Mayor has moved his Neighborhood Service Coordinator to a waterfront office where she will now spend 50% of her time working on the waterfront’s master plan. The “waterfront” is taking on quasi-ozymandian proportions in a tanking economy. I exhorted the Mayor, in an earlier blog to turn his attention from the waterfront to the neighborhoods. After all, who are the voters who live at the waterfront?

NB: Read more Zonemaven comments on the Tool Kit from November, 2008 by clicking here.


Steve Wilson said...

I'm wondering if it would be an opportune moment to request city council to 'conditionally' approve the toolkit pending a documented enforcement of current ADU's and carriage houses?

zonemaven said...

Interesting concept. All the more reason I do not believe the council would go for it!

Michael said...

Playing the Devil's Advocate here, it seems that no matter what, like the issue between people of differing colors, the discussion inevitably comes to dance around the real problem - rentals. Even tho I'm not hearing it said aloud I seem to be understanding it clearly. Am I wrong here? Michael McAuley

zonemaven said...


You are correct. Over one half of the single family housing stock in Bellingham is rented. I have never danced around that subject. If you read my blog entries since the creation of Twilight Zoning in Bellingham, you will note that rentals are the central them. The problem is enforcement of codes, which, if not done, creates the uncontrolled infill. As I have said before in this blog, if there were not 8,000-9,000 students from WWU seeking housing each year, this probably would not be an issue.