Saturday, June 27, 2009

Infill Tool Kit Hearing on Monday - Come and Testify!

It is time to put the Infill ToolKit on hold. There is no rush. The city council should hear that from its citizens on Monday, 29 June at 7:00. You can read the Herald article on the subject by clicking here. Agenda documents for the hearing on Monday can be found by clicking here.

This piece of legislation has been mashed through a so-called public process that has been controlled totally by the city from its inception with Planning Academy I. The Infill ToolKit had little, if any, grass roots origins. Grass roots efforts have been mainly mounted to oppose the TookKit in part and to ask for a delay in further consideration until the city can figure out the manner in which it will enforce rules on these creations once they are built. It is time the city envision the evolution of these ToolKit items as the years go by and half of the town houses, cottage homes, duplexes, triplexes, etc. become rentals whose landlords are not licensed and whose structures are never inspected for the slightest health or safety conditions.

I invite my readers to examine some of my prior posts (click on the links below) on the Infill ToolKit with its problematic origins and future. I also invite you to attend the hearing on the 29th to voice your opinion.


Hearing on Infill ToolKit

Sunnyland’s Discussion on Infill

Alice in ADUland

Infill ToolKit Still in ICU

Infill ToolKit – Municipal Rosemary’s Baby

Epiphany at Planning

Surely You’re Joking?

City Releases Draft Bellingham Infill ToolKit –What is the Point?

Friday, June 19, 2009


In this great amusement park, also known as the City of Bellingham, the council and city management continue to offer arcade games which distract the public from the business at hand, in this case, the character and quality of our neighborhoods. Waterfront. Whack! TookKit. Whack! Waterfront. Whack! Urban Villages. Whack! ToolKit. Whack! Waterfront. Whack! Urban villages. Whack! No matter the skill of the citizens at banging these municipal moles on the head, they keep popping up while our existing neighborhoods deteriorate (see my last blog entry on that topic – click here). As mentioned in my blog of 1 June, there will be a hearing on the Infill ToolKit (click here to view materials on the city’s website) on 29 June. I would like to urge all of you to attend the hearing and speak against this premature action.

The main argument is that we need not be adherents of the Chicken Little assumption that growth is so imminent that we need to adopt the TookKit NOW. The city would go a long way towards re-establishing trust with the electorate if it were to recognize, first and foremost, that we have an enforcement problem, especially with respect to illegal rooming houses, with which we should deal before passing further legislation for which there is no promise of future enforcement. (As if in a tandem effort to nail down the degradation of the character and quality of our neighborhoods, the Bellingham school board and the superintendent appear to be hell-bent on closing neighborhood elementary schools, the neighborhood glue. Then we can bus the children to outlying schools or Mom can load them in the SUV for separate trips. Read more on this depressing development at the website of the Neighborhood Schools Coalition – click here).

Moreover, there should also be a landlord licensing code in effect, otherwise many of the smaller units designed under the ToolKit will devolve to rentals and, left to simmer on their own, accelerate the slide of these ToolKit areas into mini-slums. Without such enforcement requirements (mandatory code enforcement officers and salaries) included in the TookKit code itself, combined with effective controls provided by a robust landlord licensing program, an area such as the fanciful Samish Way Urban Village will eventually, by dint of proximity to WWU, become nothing more than a student rental ghetto, reminiscent of large portions of Happy Valley.

*Whac-a-Mole (without the K) is the trade name of the game. Click here to read more)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How to Destroy a Neighborhood – One…House…at…a…Time

And a little cloud wept on Sunnyland:

At the June 1st City Council meeting, a resident of Sunnyland spoke of plans by an owner of a single family zoned property at 423 E. Illinois St. to remove the current dilapidated structure and build a new “single family” home which would then be used a group home for recovering alcoholics. (Click here to review the video of that meeting. The resident spoke early on in the video) The current structure, pictured at left, is essentially a large garage with an abutting shack which could be called a house, albeit very small. Over the years it has been an ambulance dispatch center, a repair garage and a warehouse. Since the owner will be leaving the concrete pad(s), on which the current structures are placed, and a portion of the walls, the build-out will be designated a “remodel” and he will be able to build extremely close to the Illinois St. right-of-way, much more closely than the current codes allow - grandfathered, as it were. The “single family” home to be built/remodelled there, according to the Sunnyland resident who studied the plans, will consist of a long hallway on the ground floor off which will be six bedrooms. A kitchen and bath facilities will be located at the rear, appearing much like a group home/mini-motel, built to suit.

This is a far cry from merely allowing a single family home, built as such, to be used, in accordance with US Codes or the Revised Code of Washington, as a group home for the handicapped or other such protected group. When questioned about this unusual arrangement, our Director of Planning replied to a member of the city council in an email thus, “The quick, short, simple and non-legalise (sic) answer is that the house is being built as a ‘single family’, with lots of bedrooms. The ‘use’ will be for single ‘family’. But the special needs population is exempt from the ‘unrelated individual’ rule because of they are a protected class. So, the non-related protected individuals will not be subject to the ‘rule of three’. I know it is complex and confusing, but these are the rules.”

The Zonemaven finds it interesting that Mr. Stewart so quickly supports this obvious and twisted exploitation of the building codes when other rules (also known as laws), let’s say those having to do with illegal rooming houses, have been for decades and continue to be, under his management, virtually ignored. When is the last time the city closed down an illegal rooming house with the Director stating condescendingly to the landlord, “ I know it is complex and confusing, but these are the rules.”?

And then there is another property on Hampton Place (just inside the Cornwall neighborhood), within a few blocks of the mess on E. Illinois, owned by the same individual. This horror show of a structure (rear view of home at right) used to be a rather simple single family home, built in 1912 but now presents with an enormous, tumor-like appendage à la Bates Motel. This monstrosity has, according the on-line records of the Whatcom County Assessor, eleven (11) bedrooms and five (5) bathrooms. Even "John and Kate Plus Eight" would rattle around in this no-tell motel boasting 5,195 square feet of living space. I understand that this was at one time a group home; however, after a failed attempt to sell the behemoth, it appears to have devolved into yet another illegal rooming house as will likely eventually happen with the E. Illinois “single family” home. By then Tim Stewart will have been long gone and those remaining in planning will, in answer to future queries, scratch their heads and say, “Who let THAT happen on E. Illinois!”

No “Miracle on 34th Street” for the Samish Neighborhood:

“And Virginia, there is no Santa Claus”, [Yes, the Zonemaven knows that Virginia was not in the movie.] especially on 34th St., in spite of what the saccharine-tongued schlub from the New York Sun wrote in 1897. There is likely no mythic being, even Santa, who will prevent 34th St. from sliding down the razor blade of neighborhood deterioration although it will not be through inaction on the part of some of the long-time homeowners. I recently walked the length of the street with a homeowner as my guide. He has lived there for many decades.

-The first home we encounter was used several years ago for elder-care but the group lost its license at which time the home then morphed into a safe and sober house which eventually stopped operating. After a year of remaining vacant, foreclosure is now the fate of this beauty with 7 bedrooms and two baths sure to be bought by a retired couple interested in mopping and dusting all the unused rooms. Illegal rooming house to be? Perish the thought.

-Then comes the next house – in foreclosure. Future TBA.

-Following that is a house which has just been bought by a father for his son, who will be attending WWU next year. According to the father, two of his son’s friends plan to move into the home. Who believes that this 5 bedroom, 3 bath residence will house no more than three people as of October 1st? If you answered that you do believe, then your last names are Stewart and Pike. If you do not believe then your last name is that of anyone else in the phonebook.

-The next house we see is for sale. Not sure this is relevant but the Zonemaven threw it in anyway.

-Several doors away is a rental with about 6 unrelated people.

-Next door to that house is one in which the turnover in residents is so constant that nobody can discern what is actually taking place.

-Nearby is another rental with an undetermined number of occupants who have parked two trailers and a camper in the yard in what is known as Bellingham’s version of lawn ornaments.

-Then comes the jewel of the neighborhood, a house with an absentee landlord. Up to 9 cars are usually found parked at the home. . Initially, the daughter of the owner lived there with five others. The group living there last year had to be evicted. The home is listed on the Whatcom Assessor’s site as being a two bedroom. My guide tells me that the basement has been altered to create 4 additional bedrooms. So a neighbor who is retired from the fire department complained and a friend of his wrote to the Zonemaven “Another wrinkle. A neighbor (retired fire dept) called the inspection wing of the BFD [Bellingham Fire Department], requesting a inspection of one of the rooming houses in our neighborhood, as he felt it was a very unsafe house for those living there as some of the "added" bedrooms have no proper exits in the event of fire. Fire dept informed him it’s a Permit dept problem, Permit dept states it a law enforcement problem, law enforcement has been told by the city attorney’s office to "do nothing". Do not motels, hotels, licensed group residences, etc have to be inspected by the BFD for safety? Meeting rooms have a max capacity set by the BFD! Sure do enjoy merry-go-rounds.” [The Zonemaven can imagine a future Herald headline “34st Home Burns – 3 Students Dead, 3 Injured”. Response from the city management, “Oops!”]

-Then we have the sad tale of the single woman who had lived in her home for decades. Across the street is a rental which began as a 3 bedroom and in the Bellingham version of a giant transformer toy, has become a 6 bedroom house. The woman complained time and time again about noise, trash, cars. Result was that each call for enforcement was followed by some sort of vandalism perpetrated against her property. After years of abuse, she gave up and moved. The Zonemaven is surprised that the city managers did not proclaim a victory in having been able to reduce the number of incidents of vandalism on 34th St.

Walking back to my guide’s home, we pass another home. Owners are a retired couple, active in the community. One served on the Samish Neighborhood Board. Their home is impeccably kept. They follow the rules. They write letters. They complain, to no avail, about violations of code on their once quiet street. But they are exhausted fighting a city hall that will not fight for them. The house just sold, they are leaving and…

This is the way our neighborhoods end

This is the way our neighborhoods end

This is the way our neighborhoods end

Not with a bang but a whimper.*

* My appreciation and apologies to T. S. Eliot.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hearing on Infill Tool Kit - More Diversion from the Real Problems

Have you noticed how smartly we are moving along to the preordained approval of the Infill Tool Kit? If you have not received the notice of public hearing on the Tool Kit, click on the image at left. From the beginning to its soon-to-be-ultimate finish, the Tool Kit has received tender loving care in a demonstration of the ability of the city to push through legislation that it desires in a canned process controlled by the city itself. Remember that the Tool Kit did not rise from a collective desire of the citizenry. Had one attended the Citizen Forum events on infill 21 March and 2 May, one would have discovered that when the city does not control the process, an open and frank DISCUSSION was possible and the distrust was allowed to surface.

Compare the Infill Took Kit process with that of the subject of maintaining the character of our neighborhoods through enforcement of codes, landlord licensing and dialogue with Western Washington University. In 2004, John Watts, then president of the City Council and speaking of landlord licensing announced at a public meeting on landlord licensing: WE HAVE HEARD YOU TONIGHT! (Click here to read, yet again, about that meeting) What did the city do? Nothing. In October 2007, the Council voted to create a pilot project to enforce the Bellingham Municipal Code on illegal rooming houses. (click here to read, yet again, about that vote) How many illegal rooming houses have been shut down since then? None. (I invite the Mayor to correct me if I am wrong on this point) In August 2008, JackWeiss made his six point proposal to deal with illegal rooming houses, nuisances, landlord licensing, etc. (Click here to read, yet again, about that proposal) Progress to date? Ummm. Errrrr.

To be honest, in October 2008, the Legislative Policy Analyst for the City Council prepared a draft issue paper on landlord licensing. Click on the images at left to read the executive summary. (I will send my readers a full electronic copy of the DRAFT report – contact me at zonemaven AT hotmail DOT com) The paper is a wonderful example of a fair and thorough examination of an issue and Mark Gardner is to be congratulated for his fine work. Unfortunately, the draft issue paper, dated 21 October 2008 has languished in municipal purgatory for 6 months and has only recently been forwarded for comments by the various department heads. In the meantime, the city executives, the Council and the Planning Commission have been marching in quick time and lock step to ensure the Infill Tool Kit, which will do nothing to improve the present character of our neighborhoods and may do much to destroy that character, finds its place in the municipal Hall of Fame of premature and perhaps unnecessary legislation. I will refrain here from mentioning also the distraction from the real issues confronting our neighborhoods by the folderol surrounding the WATERFRONT where, at last look, nobody lives.

In what may be a final and futile plea, I ask the Mayor and the City Council to take up the issues that have an immediate effect on our citizenry. Forget the Took Kit, prepared to deal with the influx of new residents which is not happening. Forget the Waterfront, where no voters live and whose neighborhood character is thus a non-issue. Deal with the distrust you have created by taking up NOW the unresolved and still festering issues from 2004, 2007 and 2008.