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.


mrostron said...

Truly "Bates Motel" is an apt description! How can we expect everyone else to comply even nominally with building codes when planning guys like Starcher are bending and breaking the laws? Why bother to have zones at all. We might as well let everyone build whatever they want where they want. Hey - I think I can get some good deals on some slightly used mobile homes form Lousiana - maybe I'll move 'em into Edgemoor and rent 'em out to "disabled folks!"

Anonymous said...

Must be Starcher can get away with these shenanigans because he was on the Planning Commission for so many years.
What is wrong with Stewart, Pike and our City Council that this kind of abuse of the law continues?

Zonemaven said...

Perhaps our Mayor and Planning Director might provide an answer.

Mr Mayor?
Mr Stewart?