Thursday, July 30, 2009

WWU Students Confused on Rentals? - Small Wonder

In the 21 July 2009 print edition of the Western Front there appeared an advertisement for homes for rent near WWU. (Click on the image at left) My assumption is that since the ad appeared in the student newspaper, the target population was the student body, i.e., those looking for lodging for the coming year. On 29 July 2009, I visited the website,, and found 17 four and five bedroom single family homes for rent. Most of the homes are owned by Huntco, LLC and 35th St. Properties, LLC. One wonders if the owners are aware that their homes could be rented or occupied in violation of the law. All but two of the homes were in single family zoned neighborhoods which means that they fall under the Bellingham Municipal Code which limits the number of unrelated renters to three. In fact, the photo in the ad is that of a five (5) bedroom unit on S. 41st St. which is zoned single family. Nowhere on the site was there a cautionary note to prospective clients with regard to the limitations placed on the number of renters. (This is not the first time I have written about Ebenal ads in the Western Front. See my blog entry from April 2008 by clicking here.)

Unless students have already visited the Viking Union (VU) rental listing website or the bulletin board at the VU, there is little expectation that they will be aware of the city codes on illegal rooming houses. Much to its credit, The VU has taken steps to inform students of limitations on rentals. Dean Ted Pratt and VU Facilities Director Jim Schuster were instrumental in placing warning notices on the VU bulletin boards and the VU on-line rental housing list.

On the other hand, the management of the Western Front has not responded to any of my efforts to have them remove from the newspaper advertising for single family rentals which are problematic with respect to violating the municipal code that bars rooming houses in single family neighborhoods. I even received an email request early this year from Carolyn Nielsen, the faculty advisor to the Western Front, asking me to remove her from my Zonemaven mailing list so that she could give priority to the “so much” student emails she receives. I complied with her request but I cannot help but think of the thousands of students who remain clueless about rental advertising in the Front since she lacks information which might help in her advisory capacity.

It is time the Western Front and Ebenal clean up their rental advertising. At a minimum each rental ad should contain the caveat on the limit of unrelated renters. If the Front or Ebenal needs a reference, here is the relevant code portion: “ Title 20 LAND USE DEVELOPMENT, Chapter 08 DEFINITIONS, 20.08.020 - SPECIFIC DEFINITIONS -F. 1. Family: One or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption, or not more than 3 unrelated persons, living together within a single dwelling unit. For purposes of this definition children with familial status within the meaning of Title 42 United States Code, Section 3602(k) and individuals with disabilities within the meaning of Title 42 United States Code, Section 3602(h) will not be counted as unrelated persons. "Adult family homes," as defined by RCW 70.128.175, are included within the definition of "family." Facilities housing individuals who are incarcerated as the result of a conviction or other court order shall not be included within this definition.”

I have written previously on this and related subjects. You can read those blog entries by clicking here, here here and here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

City Council Work Session on Infill ToolKit - My View

Note: I received the following from Nicole Oliver of the Planning Office after publication of my blog entry below: "I confirmed that the next meeting on the Toolkit is not a public hearing, but another work session on the ordinance. Folks certainly may comment during the evening during the comment period or submit comments in writing."

As I described in my last blog entry Council Work Session on the Infill TookKit – Keep Informed (Click here to read that entry), the City Council not only had an afternoon work session on the ToolKit but extended the discussion into the regular evening business meeting. There was no public input as the council was only to give direction to staff prior to a further hearing [see above note] on the ToolKit (which, by the way, the council scheduled for July 27th – mark that on your calendar now). Materials from the staff should be available around the 23rd of July on the City Council web pages.

The two major areas of discussion and conflict were the applicability paragraph and the portion of the ToolKit which deals with townhome height limits. With respect to the height limits, I think there are some valid points about keeping the limit to 25 feet in some areas, however, limiting the height may also unnecessarily constrain their placement in areas such as urban villages. The major bone of contention for the afternoon and the evening was that of the wording of the applicability paragraph with respect to inclusion of the ToolKit items in areas zoned single family.

The image at left (Click to see larger version) shows two versions of the applicability paragraph or “the where” over which the neighborhoods were to have full control. (Remember that from the two Planning Academies?) The original version, which was the object of citizen wrath, is at the bottom. A revised version is at the top. Essentially, the revised version strips away the ability to apply the housing forms in single family areas by using a Type VI legislative process. The revision also simplifies the language of the entire original paragraph in which had been inserted such lines as “only as a legislative rezone, with all the notice requirements, hearings, and safeguards afforded by a Type VI legislative process.” and “Additionally, required pre-application neighborhood meetings shall occur prior to docketing for Comprehensive Plan Amendments.” Most saw these earlier “explanatory” lines as attempts to mollify the public who, by dint of not having just fell off the turnip truck, saw through the fluff. The more you attempt to explain away the noxious qualities of a subject, the more that subject is seen as being what it is – noxious.

Also of note is the brevity of the revised version – a cousin to the rule of parsimony* attributed to the Earl of Occam (13th century). In this case, the simplest approach, during the annual review in each neighborhood, will suffice as a means to apply the ToolKit to a single family area. The original version, due to its length and qualifiers, becomes a legalistic and convoluted gloubi-boulga through which one plows at one’s peril. The new version also provides a modicum of predictability in that the uses of the ToolKit items would have to be part of a neighborhood rezone which can only take place once a year and apply to an entire numbered area. Otherwise, a Type VI process can be kicked off at any time and by anyone who can convince the Director of Planning, the Planning Commission or the City Council to do so (Can you guess the path of least resistance?). This is neither predictable nor desirable.

Of the six at the work session and subsequent meeting, Gene Knutson, Terry Bornemann and Louise Bjornson support the revised version which is intended to move the process along and allow the housing types to be placed initially in multi-family areas so that citizens can see and judge for themselves. There is no barrier to lifting or changing the applicability in the future at a time when the housing types have proved themselves. Barbara Ryan, Jack Weiss and Stan Snapp continue to support the old version with the Type VI process and its unpredictability, i.e., zoning by crap shoot. Jack Weiss attempted to suggest that neighborhood associations were beating down his door so that they could apply these housing types to their neighborhoods. He could only cite 3-4 of the 24 Bellingham neighborhoods as being so very pressed. Hardly a groundswell. Barry Buchanan was absent, however, in an email to me, he voiced support of the revised version. The sky is not falling, the sword of Damocles is not about to plunge, and the Eighth Plague (invasion of locusts) in the form of newcomers has been stopped by the economy. Time to chill.

But come to the hearing and testify.

*Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem or "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Council Work Session on the Infill ToolKit - Keep Informed

For those of you who are closely following the Infill Tool Kit, this is a reminder of the City Council work session on the subject scheduled on Monday, July13th from 1:10 to 2:40 in the council chambers at city hall. (Read the agenda item by clicking here) If you were not present for the hearing on the 29th of June, click here to review the slide presentation made by the staff to the council. Click here to read the information on the ToolKit provided to the City Council prior to the hearing on the 29th. This document contains information from the Planning Commission hearings and copies of written comments provided to the city by private citizens.

You can also read my blog entries on the ToolKit by clicking here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

It is not likely that the council will vote on the ToolKit after the work session. We will probably see another hearing on the subject in the near future but, in the meantime, this is an opportunity to keep current on the thought processes of the council members as they review the ToolKit with staff.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Update on Shenanigans at 423 E. Illinois - Approval Appealed

On June 9th I wrote a blog entry entitled How to Destroy a Neighborhood – One…House…at…a….Time. (Click here to read that entry). The lead example I provided, 423 E. Illinois is now the subject of an appeal. I have learned that a local homeowner has challenged the approval by the Planning Director of the building plans and other aspects of the development of the property. The case will be heard by the Hearing Examiner on July 15th at 6pm. (Click here for details.)

These appeals are costly to the individual homeowner who wishes to challenge the city government. In this case the price tag is over $1,000 just to file the appeal. Attorney fees are additional. Of course, any costs for a developer or builder merely get added to the sale price of the property and are footed by the purchaser. Advantage → builder.

The approval of the permit is an especially dangerous precedent as the structure, although touted as a single family home, is no more than a mini-dormitory with 6 rooms which is reportedly destined to house protected groups such as recovering alcoholics. According to Bellingham Municipal Code, the use of a single family home must be allowed for such protected groups –all well and good. In this case, however, the home is being designed and built specifically as a structure to house such groups. Further use as a single family home is essentially precluded by the design unless your picture of a single family home resembles the Bates Motel.

Even if you do not live in Sunnyland, you may wish to attend this hearing as the decision will have a notable impact on all neighborhoods in the future.