Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. Swiftly fly the years" *

So swiftly that this month marks the second anniversary of Twilight Zoning in Bellingham. The Zonemaven notes that there have been about 20,000 hits on his blog since its inception. Sadly, the first blog entry, dated 13 August 2007, is as valid today as it was at the time it was written. (Click here to read that 2007 entry) So much for progress in the City of Bellingham.

There was for a brief, shining moment an expectation that the whole of the problems associated with illegal rooming houses might be addressed with a concerted effort on the part of the Bellingham City Council. This is the first anniversary of the City Council’s positive decision to take a comprehensive look at the problem surrounding single family zoning. The original proposal from Jack Weiss was to change the definition of family to increase the number of unrelated individuals allowed to occupy a single family home – a change from the current 3 unrelated individuals. The Council decided not to act on that proposal, however, below is an excerpt of their ultimate decision from the minutes of the 4 August 2008 meeting. As you will see, not much has been done.


It was the consensus of the Council that this proposal needs additional information.

Council Member Weiss presented six categories that he would like to be looked at in a comprehensive way:

1. Look at Title 20 codes and create infractions instead of criminal prosecutions.
2. Look at landlord licensing and an accountability program increasing quality of rentals in the community as well as being able to track overcrowding situations.
3. Look at the definition of family and to either keep it the way it is, add to it, eliminate it or come up with another type of mechanism - such as a square footage per person program.
4. Upgrade Litter Control Officer (already done) so enforcement opportunities are better.
5. Look at upgrades to the city's nuisance ordinances.
6. Initiate discussions with the University to allow the University to understand city and neighborhood concerns about the impacts of increased enrollment on the community and what we would hope that the University would do in a cooperative manner with the city.

Council President Barbara Ryan noted that Mark Gardener, Policy Analyst is working on this proposal.

WEISS / KNUTSON moved to not initiate consideration of amending the Definition of Family - BMC 20.08.020(f)(1). MOTION CARRIED 6-0.”

So a year later, it may be instructive to review one by one the progress of the Council on these points. Very few actions indicate a comprehensive approach. We seem to have, yet again, the Council saying “Ready. Aim. Aim. Aim. Aim….” Since item 4, the upgrade of the position of the Litter Control Officer, had already been put into effect by previous Council action, 5 actions remain.

- Number one: The idea behind this action was to remove the criminal aspect of infractions of certain codes by making such infractions civil in nature. I support such changes in that proving civil offenses requires a preponderance of evidence and not the more onerous “beyond a reasonable doubt” condition. You can find more on the difference between the two by clicking here. At the same time the civil infractions result normally in fines or payment of damages – not imprisonment. My previous blog entry on the subject can be read by clicking here. Progress to date? This remains a mystery. These topics certainly have not been brought before the City Council in the past year. Perhaps it is knocking about within the walls of the city government like a photon on its journey to escape from the center of the sun. That poor little photon only takes 30,000 years to get out.

- Landlord licensing. This issue was quite rapidly acted upon by the Legislative Policy Analyst of the City Council whose report was available as of October, 2008. Regrettably, it did not see the light of day until a friend of mine obtained a copy from the analyst and passed to me a copy of the issue paper in May 2009. At that time, the paper was finally sent around to the departments for comment. See my 1 June blog entry on the issue paper by clicking here. You can read the entire issue paper, entitled “Options for a Rental Housing Licensing and Quality Inspection Program in Bellingham, on landlord licensing (26 pages) by clicking here. The Council has yet to have any public discussion on the matter, nearly a year after the paper was available. The Mayor, in a recent letter to a concerned citizen states, "We continue to research successful landlord licensing programs so that we can come to a solution that works best for all parties involved. In this current economic climate, implementation of any program will require significant start up costs and management. These are resources the City simply does not have at this time.” No matter the resources and time the city spent promoting the Infill Tool Kit and the Waterfront whose necessity at this time was problematic at best. No matter also that the lack of a licensing program perpetuates the uninspected and uncontrolled rental market. (Read my blog entry on the dangers the city courts by clicking here) Interestingly, the Mayor forgets that the licensing program will actually bring money into the city coffers, even with modest fees. This is amply demonstrated in the issue paper on rental licensing options mentioned above.

- Third, the Council asked staff to look at the definition of family. Staff had already done some work on that in June, 2008 when it finally “discovered” that laws limiting the number of unrelated people living in a single family home were not unconstitutional despite previous claims to the contrary by our city leaders. (See Agenda Bill 018021 on this subject by clicking here) My blog entry on the subject of changing the code by varying the numbers contains information given to the Council prior to the 4 August 2008 meeting. (Click here to read that blog entry.) More dancing around the Maypole.

- The fourth item, upgrading the position of Litter Control Officer to that of Neighborhood Compliance Officer, had already been done. (My blog entry on that can be read by clicking here) Suffice it to say, there has not been a wholesale shutdown of illegal rooming houses since last summer. This may in part be due to the fact that nowhere on the City of Bellingham website is it posted the manner in which one is to bring a complaint on illegal rooming houses to the attention of the city. The form developed by the Police Department has not been made available on its web pages. Enforcement may also be more effective by decriminalizing the code violations so that the Neighborhood Compliance Officer might have more latitude. Then again, the policy makers and the city managers must support him in his duties and not treat the term enforcement as if it were a four-letter word.

- Number five is to look at upgrading nuisance ordinances. By that the Council meant codes regarding parking, litter, noise, and other nuisances, to include urinating on lawns. I am not sure of the Council’s definition of “upgrade” with respect to these nuisance codes. Perhaps enforcement (oops, that four-letter word again!) is part of the upgrade but for many of these offenses, the officer responding must witness the violation. So that party that has been keeping you up for the past three hours suddenly goes silent as the police arrive and the response is the equivalent of the “mechanic’s shrug”. The danger with this element of the “comprehensive” look at illegal rooming houses is that our Council and city managers would have you believe that illegal rooming houses are too hard to control so we will just deal with the nuisances. Here is the Mayor’s response to a friend who has complained about zoning enforcement on illegal rooming houses “With regard to the issue of housing code enforcement, the city has determined that targeting the symptoms of overcrowding, such as parking, noise and litter, is of primary importance since those are offenses that can be supported by evidence ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. They are also offenses which almost often are negatively impacting nearby residents and contributing to neighborhood disturbance. Our Bellingham Police Department routinely responds to complaints about parking, noise and litter and officers issue citations when warranted by evidence.” This is called zoning enforcement (oops!) by nuisance control. So the Mayor, by logical inference, believes that it is permissible for your street to turn into a rooming house district (that pesky "overcrowding") as long as the nuisances are somewhat controlled. Neighborhood death by deterioration is the result. Click here, here and here to read about neighborhood situations which would, ostensibly, be OK by the Mayor under his statement above.

- The last item has to do with WWU working in a cooperative manner with the city (in this case the City Council) to solve some of the issues that stem from the presence of 14,000 students who descend on the area each year. (Click here to read an interesting study on town/gown relations. You will no doubt have moments of clear déjà vu.) My expectations, that the arrival of Dr. Shepard as the new president would begin a new era in “town gown” relationships, were not wholly met. (See my blog entries on this topic by clicking here and here.) The arrival of Mr. Steve Swan, the new Vice-President for University Relations, early this year offered yet another opportunity for the university to overcome citizen perceptions (not to mention the reality) of it as a scholastic Jabba-the-Hut, belching and drooling from Sehome Hill without regard to the mess it is creating. I have met several times with Mr. Swan and found him to be open and interested in the problems between WWU and the city to include the future of the Campus Community Coaltion. (click here to read about my initial meeting with him). I have no evidence that the City Council has opened up a dialogue with the university as part of the six comprehensive steps proposed by Jack Weiss

It is painfully obvious that a coordinated effort, necessary to solve issues around rentals (health, safety), illegal rooming houses, code enforcement, etc., remains sadly lacking. Lest my fellow citizens come to view the City Council as punjandra, I call on them to return immediately to the previously agreed upon, comprehensive approach.

*From the Song lyrics (click here) from The Fiddler on the Roof.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Horror Show on Hampton Place- And Just What is a “Protected Class” Anyway?

Note to my readers: The link to the actual CraigsList ad pictured below (left) is no longer functional as the ad has been pulled by its author yet again as of today, 12 Aug.

My last blog entry (click here) was written about this property owner’s attempt to build his no-tell motel at 423 E. Illinois. That plan pales in comparison to the existing structure he owns at 2605 Hampton Pl. in the Cornwall Neighborhood. [A reminder to my readers that the Whatcom County Assessor’s records indicate that this structure has 11 bedrooms.] Click on the image of the CraigsList ad for this rental at left or, if you wish, the original ad can be found on CraigsList by clicking here. Although the ad does not supply an address, the photos in the ad are clearly of the house at 2605 Hampton Place. A complaint made by a neighborhood, live-in homeowner languishes since last March in the city’s code enforcement purgatory among the lost souls of complaints which have previously died in situ.

The ad is of a “y’all come” nature and is clearly seeking as many renters as possible to reduce costs. No credit check and no lease are a surefire way to cater to transients of all sorts which puts into question the claim of the property owner about the renters. My sources tell me that, according to the property owner, the present renters claim to be a “protected class” (not further specified) under the Bellingham Municipal Code definition of family (click here to read the definition), more specifically an exception under USC Title 42 (Click here to read the relevant portions, i.e., paragraphs 3602 k and 3602 h). One would assume that those claiming to be "protected class" members would have to produce some official verification of that status. Self-declarations are essentially meaningless and allow any group to make any claim, no matter how patently absurd or self-serving.

One would assume also that the city or the state would have an interest in knowing if a house for recovering alcoholics or the disabled were being properly supervised by an individual or group with some sort of credentials. Certainly the families of such persons have a right to know that their loved ones are receiving proper care in a facility which is safe. Our city government, by way of the City Attorney, should make it clear. What constitutes proof of being part of a “protected class”?

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Win for the Sunnyland Neighborhood – For the Moment

On July 9th, I reported on the appeal hearing of a building permit for the equivalent of a no-tell motel at 423 E. Illinois in the Sunnyland neighborhood. (Click here to read that blog entry.) The property owner had secured a permit which allowed him to build a “single family” home which he claimed, and the Planning Director agreed, was a remodel of the existing structure. A hearing was held on July 15th and a judgment by the examiner was rendered on 29 July. You can read the examiner’s decision by clicking here.

Essentially, the hearing examiner saw that which the neighbors saw and that which the Planning Director did not see – that the plans were not of a mere remodel and that they violated several portions of the Bellingham Municipal Code.

(Click on image at left to see the current state of the structure) I will leave it to the reader to go through the examiner’s reasoning which is relatively straightforward. [Remember that the appeal cost the neighbors over $1000.] Here is a portion of the decision:

“The permit erroneously allows the additional encroachment of wall extensions for a second story. This encroachment cannot be permitted without first obtaining a variance as provided in BMC 20.18. The permit also was issued without first properly calculating the percentage of destruction of the building that is proposed in relation to the entire structure. If this calculation shows that the actual cost to repair the portion of the building that is destroyed is 50% or more than the estimated cost to replace the entire structure the building permit may not be granted unless a plan is first approved by the Hearing Examiner as provided in BMC 20.14.010C.” Nothing, of course, prohibits the property owner from redoing the plans and causing further problems for the residents of Sunnyland. At $1,000 a pop, these appeals become expensive - mosh skosh.

The examiner goes on to say: “The potential or proposed use of a building is not relevant to a determination whether a building permit should be issued provided the building is configured so as to be consistent with the permitted uses allowed within the use district in which the building is located. The permit in this case allows construction of a single family dwelling unit.” This is a reference to the neighbors’ contention that the structure was a “single family” dwelling in name only and was being constructed expressly to house groups of renters who the property owner would claim to be “protected classes" under the Bellingham Municipal Code which prohibits more than 3 unrelated persons from renting a home.

Given the existing code, the examiner was likely correct in not entertaining the complaint regarding the eventual use of the structure. That being said, this points out a glaring problem which allows structures to be built, structures at which future neighbors will look and say, “Who allowed that to be built?” If you do not believe me, take a look at another property owned by the same individual at 2605 Hampton Place (image at left) about which I also wrote on July 9th. (Click here for more info on Hampton Place.)

Who allowed that?