Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Planning or Development Commission?

 Note:  This piece appeared earlier this week on NWCitizen.

As a result of receiving notification of the plans to rezone two properties in the Samish Neighborhood, I found that the company spearheading each of these rezones was owned by a member of our seven-member Planning Commission.  In and of itself, this was not a problem, if the particular Planning Commission member recused him/herself from the consideration and vote on these rezones when they came before the commission.  However, on further investigation, I learned that every member of the our present Planning Commission is involved with or has/had close ties to businesses that owe their existence to development, i.e., real estate, consulting, construction, architecture, etc.  Here is the rundown of the current members and their affiliations/employment:

Tom Grinstad – Architect with Grinstad and Wagner

Jeff Brown -  Assistant Executive Director at Bellingham and Park Lane at Bellingham, a nursing home.  However, his wife works for Northwest Ecological Services which advises clients on wetland and shoreline permits for development.

Garrett O'Brien – Volonta Corp. - A construction firm

Ali Taysi – AVT Consulting – Land use and permitting  (His company is involved in the two rezones I mentioned above.)

Phyllis McKee - Investment real estate management

Steve Crooks – Petrol NW Consulting (He spent several years in Bellingham in the 1970s and returned in 2007. He is a retired real estate project manager. He was responsible for handling eminent domain and zoning appeal cases for BP Exploration Oil’s retail and distribution sites. He served as BP's information officer for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response team in the summer of 2010. He is currently president of the Cordata Neighborhood Association.)

Cerise Noah - Realtor/broker with Windermere

I must state up front that this discovery by no means suggests any member of the Bellingham Planning Commission is involved in nefarious activities based on his or her affilitation and appointment to the commission.  What I do suggest is that we can surely have a more diverse body involved in our planning process. Of the tens of thousands of adults in Bellingham, are only those involved in development available to serve on the Planning Commission?  How wide a net is cast at the time of an opening on the commission? Five of the current members will serve until at least 2017 (exceptions are Brown and O'Brien) thus ensuring an imbalance with development-related members.

Unfortunately, the one assured means of code-mandated neighborhood input into the planning process was rendered useless in 2012. The Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) was, by city ordinance, written into the process of neighborhood and comprehensive plan amendments. The concept of discontinuing the involvement of MNAC (by ordinance) was proposed by Mayor Linville in late 2012, at which time the MNAC representatives foolishly voted themselves out of the planning process. (Note: I am a member of MNAC and voted against the mayor's recommendation.) With that single vote, they gave up one of the few opportunities for the neighborhoods, as a body, to officially weigh into planning and serve as a counterbalance of sorts to the preponderance of development-related representatives on the Planning Commission. The new city ordinance on the duties of MNAC (BMC 2.33.040) allows MNAC to merely offer advice: "The MNAC may elect to review proposed changes to the city's comprehensive plan and neighborhood plans and provide comment on those proposed changes for the Mayor to consider."  The agenda bill (19808) of early 2013 that was presented by the mayor to the City Council stated that dropping the requirement to review these plan ammendments would allow MNAC members to focus on "broader, city wide issues." I am not sure what is more broad, city-wide or vitally important than neighborhood and comprehensive plan ammendments. 

Not surprisingly, there also seems to be some confusion over the actual name of the commission. The city ordinance that authorizes the commission (BMC 2.24) refers to it as the Planning and Development Commission. The commission's bylaws, adopted in 2011, begin by saying, "The official name of the organization shall be the Bellingham Planning Commission."  The name, Bellingham Planning Commission, was expressly selected with the adoption of the commission's 2011 bylaws and the Bellingham Municipal Code was to have been updated at that time. It appears council action is still necessary.  Although there is a small difference in wording, the implication of dropping "development" from the title reflects where the emphasis should be, i.e., directly and emphatically on planning.  Perhaps the future composition of the Planning Commission will reflect that emphasis.



Ralph Schwartz said...

Who is on the planning commission is largely a function of who applies for the position. To get more balance, people with environmental, smart-growth or no-growth aspirations need to throw their hats in the ring.

Zonemaven said...

Yes, Ralph, that is unfortunately true...it is also a cop out on the part of the mayor. She can say no to a candidate. She can do outreach if she sees an imbalance, however, with the last 4-5 appointees the imbalance was not evident to her or was not of consequence. That is not acceptable.

Steve Wilson said...

Thanks for the observation Dick. In a short time the mayor has shown leadership in dismantling the primary function of MNAC. I was an MNAC member from 2004-2007 (representing South n'hood) during the last comprehensive plan update. At that time MNAC members reasserted their role in commenting on this important update, among other things; we prompted the hiring of a Neighborhood Services coordinator (since eliminated), advocated for the mayor's office to support the creation of n'hood associations that were not represented at MNAC, and generally raised the status and viability of community input into issues that affected all neighborhoods. I viewed these achievements as moving the democratic process forward. The recent changes at MNAC and the 'Development' Commission have slammed this process into reverse to the detriment of Bellingham residents.

Zonemaven said...

Thanks Steve. You are right on.