Saturday, September 13, 2008

Weiss Proposal Number 5 - Upgrade of Nuisance Ordinances

Fifth among the six legs of the stool on single family zoning proposed by City Council Member Jack Weiss is an upgrade of the nuisance ordinances. I take this to mean the ordinances having to do with noise, parking, public urination, littering, underage drinking, public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. The Bellingham Municipal Code (BMC) generally defines nuisances thus:


Title 10 Criminal Code
Chapter 28 NUISANCES

10.28.010 - DEFINITIONS

B. "Nuisance" means any act, condition, omission, thing, or use of property which does the following:
1. Annoys, injures, or endangers the safety, health, comfort, or repose of the public;
2. Offends public decency;
3. Unlawfully interferes with, obstructs, or renders dangerous for passage a waterway, public park, street, sidewalk, alley, or highway; or
4. In any way renders the public insecure in life or in the use of property.


Noise is specifically covered in the municipal code: 10.24.120 - Public Disturbance Noise. (Click here to read the Noise portion of the code) The ordinance is in effect 24 hours a day except for noises emanating from construction activities. The 24 hours-a-day proscription usually comes as a surprise to even long time Bellingham residents. Most erroneously think you can pretty much do anything prior to 10pm, 11pm, midnight – chose one you like. A policy analyst is now looking at the noise ordinance as it applies to downtown, especially with regard to music venues. A report is expected to see the light of day in October. It is not clear if proposed changes would eventually affect neighborhoods also.


Parking is covered under many various sections (Click here to go to the BMC and enter the word “parking” as a search term) of the municipal code. I would not at this time hazard a guess as to the manner in which the City Council can enhance these codes. Enforcement of the current codes would appear to me to suffice, however, a recent attempt at enforcing parking on city streets near the WWU campus produced howls of protests from renters and WWU itself.


Public urination is prohibited under BMC Section 10.24.020. (Click here to read that code portion.) Again, I am hard put to discover a means to enhance this ordinance except to make the penalty for an infraction much more severe.


Littering has many facets as dozens of sections of the BMC refer to litter. One problem with enforcement of litter violations is that there is only one person in the city government who enforces litter complaints (formerly known as the Litter Control Officer). Since this summer, that individual (now known as the Neighborhood Compliance Officer) has additional duties enforcing the zoning codes with respect to single family occupancy and illegal rooming houses.


Underage drinking/public drunkenness is mostly covered by the Revised Code of Washington whose restrictions have been adopted by reference into the BMC. I think the Bellingham Police Department does a fairly good job at enforcing these statutes but is limited by time, personnel and other priorities. If the City Council wishes to enhance enforcement of these codes a few dozen more police officers would help immensely. The Campus Community Coalition has done a lot of good educational work over the past few years regarding alcohol abuse but their grant to continue such work has run out.


Disorderly conduct is, in part, defined by the BMC as “Make[ing] or caus[ing] to be made any loud or boisterous noise which unreasonably disturbs the peace, comfort and repose of others, or permits such public disturbance to be made at any residence or business under his charge or control.” (You can read the full definition of that portion of the code by clicking here.) This is the code portion under which most renters or residents are cited when there is an out-of-control party. I would favor stricter enforcement, i.e., no warnings for first offenses.


None of the above will, obviously, cure the problem of neighborhood density control and illegal rooming houses. The treatment for that ill is enforcement of zoning codes related to single family dwellings.

9 comments:

Larry Horowitz said...

Dick,

I am generally supportive of your work in this regard; however, I’m not sure I have a good handle on the problem you are trying to resolve.

It would seem that addressing all the nuisances created by rooming houses (noise, parking, littering, disorderly conduct, etc.) would entirely address the issue.

I also agree with you that the city should be mindful of over-densification; however, with regard to rooming houses, I would think that if the nuisances are adequately addressed, the over-densification issue would go away. Theoretically, a family with four teenagers might result in more density than a rooming house with four college students.

I’m sure you’ve already done so, but would you mind briefly and precisely defining the real adverse impacts you believe would continue to exist with rooming houses if all the nuisances are adequately handled?

Thanks,
Larry

zonemaven said...

Larry,

Thanks for your comment.

I have spoken to the issue of density vs nuisances on several occasions in this blog. One of my most recent posts on the subject can be found at http://zonemaven.blogspot.com/2008/03/back-to-basics.html (cut and paste in your browser). I invite you and my readers to review that blog entry.

However, in short there are reasons cities have zoning, one of which is to control density. Single family areas are less dense than multi-family areas for reasons having to do with city services, transportation, fire and police protection, road capacities, etc. When a city like Bellingham allows increased density by way of illegal rooming houses, it no longer has control of the "where" of increased density. Density is determined by a crap shoot, i.e., which property owner decides to rent his property.

Larger numbers of people crammed into single family homes (the economic pressure defines this) distort planned densities as an average family is calculated to be between 2-3 individuals. Repeat this often enough in any area or street and you essentially have multi-family housing (high density) by default. If citizens think this is OK, then we can just eliminate the distinction between single family and multi-family areas allow as many homes as possible become mini apartment buildings. Logically then, as these homes deteriorate, pressure will mount to replace them with small, 4-6-8-10 (pick which) unit apartment buildings since zoning is a thing of the past. Check with the folks over in the York neighborhood where they have already had to fight off this phenomenon.

As more homes on a street become illegal rooming house rentals, property values will begin to plummet. Then more people, who have the means to do so, will move out for greener territory (the county) leaving those of modest means to watch their home values go down in spite of a life-time of hard work to maintain their investments.

And so it goes...tiddly pom.

Larry Horowitz said...

Hey Dick,

That’s really nice of you to use Piglet’s "Tiddly Pom" song to segue to my favorite topic… preservation of the Hundred Acre Wood. But I won’t go there on your blog. (Please let everyone know I didn’t pay you to do that!)

Thanks for defining the problem of rooming houses in terms of over-densification and circumvention of the city’s zoning laws. It appears that the failure to enforce the city’s existing anti-rooming house ordinance is the slippery slope that ultimately leads to the city’s failure to preserve the vitality and character of Bellingham's existing single family neighborhoods, a key requirement of the GMA.

Based on Louise Bjornson’s passion for protecting our existing neighborhoods, I’m surprised she hasn’t championed your cause. In an infill resolution she proposed back in January, she states:

“The city shall continue to recognize the importance of Single Family Neighborhoods and the continuing importance they play in Bellingham livability, quality of life, stability, and predictability of neighborhoods. The City shall minimize any action which impinges on the integrity of Single Family Neighborhoods and mitigate all impacts.”

For more info, visit my article at:

http://www.nwcitizen.us/entry/bjornson-inspired-by-tacomas-growth-principles

As you know, state legislators modified the GMA in 1995 when they realized that the original comprehensive plan requirements did not adequately protect single-family residential neighborhoods, but instead increased pressure to rezone these neighborhoods to allow development of apartment buildings and commercial uses.

State Senate Bill (SSB) 5567, effective July 1995, was supposed to protect and preserve the vitality and character of our established residential neighborhood once and for all. Perhaps our local officials should take a look at SSB 5567, which is available online at:

http://www.leg.wa.gov/pub/BillInfo/1995-96/Pdf/Bill%20Reports/Senate/5567-S.FBR.pdf

Dick, thanks for the great info and good luck with your efforts.

Best,
Larry

zonemaven said...

To all concerned: I, the Zonemaven, am not on the take, from Larry or anyone else! :-)

I keep hearing all those good things from Louise and others on the council. I heard the neighborhood character blah-blah-blah from Dan Pike last year when he was a candidate. Read my recent letter to the mayor which I posted on 6 September (http://zonemaven.blogspot.com/2008/09/missive-to-mayor.html). For the record, I have not had a response as of today, except a note from Linda Stewart that he had received it. Well OK, that is a start...at least the USPS did its job.

You may notice that I have been commenting on each of the 6 legs of the single family zoning stool that was proposed by Jack Weiss in early August. These notions are being studied by Mark Gardener, one of the city's policy analysts. Unfortunately, Mark is also in charge of policy analysis of several other major projects so it remains to be seen when we might see any progress on the stool.

I would not bet my life on the council's immediate action on this, SB 5567 notwithstanding. One might remember the words of John Watts at the abortive Cruise Terminal meeting on landlord licensing in 2004 when he cried out, "We have heard you tonight!" You bet. They (the council) heard the landlords and that is the last we heard from John, since reincarnated as the blogging hamster, or the rest of them on the subject until this year when Jack Weiss brought it up.

Note: You can read all of John Watts' statement from that evening at the terminal at http://zonemaven.blogspot.com/2008/08/landlord-licensing-it-is-time.html and judge for yourself the reactivity of our elected leaders.

Larry Horowitz said...

Dick,

Have you spoken with John Watts regarding the action plan he envisioned to solve the "annoying problems" that result from poorly managed rental properties?

If so, did he explain why there was never a follow up meeting in the first quarter of 2005 to design and implement an action plan?

If you haven't spoken with John, I suggest you do. He seems to have some free time. Perhaps he'd be willing to get involved and help get these problems resolved for good.

As you know, Council's failure to live up to its commitment to address these problems is not an isolated incident.

In Nov 2004, John Watts signed Council Resolution 2004-36 as Council President. This resolution adopted a schedule to complete the update of the city's Comprehensive Plan and Development Regulations as required by the GMA. At the time, the city was already seriously delinquent.

Resolution 2004-36 "resolved" that the city would update and adopt a Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) and Shoreline Master Program (SMP) BY JULY 1, 2005. Yes, 2005!

In fact, the CAO did not become effective until December 2005 - more than 6 months beyond the deadline.

Worse, the SMP has still not been adopted - more than 3 years beyond the time the city resolved to 'get her done.

It's an age-old question: How do the governed hold their elected governors accountable?

When you figure it out, please let me know.

Thanks for the dialogue,
Larry

PS - To view Resolution 2004-36 go to:

http://www.cob.org/web/legilog.nsf/0835b31f5719a205882566f0006c1444/b7b5062a3841461188256f55005eb73b/$FILE/200436.pdf

Anonymous said...

Dick and Larry,

I'm glad to see some separation between two important-but-distinguishable aspects of the illegal rooming house issue. On the one hand, we have the various nuisances such as noise, litter, roadway obstruction, etc., and on the other hand we have a de facto erosion of the very idea of single family housing. I think these issues are distinct enough that they may merit different solutions.

I think we all agree that existing nuisance regulations needs to enforced. Perhaps these nuisance regulations can be tweaked or strengthened, but the real issue is enforcement. The solution, I believe, is a landlord licensing ordinance, whose sole purpose would be to provide just enough revenue to fund a full-time enforcement officer (i.e., revenue-neutral). I imagine a sliding scale, and exemptions for landlords who own just one or two dwelling uits.

Enforcement of nuisance regulations would solve most of the problem, but would not even touch the trickier issue of single-family zoning itself.

As Dick sees it, single-family zoning is a tool by which the city regulates the location of residential density, and by implication residential character. Of course, lot sizes vary from place to place, and this also affects density -- but for our purposes will ignore that fact. As Dick sees it (correct me if I am wrong) violation of the rule-of-three is a back door means to achieve greater residential density and infill, but at the cost of neighborhood livability and character. I can certainly see his point.

My problem is that I think that sprawling urban growth is a bad idea, economically, socially, and environmentally, and so I am an advocate for more compact, livable cities. This means some infill, some real redevelopment, and greater residential densities. How we achieve this is the great question, and it is an important topic for public discussion and debate. I'd hate to see this larger discussion muddied by the nuisance issue.

To the extent that the failure to enforce the rule-of-three is back door infill, it is wrong. If we are to have infill, it should come through the front door. Moreover, illegal "infill" seriously undermines a legitimate effort to identify forms and locations for good infill. The form and location of infill, and the character of our single-family areas, should be a public policy decision carried out in the open. It should not be left to rule-benders and scoff-laws.

So, while I am a fan of infill and higher residential density, even in single-family zones to a limited extent, I see illegal boarding houses as having no part in the solution.

Which brings us back to enforcement, doesn't it?

~Michael Lilliquist

zonemaven said...

Dear Anonymous but really Michael Lilliquist,

Well, said. I think my only point of disagreement is your suggestion that landlords with only 1 or 2 dwelling units would be exempt. I think it is precisely these kind of "mom-and-pop" rentals that are at the heart of the problem. I can envision landlords with more than 2 properties establishing separate LLCs as owners for each property, thus creating "single" dwelling ownership. In all fairness, the licensing must be across the board. A $50 or $100 per year licensing fee will not break the bank or the back of a landlord.

Enforcement of the single family zoning law now falls fully under the Police Department and the newly created position of Neighborhood Compliance Officer. Let us give Chief Ramsay the opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness that the these new enforcement procedures should bring.

Anonymous said...

I'm open to evidence on this one, Dick. Are mom-and-pop rentals really as much problem as the larger, out-of-town landlords? Do we have any evidence on this question, or will we gather such evidence if the new compliance officer works out? I really had not thought about your LLC scenario, with landlords setting up numerous "fronts" to skirt the law. That would be disgusting.

I guess I'm just trying to be nicer to ordinary people, who may have a single property as an investment but who are not business operations per se.

So, let's discuss this sliding scale idea, because it may become very relevant if/when the City Council takes action.

How about $75 for each dwelling unit, up until 5 units, then $25 for each unit after that, until the one-hundredth unit, at which point it drops to $10 per additional unit. My thinking is that landlords with more units are likely to be owners of large apartment buildings, with many units per building. I am thinking that it is simply easier to enforce the code in large buildings (in multifamily zones) than it is to enforce single buildings in single-family zones. These detached houses would be the most labor-intensive to police, right? I'm trying to come up with a scheme that fairly allocates expenses to those businesses that would actually place the greatest demand on resources.

Or do we have a different rate based on the type of dwelling? Say, $75 for a singe or double dwelling, but $25/unit for buildings with 3 or more units?? (This would be a schedule resulting in $75, $75, $75, $100, $125, $150, $175...)

Can you suggest improvements?

~Michael Lilliquist
lilliquist @ comcast.net

zonemaven said...

Michael,

I will pass on the licensing fee structure for the moment, however, I think that fairness requires landlords be licensed across the board. Business is business be it small scale or large scale. Other components to landlord licensing ought to also cover occupancy and safety issues which are necessary for any home rental, especially here with the large and shifting transient population of students.

Several years ago three of the four illegal rooming houses on our street were, in fact, single owner rentals, that is, the owners had only the one house. Only one of the homes was owned and managed by a known scofflaw landlord with multiple properties. This is, no doubt, anecdotal evidence but demonstrative nonetheless.