Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lawsuit Planned

I just received the following in my email this evening. I will leave it to the individual organizing the suit to identify him/herself to those who express an interest.

"Would anyone be interested in joining a class action lawsuit against the city for failure to enforce codes? If so, please e-mail me at"

I have no idea about the form this lawsuit might take. One possibility, is a writ of mandamus. Our friends at Wikipedia define the writ as follows:

"A writ of mandamus or simply mandamus, which means "we command" in Latin, is the name of one of the prerogative writs in the common law, and is issued by a superior court to compel a lower court or a government officer to perform mandatory or purely ministerial duties correctly. Mandamus is a judicial remedy which is in the form of an order from a superior court to any government, subordinate court, corporation or public authority to do or forbear from doing some specific act which that body is obliged under law to do or refrain from doing, as the case may be, and which is in the nature of public duty and in certain cases of a statutory duty. It cannot be issued to compel an authority to do something against statutory provision.

Mandamus can be supplemented by the statement that it is not only the command to do but also a command not to do a particular thing against the rights of the petitioner. Mandamus is supplemented by legal rights. It must be a judicially enforceable and legally protected right before one suffering a legal grievance can ask for a mandamus. A person can be said to be aggrieved only when he is denied a legal right by someone who has a legal duty to do something and abstains from doing it."

You can read more about writs of mandamus by clicking here.

I have also read on the Internet of suits by homeowners against particular individual landlords to enjoin the operation of a group home in violation of zoning codes. In the case of protected classes, this probably would not work, however, if the renters were just adults who grouped together to rent a single family home, the landlord might find him/herself holding the short end of the stick.

Minneapolis Does It - Why Doesn't Bellingham License Landlords?

On Monday night the City Council, in an effort to push the landlord licensing rope up the hill, asked the Mayor and his staff for material relating to the abortive attempt several years ago to bring forward a licensing program. Those of you who were here at that time will remember the love-in at the cruise terminal which was hijacked by landlords who packed the house - as so much they cared for the well-being of private homeowners of Bellingham. The then-Council retreated post-haste and never looked back. In all fairness, our newest members of the council were not part of that debacle.

It appears that the City of Minneapolis has more moxie, whence emerges the two-page document above. (Click on the image to enlarge) You will also notice that the landlord is required to ensure that the premises are not occupied in violation of the zoning code or the health maintenance code. (Is that not a refreshing concept -protecting renters' health?)

Bowling Green, Ohio Enforces Zoning Code - Why Can't We?

The following is from the BGNews of Bowling Green University in Ohio. The university there has about 20,000 students, who, I am told, almost outnumber the permanent residents. For those of you who are regular readers of my blog, you will find some familiar concepts that I have advanced in prior blog entries. First and foremost is the confirmation that these laws on single family zoning can be enforced. Second is my analysis of the rental market wherein I posited that rents are distorted by illegal rooming houses. This article should give support and confidence to the members of the City Council and the Mayor as they move toward an effective program to eliminate illegal rooming houses in Bellingham. They will be doing the right thing.

"City ordinance sets cap at three for unrelated individuals in a single house

By: Lisa Halverstadt

Posted: 1/16/08

When senior Jenna Sobb and five of her friends moved into a five-bedroom house on Troup Avenue, she didn't know much about a city ordinance that does not allow such an arrangement. By letting six University students live in the home, her landlord violated a zoning rule that bars more than three unrelated people from living in a rented home. Code enforcement officers soon discovered the roommates were violating the law and asked the roommates to cooperate with investigators. Three were ordered to move out.

Their landlord, Douglas Cheetwood, had separate agreements with the three students who weren't on the lease and had allowed them to mail their rent checks to him, according to court records. Six male University students who lived in the house last school year had a similar arrangement. Their parents signed agreements and mailed checks to Cheetwood.

By Jan. 9, Cheetwood was convicted of 200 violations of city code. Cheetwood could be fined nearly $50,000 if he violates the code again during his two-year probation. Fellow Bowling Green landlord John Frobose was charged in November with 82 counts of zoning violations. The owner of Frobose Rentals is accused of allowing five women to live in one of his Orchard Circle properties and according to court records, encouraging them to "keep a low profile" and "most importantly keep[ing] the cars to a minimum of three." Frobose will appear at Bowling Green Municipal Court tomorrow at 1 p.m.

City Prosecutor Matt Reger said city officials will continue to investigate zoning violations and uphold the ordinance created in 1975. Nearly all of the violations have involved college-aged people and while it may appear otherwise, Reger said the ordinance is made to protect them. "Students sometimes believe that we are attempting to do something that hurts them," he said. " I understand that [...] but in a way, we're helping students so that rent goes down." If landlords want students to live at their properties, they'll have to lower their rents so it's affordable for three students to live in home, he said.

When the city began cracking down on zoning violations in 2005, then-Undergraduate Student Government President Alex Wright and other students opposed the law. Landlords didn't like it either. In February 2005, Frobose and others told The BG News they thought the ordinance should be updated to reflect change in the community and society. Though he acknowledged the community has changed since the ordinance was created, Reger said students should realize they don't benefit from living with more than three other students. "The landlords are the only ones who benefit," he said."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Billet Doux from Council Member Weiss

The following comment from Jack Weiss was published on the blog of Sam Taylor this afternoon (click here to read it on the Herald website). I am reproducing it here as there are many of you who do not follow the blogs on the Herald. The comment appeared under the title of "Councilman Weiss – Why I Can’t Read the Zonemaven’s Blog."

"I don’t read Dick’s blog. I found his posts to be myopic and way beyond mean-spirited last year, so he gets no “hits” from me. This morning, he sent, via email, his latest post to the councilmembers (sic) referencing his love for the 1950’s film, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” I agree with him that it is a great movie, in fact, I saw it on TV a few weeks ago for the first time in a long time.

But Klaatu would be disappointed in Dick, as am I. Klaatu was against humans and government getting into his bedroom, even if it were a few light years away.

For him to write in reference to his preferred punishment to folks simply trying to economically get by in town:

“No matter that the code merits criminal, civil, or even corporal punishment (I can think of the pillory, stocks, tar and feathering among a few choices.)” … well I think that speaks volumes of Dick’s credibility.

And if we are mentioning life in the 1950’s, I must say I am both glad and proud that I live in Bellingham, not Pleasantville. Dick, you might want to see that one as well and then reflect on your mission. Lastly, you may also want to seriously reflect on What Would Klaatu Do? It is sad you want to use this kind, gentle and wise alien to support your own behavior.

Listen, I will work with you Dick, but not under the context of a closed mind."

"Dear Jack,

You know, I must admit that I have been a bit tough on the subject last year, but it is a subject that needs some toughness given its implications.

Furthermore, do not mistake my tenacity for myopia, for to do so would be to misread me badly. I know full well the implications of my proposals. I do not take up my pen lightly.

I also know full well how badly those of little or modest means have been neglected by the city for decades by an atmosphere where affordable housing is offered, in great part, by an unlicensed, unregulated and uncontrolled rental system which rewards landlords, places renters at risk and degrades the quality of life for many honest, hardworking and honorable residents.

Finally, I strongly object to your twisting of my wry comment regarding corporal punishment which was obviously aimed at the landlords who are the responsible parties and not at the renters who have little recourse."

Klaatu, Gort! Where Are You?

In the wonderful 1951 classic sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien visitor from an advanced civilization, Klaatu (played by Michael Rennie), tries in vain to make the inhabitants of the planet Earth pay attention to his message, which is that the earthlings must mend their bellicose ways or face destruction. He succeeds, momentarily, in getting their attention by causing all electrical devices to stop working for 30 minutes (with charitable exceptions). Alas, the Zonemaven has no such powers - powers which would cause the City Council to pause and to focus on the issue of single family zoning enforcement. So during yesterday’s afternoon committee session, the spotlight was diverted to enforcement of noise, litter, and parking codes to name a few. Attack the supposed symptoms and the disease goes away.

This folderol unfortunately, spilled into the evening session where, it seems, the only council member to “get it” was the author of the motion of 8 October *, Terry Bornemann, who struggled, like Klaatu, to remind everyone that his motion had to do with enforcement of the existing code on single family zoning. Now the council has directed the Mayor to look into decriminalizing the code infraction and/or revising the code itself. No matter that the code merits criminal, civil, or even corporal punishment (I can think of the pillory, stocks, tar and feathering among a few choices.) in the final analysis you must deal with the code language because the definitions really mean something. If you cannot define single family or multi-family or industrial or commercial or mixed use with respect to zoning, then you have no zoning, you have little or no control over density and you have lost the trust of the citizenry who see that you have put your imprimatur, at worst, or your nihil obstat, at best, on illegal rooming houses.

Back to the movie. In the end, Klaatu is shot dead by the U.S. Army but is revived by Gort, his robot fellow-traveller who is roused into action by Helen Benson (played by Patricia Neal) with the now iconic phrase, “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!”

The council needs to think this one over carefully. There is no Gort this time.

*From the minutes of the 8 October 2007 City Council minutes: "Bornemann / Knutson moved to direct staff to prepare a pilot program regarding enforcement of complaints relating to more than three unrelated individuals living in a home. The motion carried 5-2."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Herald Article on Illegal Rooming Houses

My thanks to Sam Taylor for giving the issue of illegal rooming houses a front row seat in this morning’s Herald. You can read the story by clicking here. My last two blog entries (click here and here) spoke to the three choices offered by city officials in response to the motion by Terry Bornemann which the council passed last October 8th. I support the first option which is to hire a separate compliance officer. There is a lot of work to be done to clean out our neighborhoods and restore their character. This will be more than enough work for one person. I ask the council to decide if our neighborhoods are worth $106,000. The citizens will be watching the value the city council members attach to their well-being.

I support, in concept, moving the infractions for creating illegal rooming houses to civil offenses. This has been done in other areas and seems to provide a more efficacious means to enforce the law. That being said, the issue of illegal rooming houses remains the primary enforcement target. I have said many times in this blog that we cannot fight the deterioration of our single family neighborhoods by going after symptomatic litter, noise and parking infractions. If we do not solve the density problems created by these illegal rooming houses (read multi-residential housing) in single family neighborhoods, we have done little to make zoning a meaningful term. It is the mere footprint of these illegal rooming houses which changes the character of neighborhoods.

Non-enforcement of the zoning code to date has also produced a permissive atmosphere where there is non-compliance with other codes (noise, litter, etc.). Landlords and tenants see that the city rarely responds to code violations on single family zoning. Like graffiti, if the city does not eliminate it as it appears, it grows beyond control. By strong enforcement the code, the city will create an atmosphere where landlords and tenants will think twice.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Update to My Blog Entry on 25 February Council Meeting

Sam Taylor posted the following update to his Herald blog yesterday:

"*Update - SATURDAY* On his Zonemaven blog, Dick Conoboy states that aside from the committee meeting I’ve cited, the council will also take it up at their 7 p.m. meeting. This is incorrect. The agenda packet has listed the meeting only in committee as a Briefing/Discussion. The council will provide direction to staff as to where they want to go at the committee meeting. Depending on what they decide it could either come back soon or much, much later. If they choose option #2 as Ramsay is suggesting to them as the best option (though he’ll still give them three), then I doubt it would come back soon, because the city will have to work on reclassifying the litter control position to include more responsibility and likely be in a different pay code/bracket."

Here is my response (which has also been posted on the Herald site):


The Zonemaven incorrect! Horrors! :-)

I carefully reviewed the agenda (click here to read) and supporting documents (click here). The agenda for the 25 February meeting lists CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE MEETINGS (among which is the PLANNING AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT MEETING where the single family zoning enforcement recommendations are to be presented) under the rubric of THE FOLLOWING ARE HEARD IN BOTH COMMITTEE AND REGULAR MEETINGS. If this agenda is incorrect, the city has not yet posted any amendments. The agenda bill 17823 does indicate that the recommended action is to provide direction to staff, however, given the agenda of the council meeting it is unclear as to the time (committee meeting or regular council meeting) this direction will take place.

I must also point out in the interest of fairness that the Council Agendas are presented in a confusing matter in that there are no numerals (Roman or Arabic) introducing the major headings so it is extremely difficult to decipher exactly that which constitutes major or subordinate entries. Not to mention that the several subheadings, which are numbered, have a "1" without a subsequent "2"- Basic Outlining 101.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Council to Decide on Enforcement Options

From the blog of Sam Taylor comes the following:

“Illegal rooming houses: Mayor Pike’s executive staff are giving three options to council members on the issue. No. 1 — hire a neighborhood compliance officer and implement a pilot program at an estimated cost of about $106,000. No. 2 — Reassign the litter control officer to handle the neighborhood compliance issues with the pilot program. $30,000 in costs, according to interim Police Chief Todd Ramsay. No. 3 — Do nothing, at no cost, and put the workload on the shoulders of the current code enforcement officer, who is already working on 109 active cases. This discussion will take place during a 2:05 p.m. Planning and Community Development Committee meeting.”

The Zonemaven had already spoken briefly with Acting Police Chief Todd Ramsay on the subject, hence the blog posting of 17 February. (Click here to read that entry) You can read the full recommendation to Council on enforcement of the BMC regarding single family zoning by clicking here. Of the three proposals, the Zonemaven is supporting option number 1, which is to hire a neighborhood compliance officer while implementing a pilot program of enforcement. This problem is too pervasive and the city is growing too large merely to append these enforcement duties on a current position. The idea of making illegal rooming houses a civil infraction is a move in the right direction. There are other jurisdictions in which wise councils have implemented this change to simplify the process and to modify the requirements for burden of proof. It remains to be seen if the City Council will react in a visionary mode and select the robust option which will serve to provide enough power to restore the character of our neighborhoods in the years to come instead of those options which may have been appropriate in years passed.

Note: Aside from the committee discussions at 2:05 on Monday, the full council will consider the issue at its 7 pm meeting.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Several days ago, the Bellingham Herald ran a story (click here to read it) on noise in the downtown area. The focus was principally on the problem of noise emanating from night spots but it might also have been written about noise from some of our illegal rooming houses around town. I have said before in this blog that noise, litter, parking, etc., are issues tangential to the prime issue which is that of non-enforcement of our zoning codes. However, the commentary following the article is, unfortunately, representative of the commentary on illegal rooming houses and deserves a “look-see.” Aside from those postings which merely rant in a vulgar, uncivil manner, there is a central theme from those who oppose noise restrictions and who oppose ridding our neighborhoods of illegal rooming houses. That central theme is that of entitlement. The entitlement takes several forms. One is “We got here first – so you don’t have a say.” The second is “You should have known before you moved here.”

With respect to noise, it is clear that we live in a city where a certain amount of ambient noise or noise pollution results from the necessities of daily life. Background construction noise, automobile noise… mowers, trains, planes and movement of people all add to the commotion. These noises can be attenuated by technology and common sense. We can, however, make a large difference in the domain of that which I call gratuitous noise. This noise comes in many forms, for example, loud mufflers, loud radios to name a few. In these cases, one might aspire to civility, however, from that which I gleaned from the comments to the Herald article, there appears to be those for whom civility is a mystery and for whom a sense of entitlement is overriding. The sense of responsibility to one’s neighbors is as foreign a concept as is sticking to the facts of an argument.

Moreover, the city will have to get a grip on this subject. As it moves toward the creation of urban villages where the commercial and residential meet, the issue of noise pollution in all its forms will invade the discussion.

And finally - can anyone tell me why one cannot just turn the gratuitous noise down?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Code Enforcement Presentation - 25 February at City Council Meeting

Several sources have reported to me that at the city council meeting of 25 February, the city will present its options in response to a motion on single family zoning enforcement. This action was initiated by Terry Bornemann and passed by the council on 8 October. Click here to read my blog entry on that council meeting. I urge those of my readers who support effective zoning enforcement regarding illegal rooming houses to attend the council meeting, listen to the discussion and discover who, among council members, is really concerned about the character of our neighborhoods.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Action, More Action and Forever Action*

The following email arrived today as a comment on my blog entry regarding the article by Council At-large member Louise Bjornson which appeared in the Herald on January 27th, 2008. Click here to read my comments on that article.

Do you have any suggestions what we might do to support Louise Bjornson in her efforts to get our city government to pay attention to how important it is to preserve our single-family neighborhoods?

You bet! This email provides me with an excellent opportunity to remind my readers of some simple actions they can take to demonstrate support for those in our government who recognize the problems created in our neighborhoods by illegal rooming houses. There are some in the city government who claim that there are no problems because they say they receive few complaints. You have to prove them wrong. Consider the impact if everyone in your neighborhood does the following:

- Write to the Mayor at Tell him you want him to keep his campaign promise about enforcing the zoning codes. Click here to read his email promise.

- Write to the Council Members at and tell them you support enforcement of the codes and that you want them to approve the hiring of more enforcement officers.

- Write to the Neighborhood Services Coordinator, Linda Stewart, at and tell her that you are tired of seeing the deterioration in your neighborhood caused by illegal rooming houses.

- Write to the search committee for WWU president at Tell the search committee that the next president cannot ignore of the effect of the 8,000 off-campus students from the university on the community. Tell them it is time for the new president to build student housing (lots of it) and to sanction off-campus misbehavior of WWU students. Tell them that the new president has to do something for the community before WWU gets a seat at the table at the waterfront.

- Write letters to the editors of the Bellingham Herald at and the Whatcom Independent at Tell them you support efforts by the council and the mayor to enforce the laws on illegal rooming houses.

- Attend your neighborhood association meetings and voice your concerns.

- File a complaint with the Permit Office of the Planning Department on the illegal rooming houses in your neighborhood. Click here to retrieve the form. Tell your neighbors to do the same. Ten complaints on the same illegal rooming house will wake up the Planning Director. Send a copy of your complaint to the Mayor, the City Council and Linda Stewart at City Hall.

- Help clean up your neighborhood by reporting litter violations to the city's litter control officer, Darren Sandstrom at 676-6859. Eliminate those parking problems (it is against the law to park on the sidewalk or to park on the roadway facing the wrong direction) by calling 676-6911 and asking for a parking control official to ticket such violators. Call every day if you have to. If a car appears to be abandoned, call 676-6920 and ask for the vehicle to be tagged and towed (for additional info click here)

- And lastly, for those loud parties or disturbances from illegal rooming houses, continue to call 911 (ask your neighbors to call at the same time) and ask for a follow up call from a police officer.

Your letters do not have to be original. Borrow language from my blog if you wish. Plagiarize to beat the band! Tell your friends to read my blog and then ask them to take action. You are entitled to peaceful enjoyment of your home.

*With thanks to Georges Jacques Danton.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Zonemaven Blog Touches Middle America

I received this message in an email from an unidentified woman living somewhere in the middle of the US. She had done an online search and found my blog entry of 22 August 2007 entitled "In for the Long Term" (click here to read the original posting) It sounds as if the account could have been written by any number of residents here in Bellingham. It is an excellent example of that which can happen when a city government forgets its reason for being - the common weal. Unfortunately, I have no address with which to respond to this woman. Perhaps she will see this blog entry and write to me directly.

"There just has to be more rights to protect homeowners. Shortly after I bought my first house at age 50 of saving & saving. (sic) The 5 bed room house next to me was a rental & a safe house for people crossing the border to hide out. Sometimes more than 30 people @ a time. (I live in the middle of the US). After a year of little sleep & damage to my property the owner sold it to a real estate company that rents. This was worse if it can be..Drug dealers moved in & I was threatened that if I turned them in there would be nothing left of my home. I am this tiny little 50 year old woman. Several bounty hunters have come to my door looking for different ones living in there but with no success. Now there is a well known gang member bunch in there as well. I am scared! I work all day & sometimes when I come home I can't even get to my drive way. The noise is so loud at nights, my property is trashed. Family & friends won't even come over any more because of the "RENTERS". I tried to sell it but potential buyers won't even get out & look @ my house when they see this bunch carousing around, or all the beer cans. The rest of the neighborhood around my house is nice, my other fellow home owners are just as afraid. The police say until they do something physical to one of us there is nothing they can do. I called the real estate company that is renting it & they have told us that we don't have enough money to make them comply with any city regulations. We called the city & the city claims they do not have the time to verify facts. I have taken pictures & video & its as if that has no effect on getting some action. As far as the drugs & gangs go the attitude seems to be that this is considered normal daily life & to just live with it.

I can't sell it, I can't live in it, & I can't rent it & I have no where to go. So it would be nice to know what you are supposed to do?? I will either end up murdered by this rental or I am getting to the point I would like to find a way to do away with them. 5 years of this my once nice property is destroyed, yard fences & all. I tried to sue the real estate company for a new fence with my videos but the real estate company said I had no way of really proving those were not friends of the tenants. So here we are....& I know I am not the only home owner that is living with this. I used to love to garden & paint but after 1 summer of harassment while working in my yard about ended that. They are 10 feet from the north side of my house window & I have nightmares of when they come crashing through. Now they have a pit bull. Its just a matter of time any more, watch the news you may see me on it sometime, but I do not think I will be alive. Why is it hopeless??? Don't home owners deserve better???????????????"