Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunnyland's Web Discussion on the Infill Tool Kit

There is an interesting discussion about the Infill Tool Kit taking place on the Sunnyland Neighborhood’s Google site. (Click here to read the email exchange.)

Here is a sampler:

“Regarding proposed the city proposed infill toolkit: Why not have some areas with lower density? Shouldn't we wait until existing multi-family zoned areas are near capacity before encroaching into single family neighborhoods? We should be talking more about adding trees, shrubs, and green areas to our beautiful city, and less about cramming shabby tract style housing into our unique single family neighborhoods. The city can't even regulate the many existing illegal rooming houses. Imagine the new triplex looming over your back yard, which is then later divided up internally to house double the original permitted residents, complete with all their cars zooming up and down your alley. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with this picture if you enjoy it and consciously buy into such a neighborhood, but to have it shoved down your throat after supposedly buying into a single family zoned area is another thing entirely. Imagine what might happen if the city were to propose such infill into the Edgemoor neighborhood!”

One theme is that of trust of the city government with respect to its desire and capability to enforce any parts of the Took Kit, especially those which can have an effect on the single family neighborhoods such as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and carriage houses. I have published two recent blog entries (click here and here to read them) on the Tool Kit and a recent (albeit anecdotal) ADU problem. A resident writes:

“As I see it...the city currently doesn't even (I could be wrong) have a code enforcement employee to make sure that compliance is being enforced and if you put all the regulations that are on such dwellings in the in-fill kit -specifically owner occupied units...who's going to enforce it, how's it going to be enforced, and what will be the consequences for non-compliance? Too many unanswered questions in my opinion to be comfortable with the tool kit as written. As it is, I have enough poorly maintained rentals surrounding me and I just can't do with anymore. I have a lot of neighbors in my vicinity that will agree with me on this subject but really even if you call the litter control officer it has taken up to eight weeks for the properties to get rid of the garbage piles […] So, as you can understand, I have no faith in the current system the city has for compliance...and this has nothing to do with the officer who is doing his job he is good at it but his hands are tied until the owners of the property do something.”

[Zonemaven Comment: For the record, the city has a Neighborhood Enforcement Officer, formerly the Litter Control Officer, who was “beknighted” last year by the City Council with additional duties relating to the enforcement of the code on illegal rooming houses.]

The Planning Commission is meeting again this Thursday, 30 April at 7pm to complete the hearing on the Infill Tool Kit. (Click here to read the relevant materials from the 16 April hearing which is still open through Thursday’s meeting). You can still provide oral testimony or you can send written comments to the Planning Commission. Check their contact information by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Citizens' Forum - Discussion on Infill Tool Kit - 2 May

Mark your calendar today for the next in-depth discussion. The topic on 2 May will be "Infill and the Tool Kit". Click on the image on the left to view the flier with the place, time and directions.

This is the third such discussion sponsored by the Citizens' Forum, the last having been held on 21 March on the subject "The Infill Dilemma – by Choice or by Necessity?" Over 70 interested citizens attended this gathering. You can read the proposed Infill Tool Kit on-line by clicking here.

See you there.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Alice in ADUland

"We're all mad here."
- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, Ch. 6

Recent emails sent to me by homeowners on Iowa Drive describe having found themselves falling down the rabbit hole into ADUland [ADU – Accessory Dwelling Unit]. A long time problem home (described as having been occupied by squatters) on this quiet street abutting Whatcom Falls Park was sold in 2007 to an individual who announced plans to renovate the structure and to add an ADU. Relieved neighbors were happy to see someone who not only wanted to renovate the home but also was thrilled to be living near a park. The addition of the ADU was problematic from the start because of concerns over parking. Nonetheless, with the planned inclusion of a circular driveway and a four-car (tandem) garage, the ADU was approved by the city.

The owner moved into the main house and rented the ADU but over time this arrangement became blurred as the owner began to rent the main house, too. Since then, it has become a vacation rental that is advertised, even at this moment, on Vacation Rentals by Owner ( The four-car garage is now being used for storage according to Iowa Dr. residents thus negating a portion of the arrangement by which the ADU was approved. Cars now spill from the “circular driveway” into the street. The rental is currently being touted on VRBO thus: **Now accepting offers for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. The nearest venue, The Richmond Olypmic (sic) Oval, is only 48 miles from the home** Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Now the live-in homeowners on Iowa Dr. are faced with the fait accompli of an approved ADU. The owner of the property agreed to certain terms to gain approval from the city. He has, according to neighbors, moved into the ADU - sort 0f- but now seems to be ignoring both the spirit and the letter of that agreement and the law. (The owner must live in either the main house or the ADU. Click here to read the present code on ADUs.) Predictably, the neighbors are facing a time consuming and uphill climb in fighting for code enforcement.

Although this account is anecdotal in nature, it demonstrates that my warnings regarding these seemingly benign additions are valid. Once the Infill Tool Kit is approved and neighborhoods accept them as a means of infill, there will be Iowa Drives all over town. Given the city’s generalized hesitation regarding enforcement and the insufficient number of enforcement personnel, how will the character of our neighborhoods be protected? Enough to drive one mad, no?

[Do you have an ADU horror story? If so, send it to me at zonemaven AT hotmail DOT com.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Infill Tool Kit Still in the ICU

When last I wrote about the Infill Tool Kit on 13 Feb (click here to read that blog entry), I compared it to Rosemary’s Baby (of film fame) which (who?), unfortunately, had been allowed to be born. The Tool Kit is now in ICU as its parents (our municipal fathers and mothers) are fighting to save it and, it seems, successfully so. Part of the medical unit participating in the revival efforts is the Planning Commission that will meet on 16 April (click here to read the material) for a “Public Hearing - to consider amendments to the BMC to adopt an Infill Toolkit consisting of development regulations for selected housing forms.” This benign statement of purpose hides the fact that there are some very real problems with this “problem child” which, if the law is passed, will prove costly in the future.

For those of you who may have missed the “Town Hall” meeting of 16 March on the Tool Kit, you can view a video (click here) of the session on the Bellingham City website. This poorly attended meeting (by the very public it was meant to inform) was yet another part of the steps the city needs to take as it pushes this legislation through the required process. Fortunately, there were some citizens in the audience who actually read thoroughly the Tool Kit and voiced their concerns.

Foremost among the problems with this toolkit is that, in spite of the assurances from the city that it would not apply to single family neighborhoods, it indeed can apply, if someone simply asks that it does. That would kick off a Type VI legislative rezone process (click here to read about the process) to gain approval. (“In single family residential zones, these housing types may be permitted if approved as part of an amendment to this title through a Type VI process.”) This sentence should be removed from this proposed legislation. Our municipal management would have you believe that this relatively benign process is one that is capable of stopping such approvals; however, trusting in such is folly. As the Arabian adage goes, "If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow." Or, once the monied interests are involved, the pressure to cave to the dollars will overwhelm the process.

I am not categorically opposed to the types of housing in the tool kit. Truth be told, I would prefer to live in a town home myself. Unfortunately, there is not one sentence in the proposed legislation with regard to the manner in which all of this will be enforced, especially several years down the pike (pun intended). We already have one overloaded full-time code enforcement officer who did not have time for the additional duties of enforcing complaints on illegal rooming houses. This enforcement task was foisted upon our Litter Control Officer whose job was already in full time mode. Furthermore, these less expensive forms of housing will initially be owner-occupied but, as time goes by, live-in owners move up or out and renters will move in with attendant over-crowding but no effective control. You need go no further than the area of Wildflower Way and Sweetbay Dr. to see such effects in a neighborhood of small homes and small lots where the original owners are mostly gone and the remaining live-in owners are left to contend with the rentals (which are not controlled at all) and the overcrowding with all its disadvantages.

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and carriage houses, which, inexplicably, are exempt from the density rules under this Tool Kit, already present a problem in that codes requiring that ADUs must be registered with the city are not now enforced. City staff admits that there are only 71 registered ADUs in the city and even found that a laughable figure during the Town Hall meeting on 16 March. (If you do not believe me, watch the video) This egregious admission of an inability to control ADUs now while at the same time advocating for increased use in the future of ADUs and their more upscale cousin, the carriage house, is mind-boggling doublethink.

We probably would not be having this discussion were in not for the fact that around 50% of our single family housing stock consists of rentals and that we have, if you count those attending the community colleges, well over 10,000 students seeking housing on an annual basis. None of this transience is controlled in any way, shape or form by the city or the university. This situation further distorts the rental market and leads also to an uncontrolled, de facto infill to which the city turns a blind eye while exhorting neighborhoods to come on board with the infill tool kit. Chutzpah incarnate.

Paradoxically, as the city asks the neighborhoods to ”step up to the plate” on the Infill Tool Kit (they had no choice with unplanned infill à la illegal rooming house), the city effectively has abandoned the review of neighborhood plans and the Mayor has moved his Neighborhood Service Coordinator to a waterfront office where she will now spend 50% of her time working on the waterfront’s master plan. The “waterfront” is taking on quasi-ozymandian proportions in a tanking economy. I exhorted the Mayor, in an earlier blog to turn his attention from the waterfront to the neighborhoods. After all, who are the voters who live at the waterfront?

NB: Read more Zonemaven comments on the Tool Kit from November, 2008 by clicking here.