Wednesday, October 26, 2016
CIVIL WAR: Bellingham City Council continues to struggle with the issues of housing equity and affordability in collision with the traditional form and character of established neighborhoods.
A special meeting on chapter amendments to the city’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan update turned into an ugly shouting match last week after Council President Pinky Vargas introduced a change in the comment structure to allow a 15-minute presentation from a paid representative of realtors, building industries and construction lobbies. As the empowered president of the City Council, she likely does indeed hold the authority to offer that procedural change to meetings; the more important question was whether it was prudent or advisable, given the rancor percolating around the Comp Plan update, to press that change. The crowd was not especially large, but motivated; and in no mood for parliamentary hijackings. Neighborhood representatives, with little patience for a procedural trick that might allow a flack to lecture them—preemptively diluting their own three-minute comments—on housing supply for 15 minutes, immediately began barking their objections. Let’s stipulate: The consultant’s fatuous presentation—at this meeting, or earlier this year at a meeting of Council’s Planning committee—wasn’t worth the trouble. But Council—or a plurality of them, at least—wanted his remarks read into the comment record concerning the Comp Plan’s land capacity analysis. Council veteran Gene Knutson attempted to restore order by taking the blame.
“Let us not yell and scream,” Knutson said. “We need decorum. I have sat in that chair six different times, and this abuse [our Council President] has taken has got to stop. ...You’ve got to stop beating up on our Council President.”
Vargas attempted to restore order, and the chambers erupted again into chaos. She then made her first real error of the evening, which was to exit the chambers until order was restored without calling for an official recess. Some Council members left with her; others—confused and without a clear directive—milled around the chambers as the meeting stalled.
Vargas this week took responsibility for her mishandling of the meeting, and said she left because of concerns for her safety. From the Gristle’s vantage, her departure appeared driven more by annoyance or chagrin than fear: Lots of bellowing from the gallery, but no threats.
Was this a female versus male response to social violence, as some observers wondered; or was this—as the Gristle thinks more likely—a novice versus veteran response to an unruly crowd? Madam Mayor seemed unfazed by the testy spray of testosterone, as did all the male members of Council. The latter remained in chambers to listen to community concerns while in recess.
At particular issue is Policy 18 of the Housing chapter of the city’s Comprehensive Plan update. Council again this week erupted into division and acrimony concerning its parts. H-18 discusses a number of recommendations by the Countywide Housing Affordability Taskforce (CHAT) Community Solutions Workgroup on Affordable Housing, a group heavily represented by the building industry. These include, among other things, land use revisions, financial incentives and waivers of certain city code standards and policies, such as parking relaxations and extensions of water and sewer services to underdeveloped growth areas. All are controversial in varying ways, few have had full discussion by Council, but the most controversial and least discussed by Council are changes that would allow multifamily or diverse housing types in neighborhoods long zoned as single-family, and the fundamental alterations those housing types might introduce into the character of established neighborhoods that feel most under siege from subtle, sometimes corrosive changes. The problem with H-18 in the Comp Plan is that the language treats these changes as decided and ongoing (“continue implementing”) when they really haven’t in many cases been meaningfully discussed and decided at all by city policymakers.
Commenters asked that if such changes are contemplated, that they should not be covertly slipped as bullet points into back chapters of the Comp Plan, but discussed openly and robustly as part of a public process.
Council this week bitterly debated taking H-18 out of the Comp Plan entirely—a sensible suggestion, given that things under discussion cannot be considered as part of a plan—but decided instead on a language change that would characterize these policies as being evaluated rather than implemented as Council begins to wade into the weeds of these proposals next year. For her part, Mayor Kelli Linville expressed frustration that some H-18 policy goals are already underway (such as the waiver of certain development charges and impact fees that might address housing costs), others are under discussion, and some are so speculative that they are not currently part of any city work plan. She sought clarity and guidance for her planning staff. Their inclusion (or specific exclusion) in the city’s central planning document gives policy direction, she said.
Admittedly, H-18 needs to be broken out into sections noncontroversial, controversial, and those likely to erupt the city into a bloody civil war. In the end, the two longest-serving members on City Council could not support the Comp Plan because of the inclusion of H-18.
Circling back to issues of an increasingly disharmonious City Council, perhaps it is tone more than substance that divides them.
“I’m not going to be as nice anymore,” Vargas said stridently in the afternoon Committee of the Whole. “From now on, I am going to try to run this Council much more efficiently, if I possibly can. I want people to be mindful of this Council chamber, and the appropriate behavior that belongs in this room, from everyone there [in the audience] and from everyone here. I will enforce the rules in this Council chamber.”
Yet it is exactly that haughty attitude, the assertion that the Council is righteous and put upon, set upon by a community ignorant of their imperatives, that is at the root of their legislative malfunction.