Community

Divide-and-Conquer

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Changing the zoning in built-out neighborhoods to allow detached accessory dwelling units (what Kelly Bashaw and Dan Hammill called “backyard cottages and mother-in-law units over garages” in a recent column, “Schools and Planning for Growth”) is not the way to address Bellingham’s urgent need for affordable housing. And the debate over such a zoning change is being conducted in a way harmful to our community cohesion.

Not only would new detached accessory dwelling units likely be expensive to rent and dominated by vacation rentals (so they wouldn’t add significantly to affordable housing), but constructing these new units would tear apart the fabric of existing neighborhoods. Under the false-hope banner of increasing affordable housing, neighbors would be set up for conflict between those seeking additional income and their neighbors who would lose backyard sunlight, privacy, and predictability.

How many backyard vegetable gardens, decks, and play areas would lose hours of sunlight when new two-story structures pop up next door? Apartments over garages are typically constructed with outdoor staircases that are tenants’ only access to fresh air—so residents would understandably want to sit outside overlooking their neighbors’ yards.

Bellingham’s current zoning for single-family neighborhoods (more precisely “residential single zones”) protects current residents from these encroachments on sunlight, privacy, and predictability through a variety of rules. Protections include requirements for setbacks from property lines, limiting the buildable portion of a lot, prohibiting detached accessory dwelling units (unless “grandfathered” and legalized under a 1996 law), and regulating attached accessory dwelling units (including the requirement that one or the other unit be owner-occupied). Bellingham Municipal Code is available online (and is reader-friendly); most of these rules are in chapter 20.30 or 20.10.035. The Infill Housing chapter (20.28) that aims to create opportunities for more affordable housing by establishing special development regulations for nontraditional housing forms does not apply to residential single zones. Applying it to “residential single” is being discussed.

Conflict among Bellingham residents has already been flamed by proponents of changing accessory-dwelling-unit zoning—when they accuse current homeowners of lack of compassion for residents who cannot afford to buy a home in the current market. This echoes a long U.S. tradition of promoting conflict between people defending the sparse stability in their lives against those with greater need (for example employers who hired whites only, then during strikes hired non-white scabs).

I am concerned that a divide-and-conquer strategy is being employed whenever I hear remarks like “you people who bought houses a long time ago and don’t want the zoning changed are the reason why people like me can’t afford to buy a house,” or statements like this from the Bashaw-Hammill column:

“To us, housing is an equity and fairness issue. By not allowing people access to different housing types like townhouses, duplexes, backyard cottages and mother-in-law units over garages, we are effectively denying housing to people mostly with lower incomes. That includes young families with children in our school district. In many cases, equitable housing choices could allow for kids to walk to their schools.”

Taking away from current homeowners the quiet enjoyment of backyard sunlight and privacy won’t solve the problems of poverty and lack of affordable housing—and misdirects attention from true causes (as scapegoating always misdirects attention from true causes and possibilities for systemic solutions).

Predictability is the social contract at the core of zoning laws—so a homeowner or prospective buyer knows whether a neighbor can build a factory, cattle ranch, or apartment building next door.

Detached accessory dwelling units can be great alternatives in new neighborhoods or neighborhoods zoned multifamily (and many of the single-family homes we see in Bellingham are actually within multifamily-zoned areas). But because predictability where one lives supports well-being, I oppose changing zoning in built-out neighborhoods currently zoned as single-family.

The social cohesion of Bellingham’s neighborhoods is precious, and quite a contrast to cities, towns, and especially bedroom communities where neighbors don’t know each other. We build this social fabric every day through block parties, neighborhood associations, front-yard gardening or porch-sitting, walking and bicycling, meeting in neighborhood parks, PTA and other family activities in our neighborhood schools, participating in soccer teams organized by neighborhood clusters, and emergency mapping projects—and through a commitment to care for each other because that’s how we want to live.

I’ve long pondered why Bellingham planners and city leaders push so hard to loosen accessory-dwelling-unit rules in built-out neighborhoods zoned single family, despite decades of neighborhood opposition. I have reluctantly concluded that their affordable-housing argument is a smokescreen for the actual motivation: By changing the rules, the City would solve its problem of long-standing failure to enforce current zoning for accessory dwelling units (even after the “grandfathering” exceptions enacted in the 1990s). I don’t think this benefit is worth tearing apart the social fabric of our neighborhoods.

Emily Weiner was active for many years in the Cornwall Park Neighborhood Association and Parkview Elementary School PTA, and wrote about development, education, and other topics for The Bellingham Herald and Cascadia Weekly. She now lives in the South Neighborhood.

Past Columns
Saying Goodbye

December 11, 2019

Cold and Alone

December 4, 2019

Big Money Politics

November 13, 2019

A Win for the Birds

July 24, 2019

Road to ‘Nowhere’

June 26, 2019

Game Changes

April 24, 2019

Salish Sea Science

January 23, 2019

Cherry Point Amendments

January 16, 2019

Invest in the Future

September 26, 2018

A Desperate Call

August 29, 2018

Criminalizing Protest

July 18, 2018

Threshold Fund

June 13, 2018

Imprisoned Splendour

May 9, 2018

Pathways to Homeownership

April 25, 2018

Yes on I-1631

April 11, 2018

Schools and Planning for Growth

September 27, 2017

Events
Today
Holiday Pet Food Drive

10:00am|Whatcom County

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Giving Tree

9:00am|Village Books

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am

The Naughty List Market and Cabaret

2:00pm|Broadway Hall

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Treasure Island

7:00pm|Sehome High School Theater

Shrek the Musical

7:00pm|Burlington-Edison High School

Crazy for You

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

A Christmas Carol

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Number the Stars

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Wild Things

9:30am|Connelly Creek Nature Area

Toys for Tots

10:00am

Pacific Arts Market

10:00am| Sunset Square

Holiday Tea

11:00am|Willowbrook Manor

Holiday Craft Bazaar

3:30pm|Lynden Library

Drayton Harbor Shellebration

4:00pm|G Street Plaza

Gingerbread House Making

4:30pm|Ferndale Library

Christmas on the Docks

5:00pm|Cap Sante Marina

Photos and Stories with James K. Papp

5:00pm|Gallery Pegasus

Wonderland Walk

5:00pm|Washington Park

Valley Made Holiday Market

5:00pm|Maplehurst Farm

Kids Night Out @ Western

6:00pm|Western Washington University

Lost Feast

7:00pm|Village Books

Honk! The Musical

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Darkness and Light

7:30pm|St. James Presbyterian Church

Narnia the Musical

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Christmastime is Here with Skagit Symphony

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Tarnation and Holiday Games

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Tomorrow
Holiday Pet Food Drive

10:00am|Whatcom County

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Giving Tree

9:00am|Village Books

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Shrek the Musical

7:00pm|Burlington-Edison High School

Treasure Island

7:00pm|Sehome High School Theater

Number the Stars

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

A Christmas Carol

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Crazy for You

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Pacific Arts Market

10:00am| Sunset Square

Toys for Tots

10:00am

Holiday Tea

11:00am|Willowbrook Manor

Christmas on the Docks

5:00pm|Cap Sante Marina

Wonderland Walk

5:00pm|Washington Park

Valley Made Holiday Market

5:00pm|Maplehurst Farm

Honk! The Musical

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Tarnation and Holiday Games

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Darkness and Light

7:30pm|St. James Presbyterian Church

Narnia the Musical

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

NSEA Work Party

9:00am

Breakfast with Santa

9:00am|Sedro-Woolley Community Center

Winter Faire

10:00am|Whatcom Hills Waldorf School

Winter Arts & Crafts Festival

10:00am|Pioneer Park Pavilion

Old-Fashioned Christmas Market

10:00am|Friday Harbor Brickworks

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Fairhaven Winterfest

10:00am|Historic Fairhaven

Sumas Book Club

10:00am|Sumas Library

Mastering Wisteria

10:30am|Full Bloom Farm

Award-Winning Book Club

10:30am|Lynden Library

Snow Geese of Skagit

10:30am|Christianson's Nursery

Your Life is a Story Writers Group

10:30am| South Whatcom Library

Saltadena Celebration

11:00am|Saltadena Bakery

Winter Wonderland Gift Gala

11:00am|Carnation Building

Holiday Craft Bazaars

11:30am

Holiday Maker's Market

12:00pm|Terramar Brewing and Distilling

Holiday Joy with Fidalgo Youth Symphony

1:00pm|McIntyre Hall

Holiday Tea and Crafts

1:00pm|North Fork Library

Festive Feasting Reception

1:00pm|Good Earth Pottery

Teen Art Fair

2:00pm|Blaine Library

Big Holiday reds tasting

2:00pm|eifert & Jones Wine Merchants

Shrinking the Worry Monster

2:00pm|Village Books

Birding for Kids

2:30pm

Bowman Bay Holiday

3:00pm|Bowman Bay

Noel Ensemble

3:00pm|Jansen Art Center

A Deep Dive Into Eve Deisher's Psyche

3:00pm|Museum of Northwest Art

One Meditation

4:00pm| Boulevard Park

The Nativity

6:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Early Railroads of Whatcom County

7:00pm|Village Books

Contra Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Center Into Solstice

7:00pm|Cafe Blue

Holiday History Hi-Jinks

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Winter Solstice Concert with SeaMuse

7:30pm|Firehouse Arts and Events Center

Cidertails with Alexine Langdon

7:30pm|housand Acre Cider House

Heralding Christmas with Skagit Valley Chorale

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

The Kelley World Tour

7:30pm|Lummi Island Library

Sunday
Holiday Pet Food Drive

10:00am|Whatcom County

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Giving Tree

9:00am|Village Books

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Number the Stars

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Crazy for You

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Pacific Arts Market

10:00am| Sunset Square

Christmas on the Docks

5:00pm|Cap Sante Marina

Valley Made Holiday Market

5:00pm|Maplehurst Farm

Honk! The Musical

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Narnia the Musical

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Winter Wonderland Gift Gala

11:00am|Carnation Building

The Nativity

6:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Heralding Christmas with Skagit Valley Chorale

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Sedro-Woolley Community Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Langar in Lynden

11:00am| Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Celtic Yuletide

3:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Scarlett and Dicey

4:00pm|Village Books

Vaudevillingham

7:00pm|Cirque Lab

see our complete calendar »