News

Infill on the Edge

Another Southside development proposal draws fire

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bellingham City Council will also hold a hearing in 2012 to consider recommendations of the commission, the project applicants and residents. In order to permit the development, council must amend the 2007 Samish Neighborhood plan. Changes to the city’s comprehensive plans can only be approved by council once each year.
“This new area of the park will feature a major expansion of existing city trails and breathtaking views of the San Juan Islands,” Padden Trails representatives said.

“The location offers a rare opportunity to live in the pristine privacy of forest land, while situated in the midst of the opportunities of a city,” they explained. “Padden Trails meets the goals and objectives of the Growth Management Act of the City of Bellingham through diverse designs for multi-family housing to satisfy the needs of different income levels.”

George Huston, managing partner of Padden Trails LLC, assured commissioners project designers intend to incorporate many of the features described by Seattle architect Ross Chapin, author of Pocket Neighborhoods. Chapin visited Bellingham in September, where he described a close-knit urban community that shares open space. By contrast, Padden Trails offers seclusion and isolation of upscale homes on steep wooded slopes.

Huston said his partners intend to use the creative and modern design standards of the sort detailed in the city’s In-Fill Toolkit, a series of development regulations the city adopted in 2009 to create housing models different than the traditional detached single-family dwelling unit. The toolkit encourages urban renewal, more efficient use of the remaining developable land, protection of environmentally sensitive areas and opportunities for more affordable housing.

But the toolkit is intended for renewing and revitalizing older sections of the city, critics say, not for new greenfield development on the urban fringe. The houses may be of modern design, they say, but they’re built on a model that encourages sprawl and damage to wetlands and forested areas.

“The Coalition of Southside Neighborhoods states that the city’s policy of smart growth encourages growth in the downtown, waterfront, and urban villages—where the needed infrastructure is in place and where police and fire response is much less taxing to those stretched systems,” Harvey Schwartz noted in comments to the planning commission. Schwartz owns a chiropractic center in Fairhaven. He lives in Samish Neighborhood.

“In the case of Padden Trails, having high density that far from the urban core will dilute market demand from where it should go,” he said. “This will work against the overall plan of decreased density away from the core.”

Planning staff detailed the history and challenges of the Padden Trails proposal in their report to the planning commission.

Many compounding issues—such as failure to obtain a location for a water reservoir in Samish neighborhood, the removal of San Juan Boulevard from the city’s transportation plan, a reclassification of the adjoining Yew Street Road area north of Lake Padden—joined with a collapsed economy to stall the project in 2009. The city’s original approval of the Padden Trails plat expires in 2013. The owners may request a one-year extension of that horizon.

“Access to the area is difficult and is not presently served by sewer or water,“ staff cautioned in their report to the planning commission. “A large part of the area is platted into small lots, which, from a practical standpoint, are undevelopable because of the area’s terrain.”

The area is underserved by water, sewer and fire service, they noted.

“If an area is too steep and environmentally sensitive to allow much development, as admitted by the city, it should not be rezoned residential multi-family,” attorney Wendy Harris noted, citing provisions in the city’s critical areas ordinance. “Infill is being used here not to increase density, as intended, but to provide for development ‘flexibility’ and clustering—inappropriate development in critical areas,” she noted.

“The rezone is an attempt to justify development that is discouraged under current land use regulations,” Harris said.

“Clustering in this area can help to minimize impervious surfaces, minimize disturbance to the steepest, most sensitive areas, provide open space, and to a certain extent minimize the drainage problems of the area,” staff noted in their report.

Neighbors found the report deficient in key areas.

“It appears that a considerable amount of the 113 acres is not buildable due to steep grades, wetlands, and streams,” Schwartz noted in his comments to the commission. “I believe that the city has accommodated the developers and allowed 246 units (basically the amount that would be allowed if the land were flat and had no waterway or other building issues). The developers have asked to more than double this density.  What, if anything, do Bellingham citizens receive in return for this regulatory gift, which represents a tremendous increase in the value of the land?”

Critics also cited the lack of access into and out of the proposed development, and the potential for congestion on roads poorly designed as arterials.
“The overall picture of the project proposed in the rezone application is not consistent with Bellingham’s objectives for a more sustainable, less auto-dependent transportation system,” observed Jim McCabe, citing the area’s distance from shopping and public services. A resident of Puget Neighborhood, McCabe serves on the Bellingham Transportation Commission.

The city has long planned for Padden Creek to be restored as a salmon-bearing stream with opportunities for trails along creek banks. Thirty years after this was originally proposed, however, creek culverts have not been removed and the shoreline and estuary have not been restored to produce salmon.

“I believe if the Padden Trails project is designed and constructed in the Padden watershed without protection of wildlife habitat and water quality in mind, the project could have a significant detrimental impact on the Padden Creek riparian buffer and the essential function of its fragile, at-risk estuary,” Susan Kaun noted in remarks to the planning commission. Kaun was formerly manager of a water and sewer district in Eastern Washington, where she was engaged in watershed restoration projects.

“The land of this proposal is strikingly similar to Chuckanut Ridge!” Schwartz observed. Eben Fodor, who practically invented sustainable land use practice, “analyzed that development and determined that the city would spend $12 million to subsidize the development, when you tie in all the services required. Who can say how accurate the exact numbers are, and how much of that would carry over to this proposal? But I do feel confident that this development would be financially negative for the city, in addition to having a negative impact upon the Samish Neighborhood.”

Dick Conoboy, who manages a website dedicated to city planning issues, harshly criticized the proposal. Conoboy serves on the board of the Samish Neighborhood Association.

“The Bellingham version of a bail-out is the Type VI rezone process which allows developers to ask for a rezone on their property. Couple this process with the infamous Infill Tool Kit and you have a recipe for disaster in a neighborhood,” Conoboy noted on his blog and in comments to the planning commission. Conoboy cautioned against the employing a tool intended for renewal of the city’s urban centers to develop large-scale projects on the city’s edge.

“There were those of us who fought the Tool Kit and thought that the city accepted that this device, although approved by the City Council, was not to be used in single family zoned neighborhoods,” he noted.

The property, he said, “was zoned in 1969 to accommodate about 246 single family homes, although this zoning to half-acre lots was apparently done by folks who would not know a contour interval on the map, if it hit them in the face.

“In essence, these developers are attempting to make a silk purse from their sow’s ear purchase by asking the city to bail them out and ignoring the desires of the Samish Neighborhood and the realities of the inappropriateness of placing dense zoning in the form 292 single family homes plus 200 multi-family units—for instance condominiums,” he said.

“There may be individual arguments by the developers supporting increased density that make sense,” Schwartz admitted. “But when I consider the plan as a whole, and then envision the impact that it would have, I see a plan where the whole is less than the parts. It would create congestion and be a stretch of both neighborhood and city plans.

“I don’t see any reason why the city should compromise zoning rules more than it has. I can’t think of one large development in Bellingham that has one road into it and one road out. The vision that I see would be more of a detriment than a benefit to Bellingham in respect to livability, aesthetics and finances.”

“The developers can count on money, staff, attorneys, other paladins and their associated mountebanks whose normal paid workday is that of schmoozing city officials and preparing myriad documentation and slick promotional material at which altar the Planning Department appears to worship,” Conoboy complained. “The neighborhoods depend on unpaid effort and time with little or no financing except for voluntary contributions from those who already have jobs, families and related obligations. The city aids and abets this obvious imbalance.”

Joe Yaver, president of Responsible Development, a coalition of Southside residents, issued a caution to planning commissioners.

“Upzoning the property in question amounts, in many people’s minds, to ‘spot zoning’ that enriches a few people but degrades the environment for thousands of people,” Yaver said.

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