Thursday, September 13, 2007

Growth Management: Meaningfully Involving Neighborhoods -Part 1

Last evening I attended a meeting of the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission, MNAC, for short.
It was remarkable that 20 of our 23 neighborhoods were represented!
Each was given an opportunity to comment.
This meeting was an overwhelmingly positive one, despite the expression by some members of their neighborhood's complaints and criticisms.

There has to be a place where complaints are heard, and heard by more than one neighborhood, because no single neighborhood necessarily has exclusive rights to any single problem. But also, because there is strength in numbers! What affects one neighborhood may one day affect all neighborhoods, so it is good that all neighborhoods can share these problems as well as ideas for how to avoid or mitigate them in the future.

Such a process has multiple benefits, and in many social environments -including governments- it is considered as simply 'working smart'.
Why repeat the same learning curve every time a similar problem occurs?
There is a major benefit to identifying shared solutions that frame issues, honestly and in an informed fashion, which can help the process of resolution greatly, regardless of venue.
Not necessarily solve every conceivable problem, mind you, but share commonalities that can also be used to set policy guidelines for the future.

One of the serious concerns expressed at the MNAC meeting came from the Whatcom Falls Neighborhood Representative, who was understandably frustrated that the decision described below did not go the way he, and some other neighbors, wanted.

That brings me to the WIndy article and particularly, the Inside the Indy piece which appeared in today's edition.
I understand the concerns and the opinions expressed, but disagree with the conclusions.
These writings focused on the City Council's 4-3 decision last Monday to allow a 'rezone' that some maintained was a precedent that did not follow the Comprehensve Plan.
That view is inaccurate in my opinion.
But, taking the specific to the general case, the WIndy also opined that this might be a 'harbinger, [that] proposals that tout densification and reduction of sprawl will trump any concerns over neighborhood character.'
I strongly disagree, and here's why:

First, the rezone in question is a 'contract rezone', a rare occurrence that may happen once or twice a year.
What distinguishes this type of rezone from the others is that it is considered a 'quasi-judicial' matter rather than a legislative matter.
For the uninitiated, this means a technical loophole that allows alternate proposals, but only if the applicant can demonstrate public benefit by each of 7 specific criteria.
Such decisions are mandated to be made by the City Council after review by the Planning Commission and professional staff.

The Planning Commission was unable to muster 4 votes for any specific set of recommendations, so essentially that body served mainly as a conduit for information and public comment to the Council, which then had the duty to decide the issue, based on the closed record to that point.
This is one of those times that the Council has to act essentially as a jury, and decide the case on the facts already in evidence.
That is inherently an uncomfortable and controversial decision for anyone to have to make, but it is the Council's duty to do it and no one else's.

As Harry Truman said 'the buck stops here'. He also said 'if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen'.

Now, let me say that the 7 criteria to be used as tests are good ones, but not entirely objective. Otherwise, the 'jury' would not be needed!
But, they are not simple criteria; they are subject to interpretation by each Council member.
My own view is that Council members represent the entire community, not individual Wards, Neighborhoods or special interests.
With that in mind, we are charged with the responsibility of applying all of the Comprehensive Plan goals to an issue, and not just those that support a particular point of view.
Folks, that ain't easy!
The Comp Plan means many different things to many different people, but all have to be kept in some sort of balance for it to work for everyone, plus honor the codes and laws that apply [whether folks are aware of them or not].

With all the above in mind, predictably, the Council decision reflected diverse views, with the resulting decision favoring accepting the contract rezone proposed.
That should be OK, because our rules require nothing more than a simple majority.
Unfortunately, this system does seem to produce 'winners and losers'.

Without trying to justify my vote, here's what I saw clearly as the advantages of the decision that was made:

1. A previous application that was vested [means old rules apply] proposed 26 new homes on 10,000 sf lots, although an adjacent area had already been rezoned for the same smaller building footprints requested in the contract rezone, setting a precedent that was difficult to dismiss in these deliberations.
Under that proposal, each lot was required to have a minimum 30' frontage on the to-be-constructed Whitworth Blvd.
[The underlying zoning actually suggests that up to 52-54 lots were potentially allowable]
The contract rezone requested 41 new homes [added to 3 existing] on smaller building footprints and using shared driveways for access, which removes impervious surface area.
Basically this amounts to a clustering concept that is generally not a bad way of efficiently using the land available without unduly impacting the environment, especially in an urban area.

2. The previous application would have provided 50' buffers for Cemetery Creek, a tributary of Whatcom Creek.
The contract rezone provides for 200' buffers, plus over 4 acres of Open Space preserved as wetlands and uncut trees, plus a treed buffer.

3. The previous application did not specifically provide for traffic mitigation on substandard Xenia Street, or to roadways to the North that connect with Old Lakeway Drive, a problematic cut-thru connecting Lakeway and Yew Street.
The contract rezone did specifically provide for traffic calming measures on Xenia Street.

Bottom Line: 15 additional homes; better protection for Cemetery Creek, including trail corridor to help connecting Lakeway with Samish Crest trails to Padden Creek; 4+ acres of added open space; treed buffers; traffic mitigation for Xenia Street and connections to the North.

Now, I ask you, which is the better deal for the City of Bellingham?

I would personally hate to be on any 'winning side' that actually resulted in a markedly inferior development! That would be a case of winning a battle, but losing the war. That kind of thinking has already characterized too much of our history.
That's enough for one blog I've been told, so maybe there will be more later on this subject.

One last thought:

Our single main challenge is to manage growth and change well, so as to sustain our quality of life.
That is a citywide mission of which Neighborhoods are a very important part!