Saturday, October 13, 2007

Growth Management: Neighborhood Planning - Whose Job Is It?

'I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past' - Thomas Jefferson

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." – Thomas Edison

"You can't teach what you don't know, and you can't lead where you won't go" - Jesse Jackson

"There are two stages to the public policy process; too early to tell, and too late to do anything about it." - Anonymous

The Oct, 12, 2007 Herald OUR VIEW Editorial trumpeted this headline:

'City planning isn’t only a job for neighbors'

No kidding! Does anyone think it should be?

I don't know why such a statement would even be made, and I haven't heard it made anywhere else.

Perhaps, it was dreamed up just to get people to react?
If so, that plan worked!

I do agree it is the lack of strong leadership on growth issues that has brought Bellingham and Whatcom County to the difficult situation we find ourselves in now.

But, as Winston Churchill said, 'If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future'.

The point is, while its important to know what happened in the past, its even more important to take appropriate action now to better influence the future.

Although the neighborhood initiative process the City is supporting may be uncomfortable at times, what is the real alternative?

Think about it!
By NOT involving neighborhoods early and often, we are continuing the same weak leadership of the past.

Maybe some prefer just waiting for something to happen without asking for it?
Or, waiting until some ideas come forward that have not been reviewed in advance?

The Neighborhood initiative is NOT trying to push neighbors to come up with a consensus they may never reach.
It is allowing them to try, and actively facilitating that effort.

Consensus is always a proper goal, but how often is it met?
The City Council certainly doesn't reach consensus on every issue, especially those that are new, or which try to change some existing practice.

When the Silver Beach Ordinance was passed in 2000, we set up a Citizens Task Force to review it and determine ways to make it more fair and flexible.
It was a stated goal of that Task Force to seek and reach consensus whenever possible, yet that certainly did not happen on every issue.
But, on over half the issues considered, we did!

What did happen was that those ideas that did reach consensus -or close to it- were the ones that got forwarded as group recommendations.

In other words, we agreed on what we could agree upon and saved the areas of disagreement for further debate by the Planning Commission and City Council.
Hey, that's why those folks get the big bucks!

The current Fairhaven example is certainly nothing new.
It is a power struggle for control of both the process and the ideas considered to be considered.

Hey folks, that ain't all bad!
One can see that struggle as a problem or an opportunity.
Because it spotlights real issues of disagreement early, it should be seen as primarily an opportunity.

The Fairhaven Neighbors Neighborhood Association of homeowners has been the recognized entity that has participated in the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission and other related City-sponsored activities for some time.
As such, I see no valid reason why that role should not continue.

The business-dominated Fairhaven Village Association also has valid interests in the future of Fairhaven and its historic district.
Since Fairhaven is considered a poster child of what an Urban Village ought to be, I think its healthy to have this group also actively involved in the Neighborhood Plan updating process.

The question is how this should be done?
Since what happens often has little to do with what people think should happen, here's my thought.

Neither association's existence is threatened, nor is there any need to merge them together entirely.
But some sort of merging must happen, and this can take more than one form.

Members of the Village Association can join the Neighborhood Association, or at least participate in its activities.

And, the Village Association can continue to deliberate on its own and submit its own recommendations and concerns to the City.

Either way, all these expressions will be heard and considered.

Despite what some might think, all of these recommendations are advisory in nature, but do carry some weight.
The ones which both the Village Association and Neighborhood Association can agree on carry even more weight, but they are still recommendations that need to be heard and considered.

Some City funds are being used to facilitate discussions between the two groups, but if creating one organization that speaks for the entire neighborhood is not possible -as now seems likely- it will still be worth the effort.
Those funds were earmarked specifically for the purpose of facilitating the neighborhood initiative effort, which was something the City heard clearly that was desired by many citizens.

If everything this process tries doesn't work out to everyone's expectations, well that's democracy!

The height limits issue has existed for some time in the district, even well before the current growth spurt.
It should be no surprise that the Neighbors group favors more strict limits than does the Village Association!
The question still remains how to resolve the issue.

Maybe there is a skillful means to be explored, like the father's solution as to how the last piece of pie would be shared by his two hungry sons; one was to cut the pie and the other was to choose first the piece he wanted.

Nah, probably not that simple.
But, you get the idea; compromise where you can, then leave final decision to the decision makers.
But also give them that feedback.

So, because the groups didn't emerge smiling, holding hands and singing kumbaya, the Herald concludes 'the taxpayer-funded talks have already fallen apart'.
Get real! If there hadn't already been serious disagreements expressed, there would not have been the need for facilitation!

I'm glad the Herald approves 'of the city’s desire for input from neighbors as it plans for the future'.
But, it also concludes 'the current neighborhood model is too limited'.
What additional limits might help?
After all, this is a voluntary exercise designed to provide a mechanism for feedback, the earlier and more representative the better.

What would the Herald do if it were considered a 'neighborhood'?
As this editorial goes on to pontificate, it also sounds like its having a little conversation with itself, and may not completely understand the subject it is addressing:

'We are skeptical that any group of neighbors from a neighborhood of single family homes will ever meet and decide some of their community should be rezoned for more intense development.

Yet as Bellingham grows, that is exactly what must happen.

The underutilized sections of every part of the city must be in play as the city decides how to push more of our increasing population inside current city limits.

The ugly alternative is a city that continues to sprawl and eat up the precious open spaces, agricultural lands and forests that make Whatcom County unique among counties from Olympia to the Canadian border.

Sprawl into the county is never the right answer. More dense development in the city is necessary. A “not-in-my backyard” attitude is unacceptable.

Meanwhile, city officials are falling short in their part of the job.

Turning planning over to neighborhood groups doesn’t work unless you provide the groups with the expertise it takes to plan for the future, and a deadline with consequences for failure.

We hope as a new mayor and City Council members are elected, city officials will return to leading this process.

There is no more important work in the city of Bellingham than planning how our community will change as the population grows. Tough decisions will have to be made. Neighbors must be consulted.

But it seems unrealistic — even a shirking of duties — for elected officials to force neighborhood groups to make those decisions for them.'
You decide if the Herald has got it right on this issue.

BTW, I haven't seen Editorial Board Members at any neighborhood meetings, have you?

Last word(s):

• No one is forcing anyone to do anything. Maybe that would work better, but that's not possible.
Of course its not comfortable being a 'human shield' for decision makers, having to attend contentitious meetings and not being anonymous!

• Bellingham has had a neighborhood structure in place since at least 1980 when the first plans were written.
But just having a structure in place doesn't do much to make it work.
That takes the voluntary efforts of citizens to talk to each other and come up with ideas on how to do things better.
Absent that, the City Council will continue to make decisions based on whatever information presents itself.

• All 23 existing Neighborhood Plans are a part of the City's Comprehensive Plan.
As such, they represent statements of the values and attributes desired by citizens, existing and future.
It is important to revisit these periodically and gain new ideas and perspectives from new residents and businesses.
The sooner this information is generated, the better it can be considered by Planning Commission and Council.

• Because some of the comments responding to this editorial were particularly well considered, these are also printed below for those who might have missed them.

The Herald’s opinion assumes that, after the quality of life and character of our unique city neighborhoods are destroyed by “more intense development,” then our rural county lands will be spared from sprawl. In other words, the Herald’s editors apparently believe that all future growth can be crammed into our cities, thereby preventing the destruction of our rural and agricultural lands.

Any reasonable person can see how preposterous this assumption is. As we all know, once city neighborhoods are decimated by over-development, new development into the county will not cease; it will continue in perpetuity until someone takes power who understands that we cannot grow to infinity. In fact, if we follow the Herald’s suggestion to its natural conclusion, not only will every neighborhood suffer drastic consequences; but we will lose our rural and ag lands as well.

It is clear that we cannot grow forever. Once we all agree, we can begin to determine the appropriate level of growth that will preserve the quality of life in our neighborhoods as well as our “precious open spaces, agricultural lands and forests that make Whatcom County unique.” We need to begin evaluating our ideal carrying capacity now so we can realistically plan for our future.

The Herald editors also fail to comprehend that the rights of current residents, citizens, taxpayers, and voters (not to mention Herald subscribers) are paramount to the rights of people who may (or may not) relocate to Bellingham in the future. Current residents are uniquely qualified to determine their own destiny. If Herald editors disagree, perhaps it’s time for some new ones.

If neighborhoods comprised of single family homes desire to retain that character, so be it. In fact, the Growth Management Act (GMA) requires that cities’ comprehensive plans must ensure “the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods.” [RCW 36.70A.070(2)] This is not a goal of the GMA; it is a requirement. The Herald’s recommendation essentially amounts to a violation of the GMA.

Hopefully whichever Mayor Dan is elected will understand the need for long-term legacy planning throughout Whatcom County and will work with the County Executive and the mayors of other cities to help determine our ideal size before it is too late.

In the meantime, Bellingham residents must continue to be vigilant to preserve the unique quality of life we have inherited from those who came before us so we may pass it on to future generations.
The writer misunderstands the Act when they suggest ensuring neighborhood vitality and character has some priority greater than protecting rural and resource lands, and the quality and quantity of our water.

The Act merely mandates that this be an element of the comprehensive plan. Like all goals of the Act, ensuring neighborhood character is to be pursued harmoniously with the other goals.

The need for our elected officials to take responsibility, rather than delegate it to neighborhoods ready to transfer growth to other backyards, includes recognizing that the majority of our current residents do not desire more growth and the changes it entails.

If those elected officials' urban constituents do not desire growth, because we can not put urban growth in rural lands, it seems that we would elect officials who understand that we can not continue to accept urban growth.

Expanding the urban area and converting rural land to more low density urban development, apparently the present choice of officials faced with constituents unwilling to accept change in their backyards, is not the answer.

I would like to see an article that accurately describes what happened in Fairhaven. In fact, the City approached the Fairhaven Neighbors about updating the plan without notifying the Fairhaven Village Association about the process. The Fairhaven Neighbors developed a revised plan that included draconian height limits and other restrictions, presenting it to the Village Association as a fait accompli.

I repeat my thesis of last Monday: the City's mewing about Neighborhood plans will only veil our view of the vested development projects to come - King & Queen Mts., West Cordata, Chuckanut Ridge, CAITAC etc. It appears that City and Planning are shirking their elected and paid duty by keepings the peasants all riled up and at each other's throats, However the building continues. As of Oct. 1, there is a posted moratorium on ground work being done on watershed land. Why did I see bulldozers on lots when I drove south to Sudden Valley on Tuesday? Making the Neighborhood Associations into the NIMBY-man, as suggested by this editorial, is unfair and reflective of the Herald's vascillating stance on growth - you are all for it with your printed rah-rah because of our destination image but then wring your editorial hands when it becomes apparent that your readers are of a different mind. Regardless of which Mayor Dan is crowned, the City is still our City - not his, not his friends in development, not the IOC, not even Horizon Bank's! My vote wobbled a bit yesterday when I read the endorsement lists of both mayoral candidates. Even after attending forums and reading their statements, I fear that I still know too little about them but too much about their respective supporters. I read similar statements from all the candidates, particularly about watershed protection and infill. However if tha candidates all sound the same and they represent us, then why are we unraveling over the issue of growth? The City is afraid to make some planning decisions so they foist the process onto Neighborhoods however making sure they have removed any regulatory teeth from the Associations. Why else is there no solution being found for violation of single-family dwelling zoning and student housing? Why is there no pressure being brought to bear on WWU's "sprawl"? Why is Fairhaven splintering and sadly one of the most unpleasant parts of town? Why else are Lakeway and Bakerview parking lots? Why else are there empty storefronts and residential units all over town but the hammering continues? Why does the City focus on froo-froo sidewalk designs? Why does my water quality decline? Why are mobile home owners being forced out? Because Planning and the City have never learned to say "no" to developers. When we as taxpayers say it loudly and clearly, we become NIMBY's. As a young friend said the other day: "what a sucky City" but always thought we were the City. When did we lose control?
No wonder young professionals do not want to live here. All of the established professionals and retired folks are preventing this city from becoming more modern, and in the process are driving away the tax base that will end up providing the goods and services to you in twenty to thirty years. Although owning a single family home with a 1/4 acre of land sounds nice, it is not necessary for a young person or couple, or even a starting family to aspire to owning a property like that. Without growth within the city limits, the quality of life for the people who cannot afford your $400,000 Edgemoore home is lacking.

No one questions that this area is a great place to live. You and I live here for a reason. There are responsible ways to provide the housing that is needed, while catering to the people who want a certain type of neighborhood. Also, the business owners are not fighting to damage the quality of life; instead, they are fighting in order to give themselves and their families more of an opportunity to make the money needed to live in this area.

Please, stop the bickering. I'm sure there was a time when a compromise could be reached. In regards to the Fairhaven area, I always assumed that is where the nicest and most intellegent people in our community lived and worked. Please prove me right.

If one had to choose one city whose surrounding lands were to be developed; Bellingham's, Everson's, Nooksack's, Lynden's, Sumas', or Ferndales; which would it be?
One cannot have it all. We do not live in a perfect society. We use compromise as a way to strive towards perfection.
Which city least impacts intrusion into long term economically sustainable resource lands?
Which city can most efficiently service an increasing population with alternative transportation options, fire protection, hospitals, government buildings, supportive community services, goods, entertainment, and higher education?
Which city can best respond to civil defense needs?
Which city is not immediately influenced by the crossing of the Nooksack River either as access to a city or evacuation from a city?
Which city in times of global warming can build upon its hills, rather than watch its lowlands fill with water?
Other than govt. required populaion control or a gate on I5, which City's expansion would least impact us?

My neighborhood association is a joke. I attended a few meetings and soon realized these folks are an unreasonable bunch of NIMBYs. The folks running the meeting have their own agenda and they do not want any other opinions. I think the City should end this group's reign. My neighborhood would be better off without them.
Regarding my interpretation of the GMA's requirement to ensure neighborhood character, perhaps you need to argue your point with land use attorneys Bob Tull and Dominique Zervas. The following is a quote from their October 27, 2005 memo to the Whatcom County Planning Commission:

"The Legislature has mandated that cities' land-supply element must ensure 'the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods.' This is not a goal of the GMA; it is a requirement."

Clearly, these experienced attorneys believe there is a difference. If you know better, please share with the rest of us.

How refreshing to have an intelligent discussion!

Every comment made so far has validity.

That is both a blessing and a curse.

The views expressed serve to frame the issues pretty well, but in the end we will have to work them out -one by one.

The exercise is to find which areas exist that we can agree upon and use those to move forward.

There will be no substitute for neighborhood involvement, because that is where every citizen lives.

And, there is no substitute for every one being heard. But, in the end, decisions will be made. The question is, do citizens want thir input to happen sooner or later?

One sure answer is that no one is likely to get everything they want!

The competing goals of the GMA guarantee that outcome.
'It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.' - Winston Churchill

'In war as in life, it is often necessary when some cherished scheme has failed, to take up the best alternative open, and if so, it is folly not to work for it with all your might.' - Winston Churchill