Sunday, October 14, 2007

Growth Management: Neighborhood Unrest Means People Aren't Happy!

"My experience in government is that when things are non-controversial and beautifully coordinated, there is not much going on." - JFK

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.

'Kites rise highest against the wind - not with it.' - Winston Churchill 
Some recent discussions seem to forget -or simply ignore- the impetus for the City's renewed emphasis on its neighborhoods.

Maybe its worth a few lines to revisit the conditions which spurred this renewed emphasis.

The main condition was the unprecedented growth that has occurred in recent years that has affected congestion, costs and quality of life for citizens.
To deny this has happened would require an unusual level of ignorance, or dishonesty!

That said, the community has awakened to the realities of what has happened, and what is likely to continue happening.
Many are concerned with these changes and have expressed this concern in no uncertain terms!
To deny this would require an unusual level of deafness or physical absence from this town!

But for those who would like a little refresher course, here is a letter -rather mild by comparison to others- that expressed the widely held concerns that someone absent from here -or deaf- might have missed.

Do not be mistaken in assuming these concerns don't always exist in some degree of fashion, because they do.
What was different two years ago was the unusually high level of common concern.
That level of noise is something no public official can ignore!

So, putting this into perspective, the Mayor and City Council decided to significantly re-emphasize neighborhood involvement as a direct result of this public outcry.

[Note: A version of the draft letter excerpted below was submitted by the Puget Neighborhood Association, as it's alternate to a much more strident letter that was proposed and promoted by the independently formed Association of Bellingham Neighborhoods (ABN). At that time, this letter was considered mild by comparison!]

In reference to the ABN letter expressing serious concerns over the City's process and actions to update its Comprehensive Plan, the Puget Neighborhood Association [PNA] wishes to register its own perspective and recommendations to the Mayor and City Council.

The PNA sincerely hopes its elected officials will carefully listen to these expressions of genuine and widespread frustration from many involved citizens who have strong interests in maintaining the future viability of Bellingham and the intrinsic character of its several distinctive neighborhoods.

Necessarily, a thorough treatment of this subject is difficult to easily summarize with the accuracy and in-depth understanding it deserves.

Rather, the PNA poses a short list of readily observable concerns and proposes a few conceptual ideas on how to best address these concerns.

Major concerns:

• An atmosphere of general agitation and distrust has been allowed to develop and grow, coalescing around the process of updating the City's Comprehensive Plan and related regulatory requirements such as the updates to the Critical Areas Ordinance and Shoreline Management Program.

People are angry!

• Several major development applications have occurred recently, taking advantage of vesting under existing regulations and creating an overload on an already stressed Planning Department.
This has increased public anxiety over rapid in-fill growth and its impacts on the surrounding community at the very time critical decisions are being deliberated.

People are distressed!

• Members of the City's professional staff, including Planning, have allowed themselves to act in less than a professional manner to members of the public.
This is inexcusable behavior from public servants, regardless of cause, and undermines their efficacy and credibility.

People are offended!

• Accusations, assertions and questions made in public and through various media have been allowed to fester too long without adequate response, thereby contributing to the atmosphere of confusion and hearsay that now exists.

People are confused!

• There is a perception that public officials have been stalling the implementation of previously adopted policy, and are now manipulating the process to satisfy some secret agenda to benefit the building industry.

People are suspicious!

• Inadequate follow through has been observed on a number of complaints and issues, despite promises of notice, incorporation of public input, additional time, clear explanations and legal constraints.

People feel left out!

The clear common denominator in all of these general concerns is that they are already strongly held perceptions.
While specific incidents may be argued using relevant facts, these opinions remain inescapably entrenched in many people's minds.

This battle is all but over; only a truce and a negotiated settlement will likely re-engage citizens in a productive manner.
It makes no difference whether the City's arguments are plausible, legal or accurate, a fresh start is needed.

Suggested proposals:

• The current mayor-appointed Neighborhood Advisory Commission has been largely ineffectual, typified by one-way, top-down communication and dominated by political appointees.

The formation of the Association of Bellingham Neighborhoods [ABN] speaks volumes about the need to have a more effective group focused on neighborhood issues.

Perhaps the Council could act to create its own advisory group, along with appropriating funds for staff assistance and identifying specific assignments to be pursued for a defined period of time.

For example, convene the group to work on Neighborhood issues during 2006, such as periodic updates, design standards, view regulations, guidelines for in-fill, traffic management, amenities, affordable housing, parking and the like.

• Council should establish a goal to complete Neighborhood Plan updates by a fixed timetable starting in 2006, using regular input from the Neighborhoods and assigned staff.

If current staff is unavailable or untrained for this service, a consultant could be hired for this purpose.

After all Neighborhood Plans are updated, an annual review could be initiated for continuous fine tuning.

First emphasis should be on those issues which are common to all neighborhoods, including anticipated new neighborhoods in the UGAs.

• Communications with the public need to be further improved and made to include some form of two-way communication on current issues.

This could involve the new BTV10 capabilities as well as the City's web site, plus a rotating 'speakers' team to attend neighborhood and other public meetings and present factual information on current topics and issues.

Televising all Council and Planning Commission Work Sessions would also be helpful to the interested public.

Additional staff may be required to accomplish this extra work which might be partially funded by increasing the Cable Franchise Tax.

• The City needs to communicate clearly its intent to complete its updates to the Comprehensive Plan, Critical Areas Ordinance and Shoreline Master Program in December, 2005, with the promise to annually revisit these plans for fine tuning each year.

• The City needs to establish a code of conduct for its employees, which provides for respectful treatment of citizens in all settings. Failure to abide by these rules should result in consistent and appropriate disciplinary action.

PNA respectfully asks the Mayor and City Council to carefully review these concerns and suggested proposals with the intent of substantially improving the current situation.

We trust that you will see the merit in adopting the suggestions offered to whatever extent you can.

These are being offered in the spirit of constructive cooperation with our elected officials, recognizing that this path provides the best chance of immediate and lasting improvement.

By no means does this mean that we, the PNA, do not share the same serious concerns outlined in the ABN letter, merely that we choose a different method to express them.

So, is there still any doubt that there should have been more re-emphasis on neighborhoods?

If the current, stepped-up efforts still aren't deemed adequate, let's hear some other ideas.

It is a given that everyone will not agree on everything, but there is a way to disagree without being disagreeable!

Civil discourse should be one thing we could agree upon, regardless of degree of frustration or criticality of issue.

Without civility, any process will be ugly and fall short of its potential.

There are already more than enough opportunities for division in our community.

Let's develop more ways to seek unity!

A few weeks ago I was asked to attend a meeting of the Mayor's Neighborhoods Neighborhood Advisory Commission [MNAC] as a member of the City Council.

What a great meeting!

The Mayor's Board Room was packed with representatives from 18 Neighborhood Associations, all of whom contributed a few concerns and ideas to the discussion.

Having these people meet together with each other and staff is a valuable exercise in itself.

Because many issues and problems are common to more than one neighborhood, these meetings serve to share what works and what doesn't work.

It also serves as a 'heads up' opportunity for neighbors to be alerted to new issues and opportunities.

One good example that has enjoyed success is the 'National Night Out Against Crime', with its emphasis on knowing your neighbors and what to do when the unexpected or unwanted happens.

Our Block Watch program and the assigned neighborhood Police Liaisons are visible steps that help neighbors help themselves, and each other.

That's a good thing, that can also help in resolving other issues - maybe even things like 'Landlord Accountability'?

That is because every issue can benefit from neighbors talking to neighbors!

I believe that kind of relationship and discourse is really what knits our town together.

For those want to read further, here are some notes from which I prepared my much briefer comments to the MNAC:

1. Thanks to all you Neighborhood Representatives for participating in MNAC and thereby making it work better.

This organization's goals go far beyond registering complaints, which are many, and continuing as it is in life generally.


MNAC's real mission is seek out the root causes of problems and recommend positive solutions that can be applied to every
neighborhood, to minimize repeat problems as much as possible, and to prevent small problems from growing bigger.

Ultimately, a collaborative approach is the one that usually works better, but that is difficult to sustain without your willing support.


We are going through some rough times now, with rapid growth and uneven prosperity the main culprits.

Progress is sometimes difficult to discern, and it is frustrating, tiring and time consuming to boot!

Many may feel a lack of trust in the effectiveness, timeliness and fairness of the solutions that are tried, but we must never give up trying!

Each year brings its own challenges, changes in elected representation and opportunities that seem endless.

They seem endless because they are!

There aren't many silver bullets, since the Lone Ranger went off the air!

It is inherently a continuous improvement process, with the chief variable being the people involved.

Since grassroots involvement is the way quality of life problems get identified and addressed, you folks represent the front line troops combatting them.

2. Changes are imminent in who will become Mayor, and for at least 3 Council seats, with a possibility of 5!

There will be new people in several key City Staff roles, including CAO, Finance Director, Human Resources Director and Museum Director.

Depending on our new Mayor's wishes, there maybe other vacancies to fill as well.

All these changes will happen despite the City's obligation to provide essential public services throughout this transition.
This is a time when the MNAC needs to stay involved!

3. The City Council has set the goal of developing a better, Neighborhood based system to integrate into its decision-making

This process will take time to evolve, plus the cooperative engagement of the NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATIONS, because this not the only activity that requires time and attention.

* City Codes are badly outdated and will require about 3 years to fix, providing we assign appropriate senior staff to do the job.

* Neighborhoods will need to define:

• what is most important about their 'character' that needs preserving;

• who represents them, and by what process this determined?;

• who speaks for neighborhoods that have yet to be developed?;

• how parking, views, landlords, safety considerations, noise, litter, amenities, new in-fill, enforcement and the like will be handled.

None of these are small issues, and neighbors have told us they are important, and they should be considered.

* All during this time, regular business must be conducted to process permits, maintain facilities and provide the service citizens deserve and expect.

4. Neighborhood Plan Updates were put on hold a few years ago, not because the Mayor or Staff to do it, but, because I -and the Council- felt it was necessary to do so for several reasons:

* The process was taking too long, and the actual results were less than satisfactory.

Example: Happy Valley & WWU Plans took over 3 years and still people weren't happy.

* City Code was embedded in the NH Plans and needed to be legally separated out for consistency and simplicity.
Note a 3-year effort still required just to update codes!

NH Plans are still part of the Comprehensive Plan, which define character and special considerations and visions.

* Many NH sticking points were actually citywide issues.

Solving these one at a time for 23 NHs just did not seem very smart

* The effects of the building boom was beginning to be felt, which meant Staff resources needed to be used more efficiently to fulfill the City's legal requirements for timeliness in processing permits and the like.

Juggling fixed resources to respond to a heavy and changeable workload remains a problem for the City.

5. Future goal is to require early Neighborhood input to proposed development, along with meeting City codes and regulations, which themselves are becoming more stringent and time consuming.

The development community needs to understand and accept that new reality.

But, Neighborhoods also need to understand that excessive NIMBYism can come at the expense of citywide fairness and overall public good.



The easiest way to explain this position and put it into context is to say that Neighborhoods need to align their expectations with reality, and not popular wishes.

I don't believe the City Council will willingly abrogate its responsibility and authority in having the final say in these matters.

That does not mean the Council will be a rubber stamp or a rubber band, but will continue to make its decisions based upon reasoned arguments that consider the totality of our community's goals and system of laws and regulations.

One really good way for Neighborhoods to influence Council decisions is to be continuously represented on the Planning Commission.
Council often considers the PC its first line of defense in conditioning major development proposals and potentially controversial issues.
And, its a good place to learn and position oneself for elected office.

Our single main challenge going forward is to manage change so as to sustain our quality of life.

That is a citywide mission of which Neighborhoods are an essential part!

'Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.' - Winston Churchill

And, ancient wisdom from Aristotle:

'It is just that we should be grateful, not only to those with whose views we may agree, but also to those who have expressed more superficial views; for these also contributed something, by developing before us the powers of thought.'

'It is not once nor twice but times without number that the same ideas make their appearance in the world.'

'It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.'