Thursday, August 14, 2008

More on Land Use Efficiency: Chuckanut Ridge, Birch Street & Otherwise

From COSMOS website: "Piranhas have a fierce reputation - but it's a myth, say researchers who claim that the species shoals to evade predators not to engage in feeding frenzies.
"Previously it was thought piranhas shoaled as it enabled them to form a cooperative hunting group," said biologist Anne Magurran. "However we have found that it is primarily a defensive behaviour, and quite a complex one."


What is it about land use issues that evokes such strong feelings?
That a frisky group of cyber-piranhas should fuss over and decry my last Blog on another Blogsite, ought to be an honor!
And, based on the Orinoco Caribe-style frenzy exhibited, can there be any further doubt about what single issue has animated at least 2 of 'you guys' regarding the City's land supply deliberation?
It really DID start with Chuckanut Ridge for 'you guys', didn't it?
So, maybe a direct cyber-hit has been scored on your hidden CR 'battleship'!

But, I digress from more useful arguments.

A few points are listed below to further clarify the basis upon which I based my earlier Blog remarks on the same subject:

1. The city's Land Supply methodology that is being so vociferously decried, was certainly OK with the State agency in charge of Growth Management Act [GMA] oversight, the Department of Community Trade & Economic Development [CTED]! If folks still disagree, why not take it up with them?

2. Comparing the approximately 40 BUILDABLE RESIDENTIAL ACRES at CR with ANY number of acres to be considered in new UGA, is like apples to oranges! Can you guess why? OK, here's a hint. UGA land is grossed-up acreage, from which must come multiple deductions -for other uses & purposes- before zoning can be applied to any specific parcel. The number comparison I presented is directionally correct, but likely quantitatively inaccurate, given the very nature of estimates. More like approximately correct than precisely wrong, as was stated before.

3. The existing CR zoning applies to all 100 original acres, not just the estimated 40 that seem likely to be determined as suitable to actually build upon. Just consider the first 15 acres were taken out of service early. Since the property has been already deed restricted to 50% of its former -exceptionally high- density of 14.78, this former acreage makes no material difference to this discussion. Anyway, the new effective underlying maximum density is now about 7.39 homes per acre, or almost twice the minimum average that is considered 'urban'.

4. There is a concept called 'cluster zoning' that is widely considered to be a valuable tool in helping protect sensitive areas, while also allowing a much smaller than conventional development footprint. Not everyone understands cluster zoning, and some who do, still don't like it. But, it is a tool that can be very effective. [More about this below]

5. The City has been criticized -even by 'you guys', of all people- for its inability to use the land it has -within the City Limits- more efficiently. In other words, this means to insure that maximum assigned density is achieved, or at least something much closer to it than recent history has shown. I have consistently agreed with this concern, sometimes at the risk of being called 'pro development'. But, you know, one can't always have it both ways. It's hard enough to 'walk your talk' on these matters, but when you argue on both sides of the issue, what happens then?

But, there are many reasons for this failure to achieve 'maximum density', and many excuses too.
Consider these, for example:
No minimum density requirement, owner's preference, neighbors objections [including extreme NIMBYism], costliness, regulatory restrictions, height limits, challenging topography, mandatory buffers & setbacks, open space requirements, surprises -like environmental hazards, updated wetland determinations or new stormwater requirements, market factors, speculation, rezoning to a different use, vegetation considerations, desirability of location, redevelopment uncertainties, etc, just to name a few.

So, while the concept of always maximizing zoned density is a good one, the probability of that happening every time is slim to none.
Kinda like the concept of Entropy in thermodynamics, which always -by its definition- must increase every time work is done, whether it is efficient and useful work, or otherwise.

6. Notice the above paragraph was applied to ONLY that land within the CITY LIMITS, because ONLY that land is under City jurisdiction until annexation occurs, when these same factors do begin to apply.
But, before annexation, it is often a whole different ball-game, because the COUNTY has Urban Growth Area [UGA] jurisdiction, but not the obligation to abide by City codes, practices or levels of service. Yet, the City does get to influence the County, and must plan for these UGAs per Growth Management Act [GMA] requirements. And, that is what the City has been trying to do in the last update of its COMPREHENSIVE PLAN. Hey, I know its a thankless job, but somebody had to actually do it! And, the point guy always takes a greater risk.

7, So, now we come to this point: If the City -for whatever reason- determines that it is prematurely running out of buildable land supply -including residential- and/or is attracting new population faster than it had anticipated, only two things -besides increasing land use efficiency- can happen for the city to obtain more future space in which to grow:

A. The City can accept proposals for annexation from property owners in the existing UGA to expand the land supply under its control AND receive additional revenues from it over time.

[Note, that when this occurs the City also usually obligates itself financially as well because of the increased level of urban services it must provide. Residential-only annexations rarely come close to paying for themselves, but Commercial & Industrial usually do. This is why a steady stream of smaller, multi-purpose annexations is the more desirable course of action.
A number of these proposals are now being considered by the City, partly due to a change in its policy for NOT extending water & sewer services outside of City Limits, without a commitment to annex.]

B. The City can request that some, or all, of the previously determined, County-approved and administered 'FIVE YEAR REVIEW AREAS' become new Urban Growth Areas that will also remain under County jurisdiction. That is what has happened during the latest COMPREHENSIVE PLAN UPDATE, which seems to have attracted so much attention.

Maybe there are other options too, but these two are the main ones.

8. So, all of this leads to this question:
What does it mean when a good-sized chunk of buildable land, zoned for high-density residential use, within the City Limits, is taken out of that use - either completely or partially?

If you answered it would have to be replaced 'somewhere else', you would be correct!
And, where would that 'someplace else' be?
Another neighborhood?
The UGA?
Waterfront Redevelopment?
Hi-Rise buildings?
Apartment ghettos?
Shelters for the less fortunate?
The County?
Another town, county, state or country?
Or, if one thinks that any 'lost' density never really existed in the first place, it could just disappear into a psuedo spreadsheet netherland, accompanied by disingenuous fast talk?
Don't all of these options equate to someone's definition of SPRAWL?
Why pretend otherwise!

What we're looking at in the case of CR, is a virulent version of NIMBYism, pure and simple.
If everyone felt the same way about a piece of property they liked -but didn't happen to own- would that be OK, too?
Think about it.
What is fair to one, ought to be fair to all!
At least that's the way the law sees it, and fortunately most others, including me.

As stated before, all this armchair quarterbacking is not likely to make much difference in the final analysis, anyway!
So why the temptation to continue arguing about it as if it were some sort of sacred cow?
Maybe its just fun? Or just typical piranha behavior?

But, you know, just like everyone else, I am entitled to my own considered opinions - and fun!
Unlike most others, I gained my perspectives on applied Growth Management over several years while serving in public office - and working very hard at learning about it.
Not fun.
Applied Growth Management is not an easy subject, especially when one compares it to simple theory and wishful thinking!

I have concerns that some folks still prefer to think that selfish agendas, backed by money & attitude, will talk louder than the law, common sense and good judgement.
That has happened on occasion, and it is not a pretty sight to behold.
The power of self-serving agendas backed by money is -as it always has been- a threat to good government.
But, that kind of agenda is also part of our grand mix of interests, even though it is a poor substitute for the consistent & rational fairness that ought to be the highest goal of our governmental system.
I guess that's why Aristotle called politics a 'practical' science, as opposed the 'exact' kind.

Never settling for less than the very best solutions available on every issue, is the path by which the City's highest goals & aspirations will most likely be achieved.
The problem is, finding that path depends strongly upon being habitually factual, truthful and consistently fair & objective.
When the secret to solving that problem is found, we'll be getting somewhere!

Its easy to see I've missed communicating this story as clearly as it could have been; but, maybe some folks don't really want to read about it anyway.
When I first decided to write this Blog, it was to be able to tell things from my perspective.
In turn, my perspective does -pretty consistently- use facts, experience and reason as its basis for conclusions - right, wrong or indifferent.
If that formula isn't what someone else prefers, they are certainly not obligated to read it.
But, if they do read it and don't agree, that's OK too!

Spreadsheet math can be an important tool, but not as important as the understanding of the underlying principles, policies and realities that go into it's production.
So, please don't accept substitutes for the genuine, official version of the Land Supply spreadsheet!
After all, we really can't be too careful about authenticity these days, can we?

Want to talk about another contentious Development?

How about the Birch Street Project, located in the Whatcom Falls neighborhood, south of the current street ends of Birch St., Portal Ave., Bonanza Way and Scenic Avenue, all off of Lakeway Drive and near the City Limits.

The Bellingham City Council, in accordance with Resolution 1999-50, signed on November 15th, 1999 approved this project as a 172-lot subdivision on 79 acres. That one turned out to be one of the few developments that actually achieved its maximum zoned density.

Like some other places, this site had stood undeveloped with its mostly second or third growth trees standing ever since it had been zoned for 1 dwelling unit per 20,000 SF, which equates to about a density of 2. That's about half of what is barely considered a city's average density.
It had not been built upon because it was a difficult site to develop, at least until a developer from eastern Oregon saw what he thought was a good opportunity. In retrospect, he probably wished he hadn't! There was much concern, as well as the heated controversy that usually comes with it. In the end, the Oregon developer decided to sell to one of our local developers, but not until after the tract was pretty well conditioned and its allowed density determined.

Long story short, this property has steep slopes that extend further up Galbreath Mountain, and two small, seasonal streams that eventually empty into Whatcom Creek. These streams and slopes conspired to create conditions that meant about 42% of the site qualified as un-buildable, including public ROWs, improvements, easements and buffers. Added to the list of burdens were a trail easement that saved the tree line and prevented several 'view' lots from being sold at whatever premium they might have commanded, plus adequate street connectivity and significant traffic impacts on already busy Lakeway Blvd. Then, a water reservoir had to be built, the streams crossed, and a large stormwater detention system installed. The cost of all these expensive improvements was borne by the developer.

But, none of these activities were looked upon with favor by the neighbors, some whom were also required to cut vegetation to allow sidewalks, curbs and steeper driveways. And, these neighbors certainly did let us know they were unhappy, but they also served as very effective watchdogs to make sure the developer abided by the rules!

Any of this beginning to sound familiar? It should, because some version of this happens in almost every development that happens in this city, particularly those of any size, that cut many trees and interrupt the relative calm that people desire where they live. And, it makes no difference who owns the property under development, most folks just don't welcome it being changed! Think that might act as a deterrent to achieving in-fill? It takes guts to make consistently good and fair decisions on land use matters! Actually, ALL matters, but land use certainly stands out.

So, what happened to allow this development to achieve its maximum density?
Although unexpected, this was a pretty reasonable result, considering the underlying burdens the site imposed. After all, the developer was responsible for agreeing to pay for all the necessary improvements and mitigations, before any permit was issued. And, in the city, regulations do tend to be more numerous and stringent than in unincorporated areas - a fact some conveniently choose to ignore. To recover his costs, the developer had to build and sell a sufficient number of homes. Like it or not, that is the way capitalism works.

A part of the answer in this case was the idea of 'cluster development', which did seem to fit a number of needs pretty well. The concept is to take the entire site acreage as the base, then fit in buildable footprints only where appropriate, as home sites. Of course, these building sites are significantly smaller than the conventional 20,000 SF lot sizes, but they are adequate for the purpose intended, plus they obviate the need for unnecessary disturbance of natural turf and vegetation. Effectively, the preserved natural surroundings act as lawns that do not require mowing, fertilizing and tending. That just seems a good idea to try anywhere, and especially if that feature is already designed into a home - before people choose to buy it. So, multiple benefits can accrue from cluster development, notwithstanding the expected objections to anything but conventional sized lots being required - which often does seem outdated and wasteful.

The point is that Birch Street, for all its problems and disappointments, does represent another way of achieving multiple desirable goals - at least partially. Unfortunately, that kind of exercise in compromise never pleases everyone 100%, but over time, does help implement efficient land use by in-filling. If folks are really serious about limiting sprawl, this is one technique that can help us achieve it. But, it does have to be applied wisely and consistently, which means NIMBYs will need to make their fair share of concessions.

Epilogue: The Birch Street story also had a few other pluses happen, like the City requiring a trail easement along its western bluff, then purchasing 40 acres on its southern border as open space, and the County purchasing another 20 acres behind that.
Also, the nearby Denke & Chen properties in the Geneva UGA were purchased by the City as part of its Lake Whatcom Watershed Acquisition program, which removed about 333 potential building sites that were even more problematic than Birch Street.
All of these purchases had the combined effect of essentially blocking the access route of the proposed 'Lake Whatcom Connector' project, an expensive new arterial intended to promote even more suburban sprawl into the Lake Whatcom Watershed, then simply dump the additional traffic onto existing City streets and impacting their levels of service.
So, maybe things didn't turn out as badly as people might have thought?

But, granted, there is currently no means by which the city can fully guarantee that the maximum allowable zoned density is built, either within its City Limits, or especially in the County's UGA. And, in some cases like the Lake Whatcom Watershed, this density is not appropriate anyway and ought to be reduced or removed.
But, just like the persistent CR 'kerfuffle', isn't the land supply situation only made worse when zoned density is removed -for any reason- from the land supply equation?
Think about it.

Ghandi's 7 sins

Wealth without work
Pleasure without conscience
Knowledge without character
Commerce without morality
Science without humanity
Worship without sacrifice
Politics without principle