Applausegreets city moratorium

Published on Thu, Aug 12, 2004 by eg Olson

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Applause greets city moratorium

By Meg Olson

Faced with another full house urging them to halt development and take a hard look at zoning in Blaine’s residential core, city council voted unanimously to put a six-month moratorium on applications for multi-family dwellings.

The moratorium was approved as council met in the community center August 9 to handle the record crowd of residents attending the public hearing, continued from July 26. When the hearing started in July council was only looking at a proposal from Dennis and Ann Olason to freeze development in the Adelia Street and Bayview areas, where the recently permitted Adelia Commons development has raised concerns about the impact of multi-family projects in neighborhoods traditionally characterized by single-family homes. At that hearing residents from other neighborhoods suggested they could also use some protection while the city revised its comprehensive plan, and city manager Terry Galvin suggested the moratorium only made sense if it applied to all the areas staff had identified as traditionally single-family and at risk of having multi-family infill change their character.

Galvin brought a new proposal to council as the hearing continued August 9, picking out three central Blaine areas to be covered by the moratorium: The Salishan neighborhood, the Adelia and Bayview area and the lettered streets between roughly 3rd and 6th streets. “We felt these were viable single-family neighborhoods with a long-standing history of single-family use,” he said.

The area covers a total of 602 parcels on 615 acres, and 73 percent of them are developed as single family homes. Citywide, 65 percent of dwelling units are single-family homes, and there are two for every one unit in a duplex or multi-family complex. However, Galvin said, very little of the city is zoned exclusively for single family homes, and there is ample land in many areas for multi-family developments.

As the city revises its comprehensive plan this year, Galvin suggested the areas under the proposed moratorium could be rezoned to a lower density, but while that potentially lengthy process is underway, housing developments allowed under existing zoning could change the faces of these neighborhoods. The threat was further heightened by the strong public push for a halt to large developments, which could stimulate a push by developers to get projects in under the wire.
“The moratorium process in my opinion is not a good planning tool,” he said. “It creates a crisis mode, a panic flavor. However, I don’t think you can say the cat’s out of the bag but the level of dialogue is such that I think it’s appropriate to enact a moratorium now and move along with the comprehensive plan review with all due haste.”

Of the more than 80 people attending the hearing not one raised a hand when mayor Dieter Schugt asked who was opposed to the proposed moratorium. Fourteen people spoke in support of the moratorium, most giving council another reason their neighborhood should not become home to apartment complexes and townhouses. “Given the choice developers would put in as many as they could,” said Pam Free. “Blaine’s a nice town and it should stay that way.”
Vince Venezia presented a biological metaphor for why a moratorium was needed to let the city rewrite its plan for growth. “Growth left unchecked destroys the host, but done right it can be a symbiotic relationship,” he said.

Kathleen Capson of the Salishan Neighborhood association suggested the city needed time out from multi-family development until planners had time to figure out what the effect of a housing surge might be. “Multi-family housing requires more services. With more people we need more police, more chairs in schools, more library space, more sewage capacity, more roads,” she said. “If we put multi-family homes everywhere in Blaine zoning allowed it, would Blaine have the resources to care for those people?”

Bob Knapp said the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver would mean a shift in development pressures that Blaine would need to adjust to. “There are a lot of people interested in coming into Blaine, building whatever they can build and renting it out,” he said. “We need to get on it now.”
Building Industry Association of Whatcom County governmental affairs director Mary Dickinson applauded the city’s work to preserve single-family detached housing. “We firmly believe it is a choice in the housing market that should remain viable for working families,” ahe said. However, Dickinson also stressed there was an important role for multi-family housing in the community, and that it could coexist peacefully with single-family residences as long as there were “design standards and flexible development standards.”

Mayor Dieter Schugt asked for a show of hands from people who started out their families in a rental house or an apartment, to make a point that most families start out small and need affordable options. “Let’s be mindful not everyone can afford a single detached home the first time around,” he said. In the only letter received in opposition to the moratorium developer Joel Douglas voiced a similar concern that “it would mean anyone who can’t afford a house is discriminated against or potentially displaced from the community.”

Local lawyer and Bellingham resident Roger Ellingson spoke in support of the moratorium. “A moratorium slows things down and gives staff time to listen to citizens,” he said. However, Ellingson said he wants to see more, not less, multi-family units in Blaine, and he wants to see them right downtown. “ I have a perspective that’s a little bit bigger than Blaine,” he said. “Land is incredibly valuable and you have to be incredibly careful. Right now the least efficient use of land in this country is single family homes.” Rather than leaning towards zoning that encourages a sprawl of ranchers, Ellingson said he wanted rules designed to focus high-density residential development into the central business district. “It is critical to keeping your downtown alive,” he said. “Providing living space to people who will occupy your downtown.”

Council members had little to say before voting unanimously to enact the six-month moratorium, which they could extend to a year after another round of hearings. The audience responded with applause. “My plan is to finish the comprehensive plan descriptions and the zoning in six months,” Galvin promised.