Council passes on planning commission proposal

Published on Wed, Sep 11, 2013 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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As far as development goes, the status quo reigns in the city of Blaine.

At the regular city council meeting on September 9, the planning commission presented a proposal that would have established a minimum density level for future residential developments in the city. The amendment was designed to help prevent urban sprawl and facilitate organized growth within the city limits over the coming years. 

According to the staff report, the underlying issue was if “large vacant properties are developed at lower densities, such as one or two units per acre, future redevelopment at urban levels will be difficult to accomplish in the long run.”

The changes proposed by the planning commission required that “long” subdivisions (developments comprised of five or more lots) have a minimum density of four homes per usable acre. 

“It’s essentially quarter-acre lots,” community developer Alex Wenger said. 

The amendment was initiated per the 2012 Interlocal Agreement with Whatcom County, which required the city to consider minimum density regulations as they plan for future growth. 

“We were doing this to ensure the city would be compliant with the growth management act and have a reasonable urban density,” said community development director Michael Jones. “Council had already agreed with Whatcom County to review and consider this issue.” 

In developing their proposal, “staff placed an emphasis on protecting smaller property owners while maintaining flexibility for larger property owners,” according to the  report. 

“The amendment would only apply to certain areas of the city,” said Wenger during the planning commission’s presentation to council. He noted that the zoning text amendment was applicable only to the residential planned recreation zones (RPR) and planned residential (PR) zones established in the city. 

“Much of the city already has a high density,” Jones added. “Essentially, it’s for new developments and for areas that are not already under a master plan where we can see potential for growth such as east Blaine and part of Semiahmoo.”

Wenger said that under the current plan, they would be hard pressed to tell a developer “no” if one came to them with a subdivision plan that proposed building one house per five acres of land, a sprawl that would not help the city maintain a certain density level. “It’s not likely,” he said. “But it can be done.” 

Despite recommendations from the planning commission to pass the zoning text amendment establishing those minimum density levels, several of the council members were not on board.

“I’m a proponent of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and I don’t see this doing something we need,” said council member Paul Greenough. “If we did nothing tonight, we could approve it down the road when someone brought us a plan. When in doubt, do nothing.” 

“I don’t understand why we’re doing this,” mayor Harry Robinson said. “I don’t see what problem it would be solving.”

Wenger noted that it would not be an action that would solve a problem, but rather to avoid problems in the future.

“We’re trying to achieve a density level and develop a growth pattern that gets us where we want to be today so we don’t have to redevelop under difficult circumstances in the future,” Wenger said. 

Hawkins voiced his disagreement with Greenough and Robinson’s assessment of the amendment. “There’s a lot of acres in east Blaine that aren’t covered under a master plan yet,” he said. “I have faith in the planning commission that they’re doing the right thing. Why are we making developers come to us for each project to approve it? Why should a developer, who wants to spend money, not have the rules already laid out in front of him?”

The measure was taken to a vote, and ended in a 3-3 tie, which effectively killed it on the floor. Council members Cotner, Robinson and Greenough voted against the text. Council member Steve Lawrenson was absent.

Jones said that under the growth management act, the city has obligations to accommodate population growth. “If this had passed, it would have helped ensure that the city could accommodate an additional amount of population,” he said. “Without this, we have less assurance. We don’t have those guarantees now.”