A minority of one: An open letter to my fellow Bellingham residents

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Sun, Aug 19, 2012, 9:29 pm  //  Larry Horowitz

It may come as a shock to some, but until April 2005, I had never attended a city- or developer- sponsored meeting, nor had I ever been inside Bellingham’s City Hall or any other city hall where I’ve lived.  Keep in mind, I’ve been a homeowner since 1984, so that's 21 years of absolute inactivity.

Since that fateful day in 2005, I have found myself to be a lone voice in the wilderness all too often.  Who has the time and energy to be active in civic affairs or to scale the steep learning curve - like where City Hall is even located or what a planning commission is?  Certainly, no one’s paying me no ‘big bucks’ to do it.  Without the financial incentive to get involved, why bother?  Right?

Given the disincentive to get involved, it’s really no surprise I often find myself alone in what I know to be true.

Years ago, I stumbled across a quote by Mohandas (aka Mahatma) Gandhi that really spoke to me:

Even if I am a minority of one, the truth is the truth.

I have found, as fortune would have it, that the truth has magnetic properties, and before you know it you are no longer a minority.

A case in point:  I have recently been told by an elected official that what I know to be true about Bellingham’s ability to accommodate population growth “is not likely to gain great traction in Bellingham, or anywhere in Whatcom County, because it's considered a pretty radical concept.”

With that in mind, I’d like to:

  • share what I know to be true;
  • explore why this truth is such a radical concept;
  • and ask you, my fellow residents of this great city, to let me know if the truth has gained any traction with you.

First, the truth: 

* There is enough developable land in Bellingham and its urban growth area (UGA) to accommodate the city’s projected population growth

* There is no pressure or need to expand the UGA

* There is no pressure or need to increase the zoning density in established residential neighborhoods.

How do I know this?  Because, in 2005, a member of the Whatcom County Planning Commission asked me to take a look at the Bellingham Land Supply Analysis (LSA).  And I did. 

What I found was a number of items requiring adjustment, many of which the city agreed to correct.  By doing so, the paradigm in which it appeared the city’s land supply was not sufficient began to change.  All of a sudden, the city realized that its land supply may actually be adequate after all.  Unfortunately, recommendations to expand the UGA and increase zoning densities had already been adopted and set in motion, so this paradigm shift was completely unwelcome

When I continued to find items needing adjustment, I was told the city would no longer adopt any of my recommendations.  At the time, the most glaring error involved the amount of developable land the city planned to acquire to expand its park system.  The number of acres used in the LSA and Land Use Chapter differed from, and was inconsistent with, the number of acres called for in both the Park Plan and the Capital Facilities Chapter of the city’s Comprehensive (Comp) Plan.  It was clear that the LSA was flawed, but the city refused to either acknowledge or correct the error.

To make a long story short, four of us filed a petition with the Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) claiming that the city’s Comp Plan contained an internal inconsistency which violated the Growth Management Act (GMA).  The GMHB agreed but ultimately allowed the city to retain the error in the LSA and Land Use Chapter as long as the error was used consistently in the Park Plan and Capital Facilities Chapter.  The error itself was glaring because it resulted in a $100 million budget shortfall when comparing the cost of land the city said it would purchase with the funds available to do so.

Two years later, in 2008, the city finally corrected the error when the newly adopted Park Plan reduced the amount of parkland the city agreed (and could afford) to acquire by 1,132 acres.

Of course, in order to comply with the internal consistency requirement of the GMA, the city was then obligated to modify its LSA and Land Use Chapter to reflect the newly adopted Park Plan.  Naturally, the city refused to do so, and the initial error remains in the LSA and Land Use Chapter of the Comp Plan to this day.

Since 2006, when the Comp Plan was adopted, the City has added to its UGA – and then annexed - the King Mountain neighborhood.  This addition has never been reflected in the city’s LSA.

Additionally, the city has increased the zoning density in a number of locations since the LSA was adopted.  None of these capacity increases have been reflected in the LSA.

These three significant capacity-expanding actions have created a new paradigm

  • The city’s land supply is sufficient to accommodate its projected population growth. 
  • The so-called pressure to figure out how to accommodate population is imaginary; it doesn’t exist. 
  • The city does not need to expand its UGA, nor does the city need to add multi-family zoning in established single family neighborhoods.

So why is this truth so radical?

By talking with people who attended the various growth forums, I’ve learned that the city long ago presented the community with a false dilemma.  Residents were told that the city did not have sufficient land to house its projected population and were offered only those choices that expanded the city’s capacity: build up or out

The fact is, the city’s land supply is sufficient, and the dilemma presented by the city was false.  The city was prescribing treatment for an ailment that simply did not exist. The truth is radical now only because the fiction has been so well established

Is it not time to finally tell the truth?

So now I turn it over to you, my fellow residents: 

Has this truth gained any traction with you?

Vince Biciunas  //  Sun, Aug 19, 2012, 10:31 pm

Larry,

Thanks for speaking out. The truth is important. And I agree with you. It’s a false pressure to infill always and everywhere. And you are not a minority, I don’t think.

I must add, though, that when you say ‘the City’ you are talking about people.
People who work for us in city or county offices, whether elected or appointed or hired, often have constraints upon them. Sometimes it’s politics, or work schedules, or limited fte’s.

I can understand how old inaccuracies are sometimes perpetuated, and not to excuse them, I also don’t blame. It’s good to bring this up and have this discussion and see if the people who can fix the problem are actually able to get it done, soonest.

Vince


Pam Went  //  Mon, Aug 20, 2012, 10:42 am

I, for one, sincerely appreciate what you bring to the conversation, Larry.

I agree with Vince that it is mostly our fellow citizens who make these decisions, most of them elected by us to act on our behalf. No doubt in their positions they may be subjected to pressures we can only imagine, and to information, regrettably, too often not generally available.

And I am grateful to you, Larry, for your ongoing work to ensure that relevant information sees the light of day – well, at least the light of Northwest Citizen! And I’m grateful to John Servais for providing this forum for all these years. I think many of us are better and more thoughtfully informed as a result.  You are not alone, and you may not even be a minority.  Wonder what could happen if everyone felt inspired to speak truth to power?


David Camp  //  Mon, Aug 20, 2012, 2:22 pm

Larry,

This house of cards created out of assumptions creates several more strange outcomes. For example, because the City is supposed to provide infrastructure to support the expected population growth, large projects are created to service imaginary future people. The problem is that these projects are paid for by us poor existing people! Here’s a case in point: my water and sewer bill has been increasing at over twice the rate of inflation over the past 6 years. Why? To pay for sewage treatment capacity for people who are expected to move here. The existing sewage treatment capacity is more than sufficient for all existing residents.

Why should I have to pay for something that not only I but also every other taxpayer in town doesn’t need, and will never need? And the only people who will need it don’t live here, and exist only in the minds of people whose jobs depend on managing projects?

Let the people who profit from selling new houses pay for all the required infrastructure. Otherwise, all that is happening is that every existing resident is subsidising the profits of developers who do not have to bear all the costs of their developments.

It’s really a double whammy - we poor taxpayers are burdened with both the costs of growth infrastrucutre, and all the negative consequences of growth. Just ask any long-time resident if Bellingham has improved or declined in quality of life over the past 25 years. You’ll get an earful, I wager.


Tip Johnson  //  Mon, Aug 20, 2012, 4:27 pm

To begin with, it cannot be underscored heavily enough that the so-called Growth Forums were a complete sham and bogus public consultation.  I sensed it at the first one I attended at the Fairhaven Library. Others noticed, too.  I can’t remember if I or someone else interupted the presenter to ask whether these flim-flam meetings were the City’s Public Participation Plan for the comp plan update.  They enthusiastically said no, that these were preliminary consultations, a kind of scoping, and a PPP would later be announced.  It never was.  Later, when we asked the City when they were going to announce a PPP, they referred to the completion of these very forums.

Second, I’ve bought Larry’s so-called radical ideas from the start so no traction is necessary for me.  However, I think we rightly ought to start seeing his tire treads running across the fine buttoned shirts of certain City bureaucrats and elected representatives.  The most radical idea I’ve heard in a long time is that stable family neighborhoods must accommodate disruptive upzones. As I have previously challeged:  I invite anyone who believes that to start in Edgemore and see if they get reelected.  Their pretend planning precept is code for running roughshod over the poor.

Last, Camp has a valid point.  The institutions of the City - regardless of the nice neighbors working there - are unconscionably geared toward milking the rate base like a cow.  I returned from a few days absence, took a drink of water and thought: Congratulation Bellingham, you have sat on your ass for so long, you have succeeded in making the water taste like it came out of a rubber hose.

Our rates are insanely out of proportion to the quality of service.  And the proof is that both the Port and City are willing to saddle the public with untold millions in costs by ignoring the potential value of Georgia-Pacific’s upland treatment facility.  They will turn it into a yacht basin for boats no one here can afford to own while eliminating our ability to recruit and support family wage jobs, expand our existing industries, or avoid replacing the capacity they would squander. 

Read between the lines of Servais’ Wikileaks post and this article of Larry’s.  Masters of secrecy and confusion can keep most people uninvolved and baffle all but a few of the rest.


Christopher Grannis  //  Mon, Aug 20, 2012, 10:20 pm

You are not a minority of one Larry, but we still seem to be a pretty small minority.
City Planning students at Huxley did a study a few years ago showing that there is enough vacant and underutilized land within one mile of the bus station to accommodate growth for decades, and that doesn’t even count the infill potential of the water front.


Suzanne Ravet  //  Tue, Aug 21, 2012, 8:30 pm

Thank you Larry for your leadership and wisdom.  I can attest to the fact that you encourage and support others to get involved and speak out.  If you are a minority of one, it sure won’t be for very long.


Dick Conoboy  //  Wed, Aug 22, 2012, 8:48 pm

There is a Greek term, parrhesia, which means to speak everything or to speak freely or boldly.  The implication is that one must speak the truth even at great risk to oneself.  The concept was fundamental in ancient Greek democracy.  Unfortunately, such speech is seldom welcome today as those who speak the truth and rely on facts are, at times, reviled.  You write the truth, Larry.  You would not be able to do otherwise and this annoys immensely those with vested interests.


Tip Johnson  //  Wed, Aug 22, 2012, 11:45 pm

@Conoboy
I’m starting to like you!


Mike Rostron  //  Thu, Aug 23, 2012, 7:08 am

Just be aware though - sometimes speakers of the truth had to take hemlock!


Dick Conoboy  //  Thu, Aug 23, 2012, 8:27 am

@Tip. 
Aw, shucks!


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