Troubling Implications of Variance RequestPermalink +
Fri, Mar 01, 2013, 4:19 pm // Wendy Harris
The University Ridge Student Housing Project is noteworthy because of its attempt to use the variance process to avoid zoning compliance. If the applicant, Ambling University Group, LLN, and its agent, Ronald Jepson, are successful, this could create a loophole that undermines the zoning code and the public's right to meaningful comment. I am posting below the letter that I submitted to the planning department in the hopes of encouraging others to comment. The planning department has not decided whether or not it will recommend approval of the variance application. The final decision will be made by the Bellingham Hearing Examiner, who is holding a public hearing, limited to the variance issue, on March 20, at 7 p.m. in the Bellingham City Council chambers. I certainly hope the planning department will recommend against variance approval and I will be following this issue closely.
Withheld Application Information
As a matter of policy, the Hearing Examiner should return this application as untimely, or in the alternative, rule that the applicant has failed to meet its burden of proof. The variance should be submitted as part of a consolidated application package that combines the SEPA process and the building permit, which includes the critical area report, stormwater plan and other relevant analysis.
The law favors consolidated application processes for administrative ease, improved planning, and full disclosure of facts and information. The applicant declined to use Bellingham’s consolidated process procedures. Because the granting of a variance is discretionary, and because the burden of proof is upon the applicant under BMC 20.18.020, the hearing examiner has the authority to require the full disclosure of all relevant information.
It is clear from review of the site design plans that a great deal of planning has already gone into this project, including analysis of wetlands, geologically hazardous slopes, storm water run-off and traffic impacts. The applicant has met with the planning department and has likely already informally discussed these matters. Yet the variance application fails to reflect even preliminary analysis of issues.
The public is entitled to full disclosure of project impacts. The variance criteria require that the granting of a variance not be unduly detrimental to the public welfare nor injurious to the property or improvements in the vicinity and subarea in which the subject property is located.
Concerns have been raised by residents regarding traffic impacts, sufficient infrastructure, steep slopes, flooding, and structural and financial impacts to neighboring properties. This is the very information that must be addressed in the building permit application.
The applicant has made a calculated determination to delay disclosure of project information by proceeding with the variance application before the building permit. Without site analysis and reports, the public can only speculate, but can not prove, potential public harm. Although the burden of proof is on the applicant, the applicant’s chance for variance approval increases without informed public comment.
The variance process is intended to protect the public interest and the public interest is not served when a variance decision is made without a full understanding of project impacts. The fact that this is a Type IIIB process indicates the potential for impact.
To further the goal of protecting the public, the hearing examiner should delay acting on the variance application, or in the alternative, determine that without building application material, the applicant has not met his burden of proof.
The applicant proposes a very large 4 building multi-story student housing complex spread over 11 acres of undeveloped land, containing areas of forest, steep slopes and wetlands, in the Puget Sound neighborhood. The project includes 433 parking spaces for almost 600 residents, and borders single family housing, triggering application of the height overlay ordinance.
The applicant submitted a revised variance from the application of the height ordinance, arguing (in carefully couched language) that while it has the ability to fully develop its site by expanding the site design, it reduces impacts to land and neighbors by expanding upward, in excess of the height limitations for two of the four proposed buildings.
Whether, and to what extent, it is preferable to build “up” rather than “out’ was an issue already considered and codified into city law through the overlay requirement intended to protect single family residences. A variance is not a device to provide flexibility that might otherwise be lacking in the development code. The applicant needs to file a request for a zoning amendment rather than a variance.
A variance is intended to be issued rarely, and only is the most extreme situations where a property owner is deprived of reasonable use of its property. It does not ensure the highest and best use of property. Here, the applicant, Ambling University Development Group, LLN, is simply attempting to maximize its profit on a commercial investment, but intends to move forward with the project with or without a variance.
The applicant has not met its burden of proof under BMC 20.18.020. The applicant purchased the property with full knowledge that there would be some constraints on development under the city’s critical area ordinance and development standards. There is nothing exceptional about the existence of wetlands and slopes on the property in this area, or of a right-of-way requirement for such a large multi-residential property. In fact, I challenge the applicant to identify any other 11 acre undeveloped lot in city limits that does not face similar critical area and development regulation constraints. With knowledge of these constraints, the applicant went ahead with a speculative property investment.
Granting this variance would establish a very dangerous precedent. It would create unpredictability that undermines the zoning code by allowing site specific zoning exemptions for investors who assert that this will result in improved use of property. This will result in spot zoning and undermine the type of comprehensive planning mandated under the GMA and the SMA.
It would also undermine the public’s confidence in the fairness of the system and the transparency of local government, particularly where the public is not provided with relevant site information. Land use regulations are enacted after community discussion regarding the interests of existing residents and developers, and must be applied fairly and uniformly to everyone. Please do not allow the variance process to be misused as a loophole for investors.
For all the above reasons, the hearings examiner and the planning department must deny/recommend against the applicant’s variance request.
Sun, Mar 02, 2014, 2:22 pm // John ServaisThe editor of the Whatcom Watch, Richard Jehn, has resigned effective today. Chalk up a victory for Craig Cole and Pacific International Terminals.
8 comments; last on Mar 05, 2014
Tue, Feb 25, 2014, 8:29 pm // John ServaisThe full text of Craig Cole's threatening letter of libel against the Whatcom Watch. And the emptiness of the threat.
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Mon, Feb 24, 2014, 3:33 pm // Wendy HarrisWe were led to believe the city would review waterfront wildlife and habitat connectivity. It turns out that the city intends to focus only on nearshore fish.
Sat, Feb 22, 2014, 12:16 am // Wendy HarrisAccepting the Paul deArmond award of citizen journalism on Feb 7, Wendh Harris gave this speech. We think it deserves its own post.
Wed, Feb 19, 2014, 4:48 pm // John ServaisCraig Cole, the local contact for the proposed Cherry Point coal port has threatened the Whatcom Watch with a libel lawsuit.
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Mon, Feb 17, 2014, 7:26 am // Riley SweeneyRiley digs through court data and discovers the real impact of privatization and legalization
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Mon, Feb 03, 2014, 5:30 am // Dick ConoboyProfessional and even college sports have morphed into a circus of corporate greed and the fleecing of the public.
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Sat, Feb 01, 2014, 12:35 am // Wendy HarrisFiling a public record request could land a citizen in jail under a proposal reflected in a Herald opinion article.
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Wed, Jan 29, 2014, 6:18 am // Guest writerTim Johnson writes about the first recipient of the Paul deArmond Citizen Journalism award, Whatcom County writer Wendy Harris.
3 comments; last on Feb 08, 2014
Mon, Jan 20, 2014, 5:14 am // Dick ConoboyThe developers of University Ridge have been silent since shortly after the hearing examiner's decision on 23 October last year. Will they walk?
Sun, Jan 19, 2014, 8:39 pm // John ServaisSuper Bowl ... Weed Bowl ... This bud's for you ... Bong Bowl ... Marijuana Bowl ... whatever. It is on!
1 comments; last on Jan 20, 2014
Tue, Jan 14, 2014, 2:19 pm // Guest writerDo we actually need to say that we, as citizens, want accurate information from government officials?
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Sat, Dec 07, 2013, 12:33 pm // Wendy HarrisLocal activist calls on Bellingham City Council to table the unpopular waterfront plans and engage in meaningful public process
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Fri, Dec 06, 2013, 11:03 pm // Wendy HarrisThe county will be required to consider water quality and water quantity when planning rural growth.
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Thu, Dec 05, 2013, 11:58 am // John ServaisThe Political Junkie has posted a 3 minute video showing Bellingham City Council members explaining their idiocy for all of us to watch.
2 comments; last on Dec 06, 2013
Thu, Dec 05, 2013, 5:00 am // Dick ConoboyThe post "riot" conversation is terribly lacking in several areas. We must expand the discussion or risk learning little from the experience.
3 comments; last on Dec 15, 2013
Wed, Dec 04, 2013, 10:53 am // John ServaisBellingham City Council and Port of Bellingham finalize the waterfront plan. In his weekly Gristle, Tim Johnson blasts the corrupt public process.
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Sat, Nov 30, 2013, 8:11 pm // Wendy HarrisThe waterfront plan allows a development bonus for payments made to the Lake Whatcom land acquisition fund
1 comments; last on Dec 01, 2013
Fri, Nov 29, 2013, 9:43 pm // Wendy HarrisA number of important issues need to be resolved before waterfront planning is complete, but the city council and port commission are ready to act.
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Fri, Nov 22, 2013, 9:01 pm // Wendy HarrisIf the port can not construct the airport safely, should it be entrusted with dangerous waterfront cleanup work?
Wed, Nov 20, 2013, 5:03 am // Dick ConoboyThe advice coming from Walmart and McDonald's to its low paid employees becomes more and more bizarre and inane.
Tue, Nov 19, 2013, 5:35 am // Dick ConoboyAmbling's motion to the hearing examiner for reconsideration was definitively rejected. The developer has not met the deadline for an appeal to the Superior Court
Mon, Nov 18, 2013, 2:18 pm // Guest writerIn which we find the hidden core of the waterfront plan is rotten through and through
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Thu, Nov 14, 2013, 1:39 am // Tip JohnsonDear Mr. President, There's a sucker born every minute, and two to take him.
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Wed, Nov 13, 2013, 3:16 pm // Wendy HarrisThe city adminstration has been providing misleading/ incorrect information to the city council to avoid waterfront plan revisions.
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Tue, Nov 12, 2013, 10:21 am // Riley SweeneyRiley crunches the numbers on Renata and McAuley's races to find answers
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Tue, Nov 12, 2013, 5:16 am // Dick ConoboyPuget Neighborhood will likely have in the immediate future 1,300 new rental units that will be marketed primarily to the student population.
Sat, Nov 09, 2013, 9:47 pm // Wendy HarrisThe COB administration continues in its refusal to analyze waterfront wildlife issues, even though this is a prerequisite step in protecting wildlife from the impacts of development
3 comments; last on Nov 10, 2013
Tue, Nov 05, 2013, 8:21 pm // John ServaisWith lots of outside county money flowing in to our local races, this election is weird. But real - and we county residents have spoken.
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Mon, Nov 04, 2013, 9:55 am // Dick ConoboyThe call of the dollar speaks more loudly to health insurance companies than does the voice and well-being of the consumer, even here in Washington.
8 comments; last on Nov 06, 2013
Thu, Oct 31, 2013, 10:19 am // Dick ConoboyFour bedroom dorm rooms have been nixed by the hearing examiner. University Ridge may be in trouble as a cash cow for Ambling Development of Georgia
3 comments; last on Nov 04, 2013
Mon, Oct 28, 2013, 10:19 pm // Tip JohnsonWherein we discover why we exert our rights - and grab some more petitions before it's too late
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Mon, Oct 28, 2013, 12:00 am // Dick ConoboyIndependent voters are for independent thinkers on the city council. Vote for Burr and Petree.
Sat, Oct 26, 2013, 7:36 pm // John ServaisBeach reconstruction is done at Boulevard Park on the Bellingham waterfront. Paths along shore are again open - and it looks good.
6 comments; last on Nov 01, 2013
Sun, Oct 20, 2013, 7:07 pm // John ServaisKen Bell has my vote over Mike McAuley for port commissioner. And Renata Kowalczyk has it over Dan Robbins.
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Tue, Oct 15, 2013, 3:16 pm // Dick ConoboyThe development of University Ridge will replicate the student ghetto that fueled the riot on 12 October.
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Tue, Oct 15, 2013, 2:46 pm // Wendy HarrisRequesting waterfront handouts for the Overwater Walkway while proclaiming autonomy from further public review is unjustifiable.
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Tue, Oct 08, 2013, 2:22 pm // Wendy HarrisThe city staff considers the overwater walkway a done deal before official approval or resolution of treaty right conflicts
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Wed, Oct 02, 2013, 10:01 pm // Wendy HarrisBellingham is holding an open house to introduce the public to its habitat restoration master plan, despite being at a preliminary draft stage
3 comments; last on Oct 04, 2013
Wed, Oct 02, 2013, 5:40 am // Riley SweeneyRiley uncovers how the Coal Industry is funding conservative candidates in Whatcom County
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Sat, Sep 28, 2013, 5:05 pm // Wendy HarrisThe city and port have not addressed wildlife impacts from waterfront development and this should be done before a waterfront plan is enacted.
Sat, Sep 28, 2013, 2:20 pm // John ServaisAs the right wing radicals seek to shut down our national government this week, we need to push back with common sense.
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Fri, Sep 20, 2013, 7:09 am // Dick ConoboyHearing held on 11 September. Comment period extended 10 days. Effects on home owners already manifest.
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Thu, Sep 19, 2013, 6:08 am // Riley SweeneyRiley examines who is donating to which candidates
Mon, Sep 09, 2013, 12:07 am // Wendy HarrisThe staff will be explaining the public's concerns, but the public is not allowed to testify.
Fri, Sep 06, 2013, 2:52 pm // Wendy HarrisElected officials continue to rely on inaccurate and misleading reports by the city and port staff regarding waterfront development.
Wed, Sep 04, 2013, 8:37 am // John ServaisAn attempt at linking to one or more writers who can help us make sense of going to war with Syria. An alternative to Kerry-Obama.
Wed, Sep 04, 2013, 12:36 am // John ServaisContacting Rick Larsen and Susan Delbene is actually a viable citizen exercise just now. Tell them to vote NO on bombing Syria.
1 comments; last on Sep 04, 2013
Sat, Aug 31, 2013, 2:10 pm // John ServaisSaturday afternoon - and a rally is taking place in downtown Bellingham against bombing Syria. Riley Sweeny and his Political Junkie site cover it.
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