BELLINGHAM - Sunnyland residents call it the demise of their neighborhood's charm.
City planners say rezoning a crumbling parking lot for high-density housing is a sensible way to make room for new residents without sprawling into rural parts of Whatcom County.
The owners of a four-acre property on Sunset Drive next to St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church don't even want their land rezoned, at least not yet.
The seven-year tug-of-war between Sunnyland Neighborhood Association and the property owners, with the city caught in the middle, is typical of the clash between neighbors and the need to build more housing.
In this case, the association could be said to have an advantage. After all, their rezone proposal was chosen in 2012 by the Bellingham City Council over one put forward at the time by property owners David Edelstein and Greg Hinton. Since then, city planners have come up with a counterproposal that would allow more homes on the site than the association wants.
All of the parties remained at an impasse at the conclusion of a public hearing on the association's proposal before the City Council on Monday, July 21. Council President Cathy Lehman summed it up.
"Boy, did we create a nice cluster for ourselves," she said.
Lehman said it is more appropriate for the city or property owners - not the neighbors - to call for zoning changes, but she voted with a unanimous council to refer the Neighborhood Association's rezone proposal to the council's Planning Committee meeting on Aug. 4. The committee will make a recommendation to the full council on how it should vote to rezone a rare patch of vacant residential land.
VARIATION ON A THEME
The development battle looks familiar to Bill Geyer, a former Bellingham planning director who now works as a consultant for the developers who bought the Sunnyland parking lot from the state Department of Transportation in 2007.
Geyer also represented the developers of a similar but much larger push for higher density development, at Padden Trails.
Residents of Samish neighborhood balked when the developers tried in 2011 to rezone 113 acres between Lake Padden and Interstate 5 to double the number of allowed homes. Samish residents said 492 new homes in their neighborhood would lead to traffic and safety problems, and the City Council ultimately rejected the Padden Trails rezone in 2012.
"There is still that tension" between the city's preference for increasing neighborhood densities and residents' aversion to high-density growth, Geyer said in an interview Thursday, July 24.
He said the council needs to show it's committed to the type of growth called "infill" that relieves the pressure to expand the city's boundaries to make room for new homes.
"I would put the responsibility to both educate and assuage that tension ... on the leadership of the council," Geyer said.
INFILL OPTIONS DISPUTED
Over objections from the owners, Sunnyland Neighborhood Association is calling for single-family homes on the Sunset Drive property, with a density of 6,250 square feet per lot. About 28 homes could be built with that zoning, the association says.
City planners presented an alternative, drawing from the city's "infill toolkit" for creating higher densities with the goal of maintaining neighborhood character. The toolkit has more options for houses, including cottages, carriage houses and duplexes. That would fit about 34 homes onto the property, officials said.
The council adopted the toolkit exactly five years ago, on July 27, 2009. Since then, no homes have been built using it. One toolkit project has been permitted, on Peabody Street, and a second small project is planned, said Greg Aucutt, the city's interim planning and community development director.
"With those small examples in place, people might feel less fearful about it," he said.
"Infill toolkit" has been close to a four-letter word to residents who say it would change their neighborhoods for the worse. The council compromised in 2009 by prohibiting the toolkit in single-family zoning. For the infill rules to apply on the Sunnyland site, it must be rezoned to multi-family first - a bridge neighbors don't want to cross.
"If 'infill' continues to be used as a euphemism for shoving undesired and ill-conceived development down the throat of residents in neighborhoods that do not desire it ... the word and the very concept of infill will become anathema to the citizens of Bellingham," wrote Maryland Street resident Mike Rostron in a 2012 article for the local blog "Northwest Citizen." He read from the article at Monday's hearing.
"The rights and wishes of those who live here should come before the nebulous and projected rights of those who may or may not move here in the future," Rostron said. "There are several areas of Bellingham that desire additional density, and those areas should be the test areas for the 'infill toolkit' or similar proposals before they are even considered in neighborhoods with objections."
WHERE TO GROW?
The toolkit was intended to solve a problem the city has confronted ever since it started to apply state growth rules that require cities to reduce the chances of urban sprawl by taking on most of the growth. Finding places within the city to "infill," rather than expanding its boundaries, has proven challenging because the city is riddled with wetlands and slopes that are difficult to build upon.
"There are very few undeveloped properties like this in the city limits, especially without environmental constraints," senior planner Darby Cowles told the council Monday.
City planners remain committed to pursuing high-density projects within the city limits. If they could do the Monday hearing over again, they still would present the denser infill option for the DOT site despite the resistance of the neighborhood association, Aucutt said in an interview Thursday, July 24.
"There are only a few opportunities around like the Sunnyland site, where we are going to want to get a good amount of development done responsibly," he said.
The property owners, meanwhile, have been sitting on the sidelines. Under the name Sunset Commons LLC, Edelstein and Hinton assert that only they have authority to rezone their property.
City attorneys disagree, saying the council has a lot of flexibility in choosing which rezone proposal to consider.
Because Edelstein and Hinton haven't presented a plan for the site yet, neighbors can only speculate about the number of units, or worry the owners will sell off the property after it is zoned multi-family.
Bill Geyer, the consultant for Sunset Commons, said the property is ideal for infill because it's on a major road and is close to shopping at Sunset Square and the county's largest employer, PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center.
He said Sunset Commons will avoid past concepts that flopped with neighbors, including apartments and a residential-office mix, and said a "mid-range density" of six to 10 homes per acre would be appropriate.
"Without being specific to what Sunset Commons is going to do, they're going to do it right," Geyer said. "We're assessing everything that was said Monday night. ... We'll be prepared to say something on Aug. 4 and maybe prepare some guidance."
Reach Ralph Schwartz at email@example.com or 360-715-2289. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.