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Relaxed rules for backyard cottages split the Bellingham council. Here are the new rules.

Bellingham debates whether to allow more ADUs in single-family neighborhoods

Bellingham may expand the number and size of accessory dwelling units -- so-called mother-in-law apartments added to a house or garage -- allowed in single-family neighborhoods citywide.
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Bellingham may expand the number and size of accessory dwelling units -- so-called mother-in-law apartments added to a house or garage -- allowed in single-family neighborhoods citywide.

Backyard cottages, carriage houses and other so-called "mother-in-law units" will be easier to build throughout Bellingham after the City Council voted to allow their construction in all single-family zones citywide.

Council members split on the divisive measure, voting 5-2 to approve it with Terry Bornemann and Gene Knutson opposed during the City Council's regular meeting Monday night.

Wendy Scherrer, a member of the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association board who was among the measure's supporters, praised the decision as a move to help ease the city's housing shortage.

"This new opportunity will give homeowners, in Happy Valley and throughout Bellingham neighborhoods, one more tool to age in place, gain rental income, and provide neighbors throughout Bellingham more diverse choices," Scherrer said.

Bornemann said the associations of several neighborhoods — including York, Sehome, Puget, South Hill and Samish — were against the measure, which addresses how accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are developed.

"I am not surprised at all. I think it was a foregone conclusion," said Kim Bogren Owen of the York Neighborhood Association.

"We now need to hold them accountable when, despite this ordinance, housing prices do not come down — which is what I predict will happen," she said. "The ball is in their court now to prove that this will create affordability. And we are watching and will most definitely be considering this come election time."

Such accessory dwelling units — both apartments that are part of a main house and small homes or cottages that are separate buildings — are seen as one piece of an overall plan to encourage infill development citywide.

Detached units became the focus of most opposition.

Bornemann said the measure creates animosity among neighbors and neighborhoods and distrust in local government.

"I can absolutely not support this as written," Bornemann said in an afternoon committee discussion before the council vote. "We have a very divided community on this."

Bornemann sought an amendment to prevent ADUs from becoming short-term or Airbnb rentals, but that failed to make the measure's final language.

Monday's vote came as Bellingham officials have been trying to add housing without adding sprawl, even as residents are faced with rising home prices, skyrocketing rents and a similar increase in homelessness.

In March 2018, the median home value in Bellingham was $388,588 for a single-family house and an average monthly rent was $1,686, according to Zillow. In 2010, a single-family house was $268,021 and monthly rent was $1,356.

The vacancy rate in the city remains near zero as the housing supply remains tight.

Council member Pinky Vargas said she recognized the that Bellingham residents are deeply split over the issue of detached accessory dwelling units, or DADUs, but that the City Council must act now in the face of the housing crisis.

"We sometimes have to make tough decisions that don't make everyone happy," Vargas said. "We have to be adaptable to the issue that is in front of us. This is not a panacea, but one piece of the puzzle moving toward more housing stock in Bellingham."

Several years of staff planning and committee discussions came to a head in early April at a contentious public hearing that split neighborhoods over several parts of the proposal — mostly the provisions that addressed units that are separate from the main building.

Detached accessory dwelling units currently are prohibited in most areas of Bellingham, but the new rules would allow them, city planner Chris Koch said.

Koch said the measure will give homeowners more options when adding a DADU.

Neighborhoods most affected by the ordinance include South Hill, York, Sehome and Happy Valley, he said.

"Happy Valley is really embracing them," he said, adding that its neighborhood association already has asked for permission to start a pilot program allowing ADUs.

But members of the York Neighborhood Association opposed the measure, citing concerns about increased traffic, parking, noise and public safety.

York neighbors and other opponents said they wanted the city to count each neighborhood's illegally built detached accessory dwelling units and then permit them in that area on a more restrictive case-by-case basis.

Knutson said he'd rather see individual neighborhoods have more self-determination, and allow DADUs in neighborhoods where residents want them.

"This unfortunately can drive a wedge between us and the neighborhood associations," Knutson said. "Let them go through the process, put in one or two at a time and let them go with it."

Koch said about 100 accessory units have been built legally citywide, in addition to several illegally built units and others that are legal but don't conform to current codes and are "grandfathered" into the books.

Koch said the changes were prompted by a provision in the city's original 1995 ordinance that regulates ADUs.

That provision allows for the ordinance to be reconsidered once more than 20 ADUs are approved in a single neighborhood — a number reached in the South Hill neighborhood.

Currently, an ADU is allowed only in areas zoned for single-family homes on lots that are 10,000 square feet or are located on a corner or an alley.

Council President Roxanne Murphy discussed her values as a Nooksack tribal member and a commitment to the seven previous generations and to the next seven generations.

"I pray that they will find more affordability than what we have now," Murphy said. "I'm in no way suggesting — and the city has not suggested — that this will solve our housing crisis. But I fundamentally believe that we need every single tool that we can get to work on this issue."

The new rules approved Monday would allow ADUs in all areas zoned for single-family homes and reduce the lot size for ADUs to 5,000 square feet — about the size of typical property in the Lettered Streets or Columbia neighborhoods.

Other changes to the ADU ordinance would allow as many as four occupants, up from the current three, and limit the number of bedrooms in a detached ADU to two.

Height restrictions would be reduced from 25 feet to 20 feet, or about two stories.

One off-street parking space would be required for each ADU and transportation and park impact fees would be waived.

Only one ADU would be allowed per primary residence.

Another city review of the ordinance is required by 2025, or when 200 legal ADUs are built, whichever comes first.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty
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