A conversation with Tim Stewart, planning director

After a year on the job, some problems fixed, some still lingering at City Hall


Name: Tim Stewart
Age: 56
Hometown: Fitchburg, Mass.
Alma mater: Michigan State University, master’s degree in urban planning
Past jobs/positions: Director of planning for city of Shoreline, City of Lincoln and Lancaster County, Neb., and city of Fitchburg, Mass.; associate professor at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia; truck driver; house painter; factory worker; duck farmer
Favorite local restaurant: Boundary Bay, Bayou on Bay, D’Anna’s
Favorite summer spot: Anywhere without cars in the Pacific Northwest
Hobbies: Bicycling, skiing, adventuring, reading
Most memorable vacation: Beachcombing in Zanzibar

Tim Stewart, city planning director, said that although some issues have been fixed in the past year, it continues to be a challenge for the department to balance the large volume of work with the amount of resources available.


In June 2006, The Bellingham Business Journal sat down with then newly hired City of Bellingham Planning Director Tim Stewart a month after he jumped into the belly of the beast.

A year later, the BBJ met up with Stewart again to discuss his freshman experience of directing said beast.

Stewart appears to have remained steadfast in his penchant for consensus building. When he discusses the year’s major planning events, he touches on how disputes between neighbors, developers and city staff were able to be solved pragmatically, despite dealing with several contentious issues, including the Fairhaven Harbor development, the Fairhaven height limit quarrel and complaints about the permitting process.

BBJ: Last year, you said one of your goals was to examine the department’s work program — its workload, its legal obligations in terms of issuing permits and doing annexations, and the number of staff available to do that. What came out of that?

Stewart: The number one thing is that the expectations for the department are very high in terms of the amount of work and the number of programs. At the same time, we have very limited resources, so it’s clear that one of my continuing challenges will be to balance the work program and what people expect us to do.

BBJ: Can some of these challenges be dealt with by adding more staff?

Stewart: We are looking at that very question right now for the 2008 budget. There may be some proposals going in, in terms of staffing levels. The council (recently) approved the creation of a new assistant (planning) director position to help with building the systems that are needed to do good performance measurements and good systems for permit processing, so we can keep track of what we’re doing and measure how we’re doing.

BBJ: Regarding the Fairhaven Harbor development, did you consider simply granting the design-review permit for the project’s second, slimmed-down incarnation, which was denied because of a planning department error?

Stewart: That was a tough decision. The facts that I was presented with in reviewing the proposal included a declaration by the applicants (developers Ted Mischaikov and Rick Westerop) that the tower was not going to exceed 85 feet in the environmental declaration checklist. My decision was that the applicant could choose to submit new environmental review data for a building taller than that as one of their options, and they chose not to do that. Instead, they chose to withdraw their application.

I think it’s really important that when we do an environmental review that it be accurate, that we have a fair process for the neighbors as well as for the developer. So if I had been a neighbor that had a view that was unobstructed at 90 feet, and I reviewed the (Fairhaven Harbor) document and saw the limit of the project was 85 feet, I wouldn’t be concerned about the environmental impact.

The building I was asked to approve, the slimmed-down version, was greater than that. And I didn’t feel comfortable in approving that larger building when we had an environmental review that was less. So it became the developer’s choice, and I’m sure the last page has not been written on this.

BBJ: Do you consider it a planning department error that led to the original approval of the first permit with the larger tower?

Stewart: I don’t think I’d call it an error. The process perhaps overlooked that fact, and I may have been a little more diligent in my review of the environmental record, but I can only control what I can control. And the facts that were presented to me led me to a conclusion that more environmental review was going to be required.

It’s also important to recognize that we did not reopen the issue of the existing permit. We did not declare void or attempt to rescind the initial permit, only that if they wanted to amend the permit they would have to comply with the new environmental rules. So they’re still fully vested with their old permit, they can go ahead and build that, and we’re not challenging that approval.

BBJ: Recently you sent a letter to Fairhaven neighbors and merchants stating building heights could not be part of a neighborhood plan update to the city’s comprehensive plan, which is only amended once a year, but instead must be addressed through a code amendment proposal, which can be initiated at any time. Why did you originally allow Fairhaven neighbors to address height limits in their neighborhood plan update when they are actually a building code issue? What made you reverse your decision?

Stewart: We were not very diligent in segregating the differences between a plan amendment and a code amendment when we did the initiations last year. This one became very contentious and we had a lot of comments on the appropriateness of its being an annual review item. The turning point was when they submitted their final proposal as just a code amendment, and it didn’t include any amendments to the neighborhood plan. There could have been a comprehensive plan amendment associated with it.

For example, they could have proposed an amendment that said we think in these areas the height should be limited to preserve views, or use some policy with the development code running in parallel. They felt there was sufficient policy already in the adopted comprehensive plan talking about limiting heights, that they didn’t need to change any of the policies.

All of this is very complex, but the big thing is the building of the consensus and we’re hopeful there will be opportunities for the neighbors, the property owners and the businesses to work through these issues.

BBJ: Developers often complain the city’s permitting process takes too long and is too confusing. How would you respond to that?

Stewart: I agree. I think it does take too long and could be less confusing.

We did a survey of customers last year with the Small Business Development Center and we came out with three big take-away points. The first was that our people were judged to be technically competent and really knew their stuff. The second point is they’re courteous and professional in their day-to-day dealings. And the third point is that it takes way too long to get a permit and that it is a complex and confusing process. I agree with that assessment.

We don’t have the systems in place that allow (planners) to do their jobs as well as they could, to allow us to manage and monitor our permit flow.

We’ve got a linear review process in place where an applicant comes in and goes from point A to point B to point C, but there’s no single point of contact for a project. So the applicant goes in a spin cycle from one department to another department to a third department.

We’re looking at a number of things to address that issue, including eventually adopting a project manager system where each project would have a single point of contact with the city and that project manager would then have the responsibility of bringing together all of the internal review departments and resolving the conflicts internally. That project manager would then become accountable and responsible not just for a narrow ‘it’s my department so I just worry about this’ perspective, but rather ‘it’s my permit and I’m responsible across all departments to make sure that we get this done’ perspective. That’s one of the areas we are looking at for potential staffing increases.

Another huge challenge is our development code. It is very complex and confusing and right now we have a major initiative that will rewrite the development code that will make it simpler and more user friendly. That is a big item on our work program that will consume probably two to three full-time employees for probably two years. We briefed council on it a few weeks ago, and it’s now underway.

The first phase is a lot of internal work, focused on clarifying our definitions, our processes, and the use tables and the format of the code. The second phase will be dealing with the substance of the code. We’re hoping to get the first phase out for public review by the end of the year. This will require broad public input, the planning commission will conduct public hearings on it, and city council will be the final decision maker on it.

BBJ: Is the length of time it takes to go through the permitting process in Bellingham similar to other cities you’ve worked in?

Stewart: I think we can do better here. There’s a lot of opportunity for improving our processing to streamline it, and to remove some of the inefficiencies from it.

BBJ: The county’s planning commission and planning staff have asserted the city has not done enough to encourage infill and therefore does not need to include 2,200 acres in the UGA, as the city’s planning department recommended. How would you respond to that assertion?

Stewart: The whole notion of planning in the Growth Management Act requires cities and counties to make very tough choices about how we’re going to accommodate growth. It’s not a ‘no growth’ act; it’s a growth management act.
Bellingham has adopted a comprehensive plan that has a balance of infill and growth at the edge. It has also got a strong statement that infill has got to add value to the community and not detract or deteriorate the existing community. It’s not infill at all costs — it’s infill if the infill creates good places, good neighborhoods and adds value to the city.

I’m hopeful that as the county reaches its conclusions about what its recommendations will be that we’ll be able to work together to find common ground and establish a growth management plan for the city and the county that everyone can live with.

BBJ: What have been your major challenges in the past year?

Stewart: Wrestling with the systems issues and trying to understand how we do business here, how we process and handle permits, customer concerns and issues.
The budget has been a challenge, also. We have a budget this year that, especially in the development-services side, has very aggressive revenue projections that have not been met.

And then the change in leadership — with the change in mayor — is a major challenge for any department head to go through.

BBJ: What have been your greatest accomplishments?

Stewart: Reestablishing communications and trust with neighborhood organizations has been probably one of the most gratifying things for me.
I also think I’ve helped the (department) become a healthier organization. We’ve adopted department-wide values and goals that have established how we are going to work and treat each other, and the culture of the department has responded to these values and goals.

BBJ: Any final words on your first year as planning director?

Stewart: Bellingham is a great community and it’s very, very concerned about its future, and that’s a good thing, even if it gets raucous sometimes. It’s got great people who care about the community, and those are the best communities in the country, those whose residents are actively involved.


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