City hears heated debate on infill toolkit

By Isaac Bonnell

On June 29, about 30 Bellingham residents gathered in City Hall to tell the council how they felt about the highly controversial infill toolkit.

This was the City Council’s first public hearing on a piece of legislation that would allow 11 new types of housing — such as cottage housing and townhouses — to be built in Bellingham.

As it is currently written, the proposed toolkit will apply in all areas of the city except single family residential zones, neighborhood commercial zones and the Lake Whatcom watershed. Many people, though, expressed concern that the design guidelines for infill housing were not strict enough and would negatively affect the character of single family neighborhoods.

Another hot topic was one small paragraph in the toolkit that explained how infill housing could be incorporated into single family neighborhoods through a lengthy Type VI legislative rezone process.

“By voting for this toolkit, you will be voting to eliminate the most popular land- use designation in this city,” Bellingham resident Patrick McKee said to the council. “In reality, the Type VI process will be the conduit through which infill is crammed and jammed into single family areas.”

That type of rezone process, though, is the standard process for all rezones in single family residential areas, said Nicole Oliver, communications coordinator for the Planning and Community Development Department. And the toolkit is actually adding one more step: Any rezone for infill housing will go through a neighborhood plan amendment.

“What we’re saying is if you want to do it in a specific area to add a toolkit form, you would need to do a neighborhood plan amendment along with the legislative rezone,” Oliver said. “We’ve made it more difficult than if we hadn’t mentioned [the Type VI process] at all.”

For all the “nays” in the crowd, there were an equal number of “yeas.” Columbia neighborhood resident Todd Donovan pointed out that infill housing types like accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are not new to his neighborhood and he would like to see more.

“There are licensed ADUs in our neighborhood, and that is part of our neighborhood character,” Donovan said.

Several location organizations also attended to show their support for the toolkit. Robyn du Pre from ReSources for Sustainable Communities, Derek Long from Sustainable Connections and Paul Schissler from Kulshan Community Land Trust all spoke in favor of infill, saying it will help reduce urban sprawl, reduce vehicle trips and promote healthy communities.

Local home-builder Gary Reid, though, took issue with the way the legislation is written. Reid fully supports infill housing and said he would like to build these types of homes, but the toolkit has become so complicated with design regulations that these units are no longer affordable.

“I think it’s highly important that we have these housing types, and if not in single family neighborhoods, then where?” Reid asked. “The housing types available in the infill toolkit are critical for providing affordable housing, but there are some problems with it. This has become so complicated that it is becoming more expensive. Don’t make it so difficult, so time consuming and so costly that nobody is going to do it.”

After hearing more than three hours of public comment, the City Council decided to keep the public record open and will continue to accept written comments. The council will be discussing the infill toolkit during their next work session on July 13.

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