Council gives builders a break

By Ryan Wynne

After an hour-long conversation, including comments from the public, the Bellingham City Council voted 6-1 to grant a one-time, two year economic hardship extension for developers with city-issued land use approvals.

The extension is intended to help developers and property owners who have had difficulty obtaining financing for projects due to tightened credit markets and the current recession.

When discussion on the topic was nearing an hour, Councilman Gene Knutson spoke up, and said he couldn’t believe the conversation had gone on for as long as it had.

“I am befuddled,” Knutson said, explaining that the code amendment presented by planners was a simple request meant to help a group that is taking a severe beating due to economic conditions.

He said developers had already done everything they could, and that the city should do something to help them.

Councilman Michael Lilliquist was the one dissenting vote. Rather than giving every developer the opportunity to extend land use approvals, he said planners should let some expire, specifically those slated for areas designated as environmentally sensitive by the city’s current Critical Areas Ordinance. That ordinance, adopted in 2005, is much stricter than its predecessor and protects land within the city such as wetlands and shorelines.

Others on the council also wondered whether the extension could be given discriminately. Planners said that would likely lead to legal challenges and going through each permit would be time intensive. When it came down to the vote, a majority decided the need for relief was great enough to vote for the extension.

Councilman Terry Bornemann said looking over each permit would be too much of a burden on staff. He said the council could continue analyzing the issue, but the economy is affecting projects and the need to help developers was clear to him.

“I think we need to recognize that these are just extraordinary times,” Bornemann said.

The extension request, which is retroactive, is for an issued land use approval set to expire between Jan. 1, 2010 and Dec. 31, 2011. Applicants must file a written extension request no later than Dec. 31, 2011. The  request includes a sworn declaration that work has been or will be delayed because of an inability to secure financing.

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