Development code update begun, will take two years


The planning department began work in June on a major update of the city’s development code, which hasn’t been overhauled since it was written and adopted in 1982.

The process will take about two to three years to complete, and several full-time planning staff will be assigned to the project. The process will eventually involve public input and final approval by the city council before it is adopted.

The update will occur in two phases, senior planner Marilyn Vogel said. The first will determine what the format of the new code will look like, including its content, outline, basic core definitions and how the information will be displayed, she said.

Currently the code, which is known as Title 20 in the Bellingham Municipal Code and sometimes referred to as the zoning code, is arranged textually, and some of the development rules and definitions are repeated multiple times.

The new format might include greater use of graphics or data tables that weren’t available with computers back in the 1980s.

The first phase will also involve reviewing and consolidating basic terms, such as “floor area” and “structure,” so that their definitions are clear and consistent. Vogel said this part of the phase would also make sure all of the recently adopted international building code definitions are integrated into the code.

“We’ll examine the basic building blocks of definitions,” Vogel said.

The second phase will address the actual substance of the development code regulations, Vogel said. This will include updating things like zoning and permitted uses, setbacks, bulk standards, parking standards and landscaping standards. Vogel said she didn’t know at this point if height limits would be included in this phase, but said some issues may need to be looked at separately from the code update.

This part of the phase will also involve integrating and unifying the subdivision code, the Lake Whatcom Reservoir regulatory code and the clearing and grading codes into the development code. It will also examine if the development code is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, Vogel said.

The overhaul was prompted by the city’s recent comprehensive plan update, as well as the fact the code hasn’t been massively updated in 25 years, even though there are yearly “maintenance” amendments to the code, Vogel said.

“We want to make sure it’s in good working order, that it’s clear, and to minimize its complexity and try to eliminate things that are hard to interpret or hard to use,” she said.

Developer Troy Muljat said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the update.

“In general, anytime we’ve got the opportunity to update a code, where both city officials and developers know what to expect, it’s a good thing,” he said. But Muljat said he is wary of politics getting involved in the process.

“I’m skeptical because curve balls get thrown in left and right to the city process,” he said.

Muljat said he would like to see the update decrease room for city official interpretation, and generally be more clear and concise so that both city staff and developers understand the regulations precisely.

“All developers want, and all the city staff want, is to know what the rules of the game are, and today a lot of people don’t really know what’s going on,” he said. “You get a lot of butting heads, but at the end of the day, they really don’t want to.”

Planning staff will present the first phase of the update to city council sometime next year, Vogel said. The rest of the timeframe will depend on resources and the amount of public participation involved in the second phase, she said.

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