Filling the void between house and apartment

City updates land-use code to include infill options


Photo by Paul Moore

Amy Neverdahl, mother of 7-year-old Hayden (above), said she loves the close-knit community and safety that come with living in Matthei Place at 15th Street and Harris Avenue in Fairhaven. Developed by Kulshan Community Land Trust, Matthei is an example of infill housing featuring 14 homes built on less than one acre.


From Edgemoor to Cordata, infill, or higher density housing aimed at preventing sprawl, has been the talk of the town in recent years.

But for local developers trying to build infill housing projects, city building rules and a soft real estate market may have rendered it little more than a buzzword.

For example, Kevin DeVries, president of the general contracting company Exxel Pacific, has been in the process of designing a 55-unit project on three acres of land off of Nevada Street for several years. The project includes common-wall houses similar to townhouses but arranged in a cluster of four units per building.

The city’s land-use code, which dictates rules for housing, doesn’t say how these types of homes should be built. The normal requirements for suburban housing developments just don’t fit with the ideals of modern infill housing, which falls somewhere in between single family homes and apartment buildings or big condo projects.

This puts city planners in a bind when developers bring forward plans for innovative housing projects or when individuals want to add on a unit for a family member.

“We’ve got the challenge of working with a code that is antiquated and very complex,” said City of Bellingham Planning Director Tim Stewart. “This code is really a tangled web.”

For his project, DeVries had to go through the hearing examiner, who settles disputes when projects don’t align with the building code, to get approval to work outside the normal process. As all of the city’s requirements continued to add up, from stormwater drainage to the number of parking spaces needed, the housing market began to decline and the number of potential buyers diminished.

So after years of delay, DeVries said he does not plan to move the project forward because his development costs have risen and the market is too slow right now.

To remedy the situation faced by developers trying to answer the city’s call to fit more housing within city limits, the planning and community development department is in the process of updating the land-use code to include 11 new types of housing that are commonly considered infill housing.

This would allow for quicker permitting of such housing projects since they would no longer need variances from the Hearing Examiner.


Creating a common language

The first step of that process is to write new definitions into the code. The city is planning to release the draft version of this document by Aug. 15 for public review.

Updating the definitions may not seem like much, but it is an important step to ensure that everyone is on the same page when talking about infill, Stewart said.

“We need to have common language in the definitions,” Stewart said. “We need to know what is being talked about when you mention cottage housing.”

In order to better understand what residents consider infill to look like, the city hosted the second planning academy in May, inviting the public to focus specifically on infill housing. Based on feedback from those meetings with citizens, city staff will craft definitions of the 11 new housing types.

Defining infill isn’t easy, though. Details such as lot layout and parking are important with these types of developments, especially when trying to incorporate them into existing neighborhoods, said Darby Watson, an associate at LMN Architects in Seattle who attended the weekly meetings.

For example, townhouses and cottage housing may look similar on paper and have the same zoning requirements, but they look and feel quite different to those who live in and next to them.

“In developing different types of infill you may have two types that have the same density and we’re tearing that apart and making sure that townhomes feel like townhomes and cottage housing feels like cottage housing,” she said.

At the city’s request, Watson will also be compiling a list of definitions for the 11 types of infill projects, including the development rules associated with each type. This will allow the city to get a basic understanding of what kind of rules are needed before writing specific regulations for each neighborhood, Watson said.


Too little, too late?

Getting the definitions on the books doesn’t mean that the code will automatically allow for infill.

After the draft definitions are released this month, the city will wait 60 days before taking the document to the Planning Commission for public comment and approval. After that, the goal is to take it before the Bellingham City Council for a vote in December, said Nicole Oliver, communications coordinator for the city’s Planning and Community Development Department.

Only after the definitions are set can the planning department begin rewriting the rest of the land-use code to include infill housing, Oliver said.

“We don’t want to just create these possibilities and then make them impossible to put on the ground,” she said of the revised definitions document.

The entire revised land-use code would then require approval from the city council.

For local developers, though, the effort to update the land use code may be too little, too late.

“I don’t doubt that the intent is there and I don’t doubt that this is a type of housing that the city wants, but these [current] land-use codes are so restrictive and complicated,” DeVries said.

Amending the land-use code to account for infill housing may not be enough to encourage developers to build such projects, said Tom Grinstad of Grinstad & Wagner Architects.

“If the city deems it in their interest to have this type of housing on a regular basis they should create some incentives for developers — and they don’t have to be monetary,” said Grinstad, who is the architect for a six-unit live/work building on Ellis Street that is awaiting a permit. “Maybe then we’ll see more infill happen.”


Eleven types of infill housing

  • Detached accessory dwelling unit: a small dwelling on the same lot but physically separate from the main house.
  • Attached accessory dwelling unit: a small dwelling unit that is attached to the main house. Also called a “mother-in-law” suite.
  • Carriage house: a dwelling above a garage. Often combined with cottage housing.
  • Cottage housing: smaller, detached single-family houses clustered around shared open space.
  • Attached courtyard housing: two to four detached units on separate lots with common driveway or courtyard. Units have attached garages.
  • Detached courtyard housing: two to four detached units that share a garage that is separate from the units. These homes are typically larger than cottage housing.
  • Small-lot housing: allows for single-family homes at a greater density than typical single family zones. Maximum lot size: 5,000 square feet.
  • Duplex/Triplex: two or three units on a single lot. Units can be side-by-side or stacked in the same building.
  • Townhouse: Also called rowhouses. Units are attached to adjacent units with 20-30 units per acre.
  • Three-story multifamily housing: typically apartments or condominiums with a common building entry. Up to 40 units per acre.
  • Five over One: mixed-use building that allows for five levels of residential units above one level of retail or office space. 45 to 75 units per acre.



What does infill look like?

To see examples of what each type of infill housing looks like and to see potential lot layouts, visit the city’s Web site, and type, “ Planning Academy II” into the search box.

Each housing type has a handout available for download under the “workshop materials” heading.

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