Out of the frying pan …

New head of city’s planning department eager to take on the challenges of this growing community

Tim Stewart comes to the city planning and community development department from Shoreline, where he served in a similar capacity.

Heidi Schiller
   Tim Stewart drinks a Starbucks grande half-decaf, half-regular coffee every day. The new director of the city’s planning and community development department said he is still getting used to the difference between coffee in the states and the stronger version he drank for eight months while teaching in Ethiopia.
   Its not the only thing he’s getting used to.
   Stewart is adjusting to a new job in a new city with new challenges after being hired in March and starting in May.
   Stewart has been a planning director in three other cities, including Fitchburg, Mass. — where he was born and raised, Lincoln, Neb., and most recently Shoreline, from 1998 to 2005.
   Prior to accepting the position in Bellingham, Stewart and his wife, Rose — who was on a Fulbright scholarship — guest-lectured at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia.
   The Bellingham Business Journal caught up with Stewart during his first month on the job on two occasions to talk about his experience as a planner, his perceptions of Bellingham’s planning challenges and his ideas regarding planning leadership.

BBJ: What did you gain from your experience living in Ethiopia?
TS: “I’m even more convinced we must focus on sustainability.
   Thinking about our future is so important. Most Ethiopians live hand-to-mouth — not even day-to-day, but hour-to-hour — and we have such a luxury in this country of thinking about and planning 20 and 30 years into the future.”

BBJ: What are some of the challenges you dealt with in Shoreline?
TS: “There were a number of very exciting and contentious projects. The Aurora improvement project was one of those. It’s Highway 99, so it’s a major north-south arterial. Shoreline wanted to provide additional capacity and amenities — wide sidewalks and landscaping — as an incentive for economic redevelopment.
   Ultimately the notion of (Aurora as) a city center was not adopted in Shoreline’s comprehensive plan. I supported the process of community debate. Planners can bring technical skill and knowledge about how to get things done, but really it’s the community that has to talk about its values and what the residents would like to see done. I view my job as helping to facilitate that process.
   The Aegis development project — a retirement home — was very contentious. On one side we had a very passionate group of environmentalists and on the other a very aggressive group of property-rights advocates. It’s probably an example of how not to do development.
   Both sides were spending huge amounts of resources that weren’t benefiting the site, the environment or the community. My job was to enforce the law. It made neither (group) happy.”

BBJ: What is your planning philosophy?
TS: “Let me use the example of a successful project in Shoreline, the Shoreline Planning Academy. It brought together both planners who have technical knowledge and the community, who have personal knowledge and their own values. Through a series of classes and educational experiences we worked together, and used the information from that process to write a development code that was ultimately accepted by the community.
   That reflects my planning philosophy — that planners and the community need to work together and communicate well in order to have the best possible planning.
   Land use is a very contentious issue. Use of land reflects our deepest values, and those values are often in conflict in the community. When you have one group that holds private property rights very dear and another group that highly values preservation and protection of the environment, those two values often come into conflict.
   Planners get caught in the middle of those conflicts all the time, and it works well for me when we can find ways of getting communication between the groups and resolving conflicts. That’s not always possible, but when it happens it’s a thing of beauty.”

BBJ: What are the major similarities between Shoreline and Bellingham in terms of growth management, bulk and height issues and infill?
TS: “I’ve dealt with those issues in all the communities I’ve been in.
   There are two important factors: first, what are the community’s values — what do we want to preserve and protect, how do we want to build the community in ways that enhance livability?
   The second one is a question of balance. We have competing values and those have to be balanced.”

BBJ: What excites you about planning in Bellingham?
TS: “The great neighborhoods have got to be at the top of the list.
   Quality of life here is extraordinary, and that’s good news and bad news. Good news because everybody who lives here knows it and bad news because the world does, too. Bellingham has the ability to be a city of the 21st century — the opportunities along the waterfront and other things happening down there are just extraordinary — the redevelopment of downtown is pretty remarkable.
   I’m also excited about the level of interest from the citizens. I think the passion level I’ve seen and heard in Bellingham and the quality of those public citizen debates is really pretty high.
   Obviously the natural environment here is pretty special, and I think Bellingham’s culture is very exciting.”

BBJ: What are you apprehensive about?
TS: “I think it probably has to do with more of a tone that I fear, not only locally, but also across the country over the past 15 to 20 years, has moved from talking about the issues and trying to solve problems to a somewhat shriller level of sound bites.
   The concern I have is that we think about issues carefully and we educate ourselves about issues so we can have an informed debate. I believe that good information results in a good political debate.”

BBJ: What are some specific examples of that kind of information?
TS: “I think there are a lot of communities around the country dealing with issues of growth and issues of quality of life and we can learn from those communities. I view my job as helping to provide the community with that type of education and information.”

BBJ: From your recent meeting with the Association of Bellingham Neighborhoods, what did you gather are the major neighborhood issues?
TS: “Each neighborhood is really unique and the concerns of one may not be the concerns of others. One size doesn’t fit all.”

BBJ: Have you considered encouraging updating the neighborhood plans?
TS: “Right now I’m working on putting together a work program for the department, and certainly the issue of neighborhood plans is very high on that list. But I’m really not ready to talk about any specifics until I better understand what kind of resources we have in the department and what the timeline and schedules might be.”

BBJ: Can you describe the work program?
TS: “One of the jobs of any director is to balance staff resources with the workload and the expectations for getting the work done, and so I’m looking now at the workload, the legal obligations we have in terms of issuing permits and doing annexations and other work, with the number of staff we have available to do that. That’s a process that will be going on here for another few weeks to help me understand the situation.”

BBJ: What else will you be assessing as part of the work program?
TS: “Certainly the completion of the comprehensive plan is right up there, and issues with the urban growth areas, but the majority of our work has to do with individual land- use permits and building permits and all that goes into that, with inspections and compliance with the law.
   I’m the new guy and I need to understand what’s going on, and what the demands are for city staff.”

BBJ: If you had been here, would you have supported the city’s recent recommendation to the county to annex 2,000 acres of the UGA and five-year-review areas?
TS: “That’s a tough question. I haven’t carefully looked at the UGA issue, and so I really can’t comment.”

BBJ: Have your perceptions of the major issues facing you as a planning director deepened since you started the job?
TS: “I think I’m coming to an understanding that there are five big issues.
   The edge issue — the UGA issue — is certainly one of them. Also, the neighborhood preservation issues.
   The third is downtown redevelopment and revitalization, and that includes all the new urban centers around the city.
   Then we have the waterfront redevelopment as the fourth.
   And then the last one is customer service and organizational development. These are internal systems and resource balancing issues that are going to be very important in the future.”

BBJ: Have you considered any plans of action or concrete goals for those issues?
TS: “No, I’m still deeply in the learning curve. These are very complex issues and they’re not new. Bellingham has been wrestling with these issues for decades, and it’s very important I learn about them from the community.”

BBJ: How long do you foresee that learning curve lasting?
TS: “Learning is lifelong, but clearly some actions and decisions aren’t waiting. It will be a gradual transition as I start moving into developing the work program and start putting priorities together.”



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