Testimony before Bellingham Planning Commission – Tip Johnson – 06-05-1997

June 5, 1997

Tip Johnson
2719 Donovan Ave.

Requests to Commission:

  • Table further review of Western’s Draft Comprehensive Master Plan and the Bellinham Comprehensive Plan WWU Neighborhood sub-area, pending updates of surrounding neighborhood sub-areas.
  • Review University compliance with local comprehensive land use ordinances as required by GMA and recent state budget legislation.
  • Reassess Western’s planning documents. These should be evaluated to determine what existing agreements between the City and University are and what documents specify such agreements. There is a need to separate valid analysis from internal documents, particularly those which have not been reviewed and approved by either the WWU Board of Trustees or City administration.
  • Prepare an index of those documents which form the legal basis for further discussion should be prepared, so everyone knows what is currently agreed to and binding upon both parties and what is not.

Background

Beginning in 1980-81, the existing Western Washington University Neighborhood (WWUN) Plan was intended to govern development on campus. The plan opens with a statement of the “collateral” proces with the City. References to this supposed cooperation are liberally sprinkled through Western’s documents.

There is also astounding language — as yet not fully appreciated — regarding feudal tenure, the payment of weregild, the right of primogeniture, or some other obtuse element of English common law tradition. The existing reassertion of these undeclared and undefined rights demand precise explanation.

Another feature is the concern for a positive showing of active protection of private property rights during the University’s expansion.

Even then, there was evidence of “800 pound gorilla” activity in the neighborhood. But also explicit expresssion of an convention of planning cooperation and a de facto program for regulation.

Additional indication that the University tacitly accepted regulation (albeit with special priviledges) occurs in the 1981 SEIS, where they hope to… “satisfy the prerequisite condition….” If the University would now assert or reserve unknown rights or dispute former acceptance of regulation, there should be no question that as of the 1991 GMA, they were certainly subject to the Bellingham Comprehensive Plan.

History

The University has preferred an unbridled approach to development and the city has preferred to take a hands-off attitude toward regulation and enforcement. One look at the Facilities Development Plan (FDP) will show development is not in conformity with that plan.

It is not as though the plan is unclear. “…until a revision of the Facilities Development Plan is passed by the Board of Trustees (BOT) and submitted to the city, development shall conform to the presently adopted plan.” (Current WWUN Plan.)

The City has not required compliance or adherence to the FDP. The City has consistently failed to mitigate longstanding impacts. The City has also neglected to seize the initiative for planning issues affecting the neighborhoods. The City has relied on the University to bring continuity, consistency and integrity to the planning process.

The University has developed many conceptual plans and illustrative plates and apparently done whatever it wanted to do. Examples include major unpermitted grading operations, wetland filling, illegal dumping and what has been described as “arrogance, secretiveness, deception and bullying.”

Peripheral Planning

University staff has administered two lengthy SEPA procedures — each lasting several years. A host of campus plan concepts has emerged. Eventually these have been refined into illustrative plates which are, according to a staff report to the BOT, “an interpretation of [the] concept, how it might look, but it’s not maybe the way it is.” Essentially, nothing has ever been nailed down. Boundaries shift continually and major design elements come and go. Nevertheless there is a great volume of material available. Noticeably absent is an updated Facilities Development Plan.

It is an example of how the University’s planning process achieves complexity without completion. For instance, the 1981 EIS states that the prerequisite condition for an updated facility development plan has been met. But it is not clear what exactly has met the requirement. No other plate or document is labeled Facilities Development Plan. In the current planning commission packet, City staff suggest that “the subsequent 1987 South Campus Master Plan appears to be the ‘comprehensive plan update’ referred to in Western’s 1981 SEIS.” [emphasis added.] Paying close attention to the dates should signal caution. Uncertainty over what constitutes the site plan component of the planned contract required by the planned designation should be definite cause for concern. The confusion and lack of consistency outlined in heaps of University planning documents should underscore the need for reassertion of the City’s land use authority. Planning a University Campus need not be incomprehensibly complex.

Issues

21st Street realignment — 21st Street is an excellent example of the problem with the University’s planning. In the existing WWUN Plan, and consistent with the FDP, 21st Street was to be vacated and closed when acquisition north of Bill McDonald Parkway was complete. By 1987, the South Campus Master Plan had conceptually reopened 21st Street. The intersection with West College Way was redesigned with an island to channel traffic movements east or west. 21st Street’s progress northerly across West College Way had been conceptually discontinued. On the drawing in the ’97 Draft WWUMP labeled “existing plan,” the “T” intersection has returned to a four-way, the traffic channelization has disappeared. In the Draft WWUMP, the 21st Street alignment becomes a full-blown boulevard to Parks Hall. As if this isn’t enough, it turns around and comes back a block away! Another boulevard extends due north from where 21st now veers east and chews a bench into the hillside for several blocks before gradually tapering into West College Way, just below the water tower.

Exploring this wide a range of alternatives could be instructive. However, it leaves most neighbors merely confused or disgusted. After battling to prevent 21st from becoming a major arterial, the neighbors are not relishing the prospect of battling again over the same issue — especially when the target keeps moving according to unpredictable rules. Also, what kind of planning can justify the use of public funds to spread so much asphalt in such a small area to serve so little purpose?

High Street — This is another example of an agreement the University is bent upon changing — unilaterally. As with the FDP, the University has ignored restrictions on road closures for High Street until residents demand compliance. Neighbors who feel an issue has been resolved are never happy to budget more time for hassling through the details again.

Campus generated on-street parking — The impacts of parking in the neighborhoods are well known, if poorly documented. The University has never done anything to minimize them. Residents have put considerable time and effort into developing Residential Parking Zones. They and the City will feel the expense of managing them.

Residents in Happy Valley do not want to be similarly victimized. Existing impacts should be mitigated and systems established to prevent reoccurrence before expansion is contemplated. The Final EIS and Addendum show no mitigation for parking impacts.

The acquisition areas — The acquisition areas dredge up several issues:

  • What are the long term effects on the diversity and supply of housing stock? Will University expansion push densepack residential zoning further down the valley?
  • Under what authority does the University expend public funds hosting public meetings at public facilities to “discuss” institutional uses on residentially zoned properties which they have not yet and may never acquire.

It is offensive to many — like having someone who isn’t a cop put on a badge and pull you over to talk about your driving. Admittedly, there is nothing wrong with talking to the neighbors and floating a few ideas. However, being already before the Planning Commission, asserting questionable rights and privileges, together with so much hokey planning and a patently unethical zoning scheme, has reduced the University’s credibility.

The University and City staff are apparently in agreement on a system of post-purchase rezones for properties purchased by the University.

Only the University qualifies and only the University will benefit from such zoning. It is the neighbors who have much to lose. But they have not lost the memory of the last University expansion and what happened to their friends, their neighborhood, their place.

Residents are having difficulty distinguishing how this and the University’s actions differ from red-lining and blockbusting the neighborhood. Allowing the University to draw a barrel and then providing them the means of shooting fish is no way to do zoning.

Process — The process should be simple and easily understood. It should be known in advance by all parties concerned. This process hasn’t had the advantage of such a tidy beginning. Originally, the University asked for the City’s review and approval of the Draft WWUMP. It is likely that for the University, this was meant to be another unnamed update of the prerequisite Facilities Development Plan. To the City, it was yet another volume of planning from the University.

Contemplating the problem of just what kind of approval should or could possibly issue from such a review of an internal University document probably triggered the City’s sudden initiation of the WWUN Plan update.

Meanwhile, Western was meeting in the neighborhoods, scaring little old ladies and John Servais, discussing elements of their plan as if they were accomplished facts, refusing to answer questions about problems such as parking impacts and saying nothing at all about the WWUN Plan.

Finally, with the neighbors all stirred up, the University has decided to change boundaries (again, sigh) and submit a new condensed plan while requesting revisions which would at once broaden and confuse the planning process. It would not be surprising if even planning commissioners were a wee bit confused. Everyone else is.

Staff recommended process — The packet outlines the following approach:

  1. Develop recommendations for the WWUN Plan update.
  2. Review and comment on the WWUMP.
  3. Develop an Institutional Master Plan (IMP.)
  4. Then talk about rezones in the acquisition areas and subsequent IMP additions and alterations.

Most of the main points for consideration are adequately detailed in the packet. This approach could work if given enough time, but would need to be administered with extreme care to avoid many pitfalls. There are a few points this approach misses.

Points missed

Campus design elements may influence planning in surrounding neighborhoods. A specific instance is the development of West College Drive and its implications for 21st Street. More generally, until neighborhoods and the City consider what properties may be appropriate for institutional use, the University’s very definition of acquisition areas is inappropriate. The City and residents should decide major circulation, zoning and amenity elements before the University draws plates and attempts to exert questionable authority or go out in the neighborhood scaring little old ladies and John Servais. Already, the city will need to be doubly diligent to prevent actions in the acquisition zone from appearing as done deals.

Another area not addressed is the question of authority and compliance. Essentially, the University has failed to perform according to its contract and the City has ignored the University’s default. Similarly, the University has attempted to plan and study its way out of the obligation, while the City has taken the easy route of nodding and smiling.

The University’s and the City’s errors — of commission and omission, respectively — should be thoroughly investigated to dispel any accusation of collusion or special privilege, under English common law or any other tradition. The best way to learn from these mistakes is to understand them completely. It would be extremely instructive to see where development on Campus stands in relation to the many plans on file. Knowing exactly what code deficiencies exist will provide a rational foundation for planning in the future.

The welter of miscellaneous studies and plans which the University has administered is also in need of stabilization. The plans, taken together, need what they could not stand — critical scrutiny. What credibility still exists in the huge volume of available materials deserves to be preserved. It should be the City’s task to objectively disentangle bona fide analysis, assessment and process from imaginary, contradictory and self-serving elements of the plans.

In this way, errors and omissions can be identified and planning may proceed in an informed manner. As an example, when the University asks for tens of millions of dollars for road construction, taxpayers should be assured the funds are expended in the best possible way for the University and the community.

Besides these points, there are problems with concurrence and conformity. First, recognize that none of the plans share similar boundaries. It is difficult to compare apples with apples when everything has been reduced to fruit salad. Secondly, it is not always easy to determine where or why plan elements originate or terminate. For example, what public process evolved the selection of plates referred to as the “existing plan” in the current Draft WWUMP?

Third, it will be difficult to keep the cart behind the horses. A WWUN Plan update should include the IMP component. It is not clear which plan Western should operate under while the IMP is developed. The IMP should parallel a BOT approved Final WWUMP. Not only is the present WWUMP a draft, but it theoretically derives from Westerns Strategic Plan, which is currently under review.

Also, the approach outlined necessitates piece-mealing the IMP to include additions and alterations as acquisitions are made. A more comprehensive planning framework would help preserve the credibility of the City’s planning process from charges of control through subdivision.

Summary

A more careful step-by-step approach is warranted. The Commission should table review of the Draft WWUMP and the WWUN Plan until residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and the City take a reasoned look in a conventional way at what amounts to a rezone request from the University.

The City should determine if a shortage of institutional land exists. Lands appropriate for institutional use should be identified. Appropriate areas should be compared to determine which are best suited for institutional use in terms of overall community benefit. Then such lands should be evaluated to determine what conditions should precede or concur with development.

Parking and transportation, open space, buffers and the regular litany of community concerns should be reviewed to assure the University’s Draft WWUMP can proceed in appropriate directions. This, together with the aforementioned synopsis of planning efforts and assessment of code compliance should help adequately define the envelope open to University expansion and the conditions under which expansion may occur.

Then it’s up to the University to decide, not for the neighbors to wonder.

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