A Tale of Three Cities

The Slow Train Wreck > A Tail of Three Cities

© 1997 by Paul de Armond

Western Washington University, the City of Bellingham and several neighborhoods are engaged in a heated dispute over land use control at Western Washington University. It involves parking on and around the campus, proposed acquisition areas to the north, west and south of campus, access to High Street for busses and private cars, and a new road between Bill McDonald Parkway and Highland Drive.

It has taken seven years of planning to reach the current point in the process. Discussion now revolves around a fluid draft plan that may change for months until the WWU Board of Trustees approves it. The decisions and disputes which have surfaced will have impacts on the city-wide neighborhood planning process.

Central to the whole issue are the effects of Washington’s Growth Management Act on the relationship between Western and the City. Western has claimed “independent authority,” which, if taken literally, would place state universities beyond the reach of state land use planning law. The City of Bellingham has so far declined to assert authority over Western’s land use. And the neighbors are upset and uncertain what the effect on their lives will be.

This story began in January, when Western Washington University revealed the results of a seven years of work. At an informational presentation before the Bellingham Planning Commission, Western Vice President George Pierce unveiled the “Western Washington University Comprehensive Master Plan.”

Since then, the story has led to numerous community meetings and to the state legislature in Olympia. It will continue in neighborhood meetings and before the Bellingham Planning Commission, Western’s Board of Trustees and Bellingham City Council. And the outcome is not anywhere yet in sight.

The University, The City and the Neighbors

This is a tale of three cities, all dwelling together around Sehome Hill. The first city is the university itself, a geographically self-contained city within a city. The second city is the City of Bellingham, a municipal government incorporated under the laws of the State of Washington. The third city is the city of neighborhoods — both near and far from the campus.

Each of these cities views themselves and the others quite differently.

According to WWU’s general counsel, Washington Assistant Attorney General Wendy Bohlke, the situation is like “two cities with adjacent jurisdictions.” In a May 7, letter from WWU VP George Pierce to City Planning Director Patricia Decker, the University cites the 1982 WWU neighborhood plan and claims “full independent authority to prepare and implement its master plan,” while it “is cooperating with the City’s neighborhood planning and masterplan approval process.”

However, when Pierce was asked for comment on this letter, he stated that attorneys had added the section about independent authority. According to Pierce, the University’s independent authority is based on case law in relating to other issues and other jurisdictions, and is “not necessarily related to master plans or institutional matters.”

The City’s position is quite different. Under the Bellingham ordinance adopted in 1995, all previous neighborhood plans and amendments were subsumed under the Comprehensive Plan. This planning ordinance was required under the state Growth Management Act (GMA) and places the University, as a state agency, under City planning jurisdiction.

Asked about the May 7 letter, Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson said that he was surprised to see the exemption in the neighborhood plan. “It contradicts the spirit of how we do planning,” he said. Asmundson described the 1982 WWU neighborhood plan and its discussion of University exemption as “ancient history.”

“The context is remarkably out of date,” he said.

To City planners, WWU is a neighborhood area bound by the same ordinances as the rest of the city. However, the City has not enforced ordinances regarding road closures, parking and other land use issues. This leaves the University with a history of exemption from City land use planning.

The exemption is contained in the 1982 WWU Neighborhood Plan, which states:

“The University, as a creature of the State, undter the tradition of English common law, is not considered to be subject to the law and ordinaces of a city government created under the power of the state. The State recently recognized the legitimate concerns of cities and counties when the legislature passed the State Uniform Building Code. While a law like this would normally not apply to activities of state agencies, this action specifically required their complaince with the Uniform Building Code administered by local governments. The issue of land use control has never been adequately addressed.”

The neighbors are angry and fed up. The tone of the four “cottage meetings” held by the University has been heated and contentious. “Reasonably so,” said City Council member Louise Bjornsen. “They’ve got an eight hundred pound gorilla on their hands.” Bjornsen has attended most of the meetings between the University and the neighbors.

The neighbors are fed up with the lack of parking near their homes and the closure of High Street despite City ordinances keeping it open. They are angered by what they percieve as arrogance, secretiveness, deception and bullying by the University. They are frightened by the proposed University acquistion areas, which have sparked fears of the possible loss of their homes and depressed property values. And they are frustrated by the City’s inability to rein in the “eight hundred pound gorilla.”

Seven Years of Planning

The University planning process began seven years ago when former WWU President Mortimer announced his Strategic Plan. Sweeping expansion of Western’s enrollment, classroom space, housing and land area were all basic assumptions in the Strategic Plan. The Master Plan is the facilities and land use component of the overall Stategic Plan.

The most recent phase of the University’s masterplanning process began last November, when Western released an addendum to its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This revision included sketchy details of a “South Campus Quad” and corrections raising the projected 2003 student population from 11,300 to 14,055; adding 200 maintained parking spaces for a total of 4,386 on and off-street parking spaces (no net change to parking supply), and adding 50,000 square feet of recreational open space.

The EIS is the University’s guiding legal document for land use planning at the University. And, as Patricia Decker, Bellingham’s director of Planning and Community Development has pointed out, it contains no mitigation for parking. This means that the University’s amount of present and future parking is viewed as adequate and not in need of expansion.

The University’s next step was to prepare a Draft Comprensive Master Plan. This is an illustrated plan which refines the general concepts into more specific detail. The EIS contains “bubble diagrams” which show the overall layout of the campus. It shows new roads, building areas, and land uses in big blobby drawings with lots of notes, arrows, and commentary. The Draft Master Plan shows more specific drawings, including proposed building outlines, pedestrian areas, trees and other details. Since the plan is in draft form, details can be changed as long as they stay within the guidelines of the EIS.

The Draft Master Plan has not yet been approved by the WWU Board of Trustees. As a result, details are just pictures, not actual construction plans. The location — and even number — of proposed buildings, roads and parking lots is fluid and can change before the University adopts the final plan. Even this plan, when complete, will not give specifics. A master plan is only a conceptual plan, not a set of blueprints for construction.

In the Final EIS, the City Planning Department submitted a letter detailing seven issues concerning land use off campus. Most of the issues deal with traffic and circulation. The May, 1993, letter and the University response list all four of the “hot button” issues still being discussed.

The City letter and the University reply outline the 1993 understanding regarding:

  • The future connection between 21st Street and Old Fairhaven Parkway continues to be discussed. The City deleted it from construction budgets, but remains interested in it. The University supports the project.
  • The 21st Street / West College Way realignment is acceptable to the City, though there are some questions about intersections and traffic lanes. Western agrees to make the new road safe and efficient.
  • The City is opposed to any restriction on busses on High Street. The University agrees that it will not restrict access to transit vehicles. Access to private vehicles is not mentioned.
  • The City feels that the University should address the overall parking issue and the impact on adjacent neighborhoods. The City requests mitigating measures. The University will implement a Transportation Master Plan. No parking mitigation is included in the EIS.
  • The City will work with the University during the neighborhood plan process to design a system that will allow University property to be zoned Institutional. This system will only apply to the identified acquisition areas. The University looks forward to the opportunity.

The Univerity’s EIS is unchallenged and has not been appealed by either the neighbors or the City. It is the foundation of current and future planning by the University and the City.

The Bellingham Planning Commission

In January, 1997, Western presented the Draft Master Plan to the Bellingham Planning Commission. The idea was to obtain review by the Bellingham Planning Commission and approval of the plan by the Bellingham City Council, before the WWU Board of Trustees signed off on it.

Sending a draft plan out for review before approval by the Trustees gives City planners a chance to discuss issues with the neighbors and the University before final adoption by the Board of Trustees. For a project of the size and scope of a major state university, this prior review by City planners and neighborhood groups provides the University with an opportunity to correct errors and ommissions.

It also places the neighbors in the position of not really knowing where they are in the process. The City is not expected to produce written process guidelines until the end of May.

With the passage of the final EIS, many of the issues may have been foreclosed from significant change without resort to legal challenges. At meetings held during the last few months, it is quite apparent that there is considerable disagreement between the neighbors and the University as to which issues are still negotiable and which are closed to discussion.

In a February 14, 1997 memo to the Planning Commission, Bellingham Senior Planner Greg Aucutt wrote:

“WWU has issued a Draft Master Plan for their campus. They have requested the City review this plan and make comments prior to its adoption by their Board [of Trustees]. It seems wise to update the WWU Neighborhood Plan at the same time.”

In the City’s view, two tasks were placed before the Planning Commission: 1) review and comment on the WWU Draft Comprehensive Master Plan; and 2) update the WWU neighborhood plan. The WWU Master Plan is an internal document for the University. The neighborhood plan is a part of the City Comprehensive Plan.

It rapidly became apparent that these two things together involved broad issues and that the university, the City and the neighbors had a profound disagreement about what part of the city was being discussed and what issues were covered.

Central to the disagreement is that three totally different boundaries are being considered. WWU’s position is that its property boundaries and the proposed “acquisition areas” fall under WWU planning jurisdiction. At “cottage” meetings held by the University, the neighborhood boundary has not been part of the discussion. All discussions have involved the proposed Institutional zone, which crosses three neighborhood boundaries.

Bellingham’s Planning & Community Development Department sees the WWU neighborhood subarea in the Bellingham Comprehensive Plan as the area being updated and the Master Plan area as subject to review.

And the citizens in the three surrounding neighborhoods consider any area where the University has an impact to be properly their concern.

The Master Plan incorporates a sweeping vision of university expansion with effects that will be felt across Bellingham. It addresses the physical features, traffic, facilities, land use, and infrastructure in the area on and around Western’s campus.

Some of the elements of the Plan that appear to be changing include:

  • A cross-city arterial connecting downtown with the Old Fairhaven Parkway. (The University has since stated that the connection to Old Fairhaven Parkway is not necessary to the Master Plan.)
  • 13 city blocks of property acquisition to the south of Bill McDonald Parkway and approximately 5 blocks in the South Hill and Sehome neighborhoods. (In a May 13 interview, WWU Vice President George Pierce said that a smaller area is under consideration.)
  • Realigning South College Way and 21st Street into a “processional entrance” to a new “South Campus Quad” and flag plaza larger than Red Square. (At the May 13 interview, University officials produced a new drawing showing two of the proposed buildings on the South Campus Quad no longer there, the Multipurpose Center postponed and the Communications building much smaller.)
  • Doubling on-campus student housing and the construction of approximately 1,000,000 square feet of new dormitory and apartment space. (When asked about this, WWU officials stated that they would be deleting this aspect from the plan.)
  • Construction of parking structures near Arntzen Hall and the Viking Union. (An April, 1997 statement from Western says that when Western “takes existing parking off-line… structures will be designed and constructed.”)

Neighbors Get Involved

No sooner had the Master Plan been revealed than it became obscured by clouds of controversy and bafflement.

Rumors swept South Bellingham that the proposed property acquisition involved the construction of an enormous football stadium. To the chagrin of community organizers, it later became apparent that there was no stadium in the offing: the plan’s proposal for converting some existing parking lots North of Bill McDonald Parkway to expand existing athletic fields was misinterpreted.

In a written statement, Western disavowed any stadium plans at the present time. Rumors die hard — in early May, WWU President Karen Morse met privately with City Council members Bob Hall, Arnie Hansen and Bob Ryan. Among the topics discussed, Morse reassured them that Western was not planning a stadium at this time.

Other concerns had considerably more substance. This is not surprising, since the University had been hearing about them throughout the previous seven years. These are all issues that involve the integration of University and City planning processes. They are also neighborhood concerns that have been acknowledged, but are still unresolved.

Foremost among these are University proposals for on and off-campus parking, extension of 21st Street to Old Fairhaven Parkway, vacation and closure of High Street, and acquisition of property south of Bill McDonald Parkway.

In the next three months, citizens from the surrounding neighborhoods swarmed into two planning commission meetings like they were storming the Bastille. At the February and April meetings, the unresolved issues between the City, the University and the neighbors showed up like the proverbial uninvited guest at the wedding. At the April 20 hearing, the Bellingham Planning Commission continued the hearings into June, while the City scrambled to work out the impacts on the comprehensive planning process.

One of the problems for the City planners was the lack of a written process for neighborhood planning. Having such a procedure is a requirement of the state Growth Management Act. Without such a document, the planning process could be challenged before the Growth Management Hearings Board. The City expects to produce a set of written guidelines by the end of May.

Meanwhile, the neighbors searched for other forums in which to make their unresolved concerns heard. An unprecedented citizen lobbying drive on the state legislature sought to cut Western’s appropriation for three of the contentious issues. The legislature responded by making funding conditional on University compliance with City comprehensive land use laws for:

  • The new vistors and campus services center at the corner of 21st and Bill McDonald Parkway ($1.19 million for 1997-99, $8.56 million later, $100,000 previous appropriation)
  • Facilities and property aquisition ($4 million now and $4 million later, no prior appropriation) and,
  • Campus roads and other infrastructure. ($450,000 now and $9.98 million later, no prior appropriation).

In addition to lobbying the legislature, the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association began circulating a petition. The petition is addressed to the Planning Commission, the Bellingham City Council and Mayor Mark Asmundson.

It cites concerns over “coordinated growth management” and states that the City should “determine if there is a shortage of land” for University expansion and “define the conditions under which expansion may occur.” It requests the City to postpone consideration of Western’s expansion until the surrounding neighborhood plan updates are complete. The petition has not been submitted to the City as of this writing and continues to be circulated for signatures.

Tip Johnson, a Happy Valley resident and former City Council member, is one of the backers of the petition. He is quite critical of the lack of decisiveness on the part of the University and the leverage that it gives them over neighbors.

“It’s the main reason that institutions like ports and universities choose to plan poorly or not at all. Planning, to the extent that it defines anything, forecloses options and limits their future flexibilty,” he said.

To the north and west of the campus, citizens in the South Hill and Sehome neighborhoods have been working with the city on a proposal for Residential Parking Zones. The zones would limit parking to two hours in areas which the University is using for off-campus parking. Residents would purchase permits from the city for the area near their homes. The proposed ordinaces will go before the City Council on Monday, June 9. [See the accompanying article for more on the parking issue.]

“Cottage” Meetings with the University

Meanwhile, back at the university, a series of public meetings were organized to test the waters that Western had already plunged into. The University announced a schedule for their own “cottage” meetings “in conjunction with” the City’s planning process. This led many neighbors to think that they were attending City planning meetings. The only City meetings are the Planning Commission hearings.

In fact, the purpose of the “cottage” meetings was to gather information for the WWU Board of Trustees, while informing neighbors of the University’s Draft Comprehensive Master Plan. At these four “cottage” meetings, the University repeatedly heard about three issues that were anticipated at their December 6, 1996 Board of Trustees meeting and one that remains a thorny problem.

In December, University staff had advised the Board of Trustees the following “hot button” issues would be heard:

  • The 21st Street realignment and possible impact on the City’s decision to extend it to Old Fairhaven Parkway,
  • The proposed acquisition zone, and
  • The vacation of High Street and access during snowy weather.

During the Trustees meeting, the long-standing controversy about on and off-campus parking was not discussed.

At the last two “cottage” meetings, WWU Vice President George Pierce indicated that the WWU Board of Trustees does not meet until June 9. He stated that the Master Plan will be discussed by the Trustees after the Planning Commission hearing.

The Institutional Master Plan

On May 7, Pierce sent a letter to Patricia Decker, Bellingham’s director of Planning and Community Development. In this letter, Pierce requested that the City and University enter into the process of developing an Institutional Master Plan ordinance.

Institutional master plans are used in conjunction with land use classification in neighborhood plans. They apply to large campus-type areas of over fifty acres which have one or few property owners. Currently, the only institution with an Institutional Master Plan is St. Joseph’s Hospital. Most of the University campus is zoned Institutional. The exception is the Physical Plant, which is currently zoned Public.

The purpose of Institutional zoning is to:

  • Set definite boundaries and development guidelines,
  • Insure orderly, phased development,
  • Reduce impacts on surrounding areas,
  • Insure the adequacy of city infrastructure and services to institutions, and
  • Insure development which is compatible with the landscape and geography of the area.

Prior to the adoption of an Institutional Master Plan, the permitted uses are taken from the existing Neighborhood plan.

Here lies the rub. The current WWU neighborhood plan, passed by the City in 1982, only addresses the building code and not land use. In 1991, the state legislature passed the Growth Management Act (GMA), which gives the City jurisdiction over land use. In the 1997 session, the legislature again emphasized University compliance with local land use laws. The City land use ordinance, which includes things like the the zoning and permitting processes and requirements such as parking, setbacks, drainage, sidewalks, etc., predates the GMA.

In January 1996, the City passed its Comprehensive Plan and adopted the previous ordinances under it.

It is a basic principle that more recent plans, laws, and ordinances restate and sometimes rewrite the interpretation of preceeding ones. If, as the University requests, Western’s Draft Master Plan, the City WWU neighborhood plan and the City’s WWU Institutional master plan are all in process simultaneously, the chances for errors and the amount of uncertainty increase substantially.

For example:

The Instutional plan requires a much greater degree of detail and specificity than Western’s Draft Master Plan. This would put the City’s institutional plan on hold until Western’s Board of Trustee’s passed the final version or put the Western plan on hold until the City’s plan is sorted out.

Likewise, the Institutional plan uses existing zoning in the City neighborhood plans. The University’s Master Plan discusses rezoning areas Institutional which are now in other zoning or other neighborhoods and, in some cases, in other ownership with no certaintly that the University will ever own the property.

One such area is the WWU Physical Plant on Douglas Street. It lies in the Happy Valley neighborhood and is currently zoned Public, not Institutional. If the City’s Institutional planning process is going to include this area, it will require amending the Happy Valley neighborhood plan, or finding some process to remove that area from the Happy Valley neighborhood plan before it is updated by the City.

A Creature, Entity, or Agency?

The other big question raised by the May 7 letter was referred to in the beginning of this story: who has authority over land use at Western? This is an important issue, since it would determine if City parking requirements apply to Western.

WWU VP Pierce’s letter claims “independent authority to prepare and implement its master plan” for the University. When asked about this in an interview, he agreed that Western is a state agency under GMA. He further stated that the authority Western claimed was based on “case law in other jurisdictions not necessarily related to master plans or institutional matters. Other types of jurisdictions — other types of issues.”

“It has not been settled exacty to what extent state agencies are responsible to,” Pierce said. “And they felt it was important to put the footnote in there.”

Dick Fryhling is a planner with the Washington Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, the state agency which administers the GMA. After having Pierce’s letter claiming “independent authority,” read to him in a telephone interview, he was asked if Western was a state agency.

“There’s only one answer to that. They are,” he said. “They get money from the state… They are no different from DOT (Department of Transportation) or other agencies that have to comply.”

Patricia Decker, Bellingham’s Director of Planning & Community Development says that Western is a “state entity.” In a May 20 interview she interpreted Western’s claim and the 1982 WWU neighborhood plan to mean “…they want to reserve the right to say that their different than a state agency and that they are cooperating with us but that doesn’t mean they have given up that right to determine what land use controls they want to use on their property.”

When told of Fryhling’s comments, she said, “There are differences of opinion across the state bureaucracies about that. And where that lands will be as true for Western Washington as it is for the University of Washington.”

Decker says she has been looking at the agreement between the City of Seattle and the University of Washington. “The City of Seattle has codes that apply to other institutions that they don’t apply to the University of Washington.” In her opinion, the Institutional plan could constitute such an agreement.

Five Months of Heat and the Summer is Just Beginning

Ultimately, the Planning Commission will make recommendations to the Bellingham City Council. And then the Council will take some action.

WWU Vice President George Pierce is hoping that the City’s Institutional Planning process will be complete in the Summer or early Fall. If his estimate is correct and the City agrees with his proposal to review the Western Washington University Draft Comprehensive Master Plan and do the WWU neighborhood plan at the same time, then Western’s Board of Trustees will formally adopt the WWU Draft Master Plan in that same period. They will be hearing about the “cottage meetings” on June 9.

The Planning Commission meets on June 5. The issues of land use jurisdiction, parking, High Street, the proposed acquisition zones, and the road revisions between Highland Drive and Bill McDonald Parkway are certain to be discussed, as will the University’s request to begin work with the City on an Institutional Master Plan.

Commenting on the process, Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson said, “It’s kind of a textbook example of how to do things to generate the maximum amount of heat.”

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