Multi-family Zoning: Achieving Intended Densities

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Picture of townhomes at Aurora Court in Bellingham

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PROJECT SUMMARY

The City Council recently added the Residential Multi (RM) project to the annual list of Comprehensive Plan amendments. This project is focused on changes to the land use code that will allow all RM zones to achieve intended densities, as many of these areas have been significantly underdeveloped with densities much less than what’s intended in the Comprehensive Plan. The project has the potential to implement many goals of the Comprehensive Plan, including those related to housing options, climate action and compact growth.

PURPOSE

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PROJECT SUMMARY

The City Council recently added the Residential Multi (RM) project to the annual list of Comprehensive Plan amendments. This project is focused on changes to the land use code that will allow all RM zones to achieve intended densities, as many of these areas have been significantly underdeveloped with densities much less than what’s intended in the Comprehensive Plan. The project has the potential to implement many goals of the Comprehensive Plan, including those related to housing options, climate action and compact growth.

PURPOSE

  • Implement the Comprehensive Plan's intent for RM zones
  • Address the City's housing, climate action, environmental and land use goals
  • Expand housing variety for people of all ages, incomes and abilities
  • Provide an opportunity for more people to live in walkable/bikeable/transit-friendly neighborhoods

SCOPE (updated June 2021)

  1. A simplified ranged zoning system for all RM zones. This system would assign the adopted Comprehensive Plan density ranges of high, medium or low to each RM zone and allow development at any density within the assigned range.
  2. All Infill Housing Toolkit forms (small and smaller house, cottage, duplex, triplex, shared court, garden court, and townhouse) would be allowed in all RM zones. Small and smaller houses, cottages and duplexes are the only forms currently allowed in RM duplex zones.
  3. Certain (or all) RM zones would potentially include minimum densities.

Explore the tools below to learn more and provide feedback!

For more information on this project, visit cob.org/rmproject.

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Please submit a question about this project and a staff member will respond to you soon.

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    When will Bellingham become progressive in providing housing in the format of ADU’s like in Seattle and Tacoma. Bellingham is exceptionally restrictive making it harder to have an ADU for an elderly or disabled family member than to make a bakery with 2 stoves and 4 sinks! The latter one needs to inform the public within 100’. For making a portion of one’s home into an ADU one must inform neighbor’s within 300’ plus the mayor, city council, newspaper, community representative. Bellingham is keeping these regulations hidden from publication to the general public. It appears Bellingham would rather my son be homeless and live on the streets than live in an ADU in my home. Please look at the Whatcom watershed regulations which permit motor boats but will not allow an elder to live in their own apartment within their adult child’s home. Bellingham appears to prefer to put the elderly snd disabled away in institutions where they will be forgotten. Equality, equity of respect, fostering health, safety and well being of all individuals is necessary for a healthy community. Don’t forget the disabled. Don’t forget the federal law, Olmstead Agreement for the developmentally disabled to live in the least restrictive environment. Remember the extended family and making accommodations for the disabled. The planning department is blind to accommodations for those with autism spectrum disorder.

    Carolyn Burkhart asked over 2 years ago

    Thank you for your comments!

    The City of Bellingham allows property owners to apply for both attached and detached ADUs throughout the City. One exception to this is the Lake Whatcom watershed, where no new ADU’s are permitted. The watershed is the drinking water source for approximately 100,000 citizens and it is also listed as an impaired water body by the Department of Ecology. As such, the City Council felt that encouraging additional growth in the watershed was not appropriate and therefore ADU’s are not allowed.

    When adopting the ADU regulations, the Council felt it important to require community notice and an opportunity to comment on the applications. Since adopting those standards in 2018, the Council recently asked us to review possible changes, including reducing the requirement for public comment and to allow the ADUs “by right” and through a standard building permit process. We are currently reviewing these options and will bring forward a recommendation in early 2022.

    Thank you again for your interest in ADUs.

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    In general, is the city controlling the building of condos on currently undeveloped parcels? Specifically, is the meadow adjacent to the Connelly Creek trail and the Hospice going to be sold to developers. If so, I am vehemently opposed. Enough all ready with the condos!!!

    KARIN GUNDERSON asked over 2 years ago

    Thanks for the question, it’s one that I’m sure is on the minds of many since we are seeing record numbers of new dwelling units under construction right now! The simple answer to your question is that we “control” development by ensuring land is available to accommodate our population growth projections and rules are in place to guide the development. 

    Now for the long answer- Per the Washington State Growth Management Act, the city is required to ensure we have adequate land supply for population and job growth. We determine how much land needs to be available for our future growth through the adoption of the Bellingham Comprehensive Plan and zoning regulations. Land in the city is zoned for residential (single and multi-family), commercial, industrial, institutional and public (parks) uses. The city does not differentiate between condos or multi-family dwelling units since regardless of ownership, the buildings follow the same development rules. Once a property is zoned for a specific use, the land owner may develop it based on adopted development standards such as height, number of units, setbacks and design. Beyond those rules, the city does not “control” when someone develops their land.

    The specific site you are referring to is within a Residential SINGLE zoning area (outside the scope of this project). Per the zoning table for that Residential Single area, there is a 15,000 sq. ft. minimum detached single family lot size (up to 5,000 sq. ft. minimum lot using the cluster attached provision). It is our understanding that the supposed winning buyer of the meadow adjacent to the Connelly Creek Nature Area is the Whatcom Hospice Foundation, however no plans for development have been submitted to the city for review. Thank you again for the question!

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    Why are there no large developers (Lamar,Toll Brothers,Pulte etc)not building in the Bellingham area?It seems to me that only a few local builders are allowed to develop here.These builders build home at a snails pace and the quality of new homes is sub par.

    Gabe and Debbie Komjathy asked over 2 years ago

    Thank you for your question and using our online portal. Your observation is accurate that most of the city’s vacant single-family zoned land is currently owned and developed by local developers. Bellingham and surrounding communities in Whatcom County have little experience with large development companies entering the local housing market. DB Johnson and DR Horton are the only large development companies that have constructed single-family subdivisions in Bellingham. 

     The city doesn’t have any antidotal evidence to answer the question ‘why’ these companies are not more prevalent. Based on our understanding of other markets across the nation, these development companies are developing large parcels of land to meet their annual proforma for residential construction. Bellingham has a limited number of large, single-ownership parcels of land that fit the business models of these large development companies and it is not known if Bellingham has the market to absorb their annual proforma.

    Here are additional resources to explore City of Bellingham housing statistics and current development:

    Housing Statistics Story Map

    Development Dashboard

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    Where can I find a map of the areas that are proposed as a "high density designation" ? If there is not yet a map developed, are there certain areas expected to be designated high density or are there areas will a specific current designation (e.g. RM-Multi or something else) that will be proposed to get a high density designation?

    hamster asked almost 3 years ago

    Thank you for your additional questions! Residential Multi (RM) areas will be based on the existing zoned density and include these ranges: 

    Low: No minimum to 7,201 sf/unit maximum (5 units/acre or less)

    Medium: 7,200 sf/unit minimum to 3,600 sf/unit maximum (6 - 12 units/acre)

    High: 3,599 sf/unit minimum to no maximum (greater than 12 units/acre)

    Maps and a proposed ordinance are still being drafted and will be available approximately two weeks prior to the May 20 Planning Commission public hearing.

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    Perhaps you can clarify the answer about height restrictions. If an area gets a high density designation, does that mean a developer could build higher than existing height restrictions? Or only that unit sizes would decrease to reach the higher densities?

    hamster asked about 3 years ago

    Thank you for your follow-up question. Subareas with current densities between 1,501 square feet per unit and 3,599 square feet per unit that were previously restricted to 35 feet could be allowed an increase in height if they develop at a density of 1,500 or greater. See BMC 20.32.040(G) for more information on RM height requirements. Under this proposal, subareas in the High range are proposed to have no density restriction.

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    Do any of the proposals being considered implicate changes in the height restrictions or methods of measuring heights that already exist in the code and neighborhood plans?

    hamster asked about 3 years ago

    Thank you for your question. The project doesn't change existing height restrictions or methods of measuring heights; however, areas that are in the High density range may see height increases due to density increases.

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    Can we start putting in sewer in areas that are not only septic, but are also zoned higher density to allow owners who are willing provide more housing and density? These areas like baker creek put out so much ecoli that they end up polluting Squalicum creek as well.

    DJ asked over 3 years ago

    Thank you for your comments and questions! The city generally does not install sewer infrastructure prior to development, which means that a developer would pay for and install this infrastructure as part of a development proposal. If you have additional questions regarding sewer service for a particular area of the city, please contact the public works department at 360-778-7900. If you would also like additional information on what the city is doing to protect our waterways, please contact the natural resources division at 360-778-7968.

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    I haven't reviewed all the material yet, and I look forward to that. Thanks for gathering all the info and making it accessible. You're helping to raise the bar for what's public knowledge in Bellingham. You can guarantee the Mayor that when more of us understand the concepts and terminology better, we will have better civic discourse. And you can predict we will make progress faster when we're having well-informed participants in our discourse, looking for harmony or at least for what resonates in a pleasant, considerate way. My question involves terminology: Can we please invent or choose words to replace a few terms that cause disharmony? For example, single-family zoning triggers fights on all sides, and single-family is a complete misnomer, regardless of how often it's used in the BMC. Fact is, most homes (but not all) are occupied by one family, including all the homes in a multi-home apartment building. Instead of single-family homes, maybe try calling them one-family-buildings or something more elegant than one-family structure. Most of us acknowledge that living in a one-family building is a option and a privilege available only to (usually) those of us who can afford it (or who could afford it when detached homes in a nice, walkable Bham neighborhood cost only three or four times your annual income). There are other terms that could be updated or made more clear, but I thought I'd start at one of the most disharmonious, outdated, planner terms. As a minor improvement, you could start by encouraging us all to say "detached homes" when our meaning does not include attached homes? Third question, is there a dialogue inside City Hall about what using which planning terminology to use, and if so, can I be part of that? I have thoughts but I'm not an expert - maybe it would help to call in the neologists :-)

    PKSchissler asked over 3 years ago

    Thank you for your comments and questions! We agree, it is very important to have a common understanding of words and terms! It is likely that some planning terms will be explored as the city moves through several up-coming projects. For example, the RM project will evaluate whether to allow more innovative housing types, such as those found in the Infill Housing Toolkit, in more RM zones. The Family definition project will evaluate changes to this definition to provide more flexibility for diverse families and living situations. Both projects will include Planning Commission and City Council public hearings and opportunities for additional public input. If you would like to receive updates on the RM project, please email RMproject@cob.org. For the Family definition, please send an email to familydefinition@cob.org.

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    It would be a good idea, in my opinion, that areas where medium density is allowed, that there could be an applicant's opportunity to present a high density solution. In this process they would show the planning commission, and the director why, based on specific lot conditions, location, etc. this would be a good fit for a higher density. It may have to go through a conditional use or similar process but would the less process the better to get an allowance for this type of proposal.

    over 3 years ago

    Thank you for your comments! The idea with the ranged zoning component of the project is that subareas would be assigned High, Medium or Low density ranges that are comparable with the current maximums that are identified in the zoning tables. We are considering a density bonus system for those RM areas that would be designated Medium, which aligns with the thoughts that you have above. It’s tentative at this point, as we are still evaluating the bonus system and whether areas that are now considered Medium to High would be Medium or High.

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    In order to help the city achieve a greater density, as desired and per the Comp Plan, I think the unit density for a site should be determined based on how many parking, transit, bike opportunities are available to a specific site. There are lots where we can get two levels of parking and this will allow for quite a bit greater density for the site and a better return on investment for the project. This will also allow for a greater mix of unit make-up (studio, 1 - 4 bed, etc.). There are already limits on height, lot coverage, open/usable space, etc. Would the city consider this for all multifamily zones?

    over 3 years ago

    Thank you for your comments and questions! Ranged densities and a potential bonus system are being evaluated with the project. The High Comp Plan range currently does not have maximum densities, so if the RM project moves forward under that assumption, factors such as those you describe above (development regulations and design standards) are what would ultimately determine the density. Again, we are still evaluating all of the options and the proposal may change as it moves through the process.