By Seth Stevens
City officials kicked off a busy week as they begin to prepare for phase two of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start” plan. A COVID-19 related press briefing from Whatcom County’s Health Department, and a Bellingham City Council meeting took place on Monday, May 4, and here are the three things you need to know about this week’s city news.
Whatcom County Health Department COVID-19 Press Briefing
Whatcom County Health Department hosted a COVID-19 Press Briefing on May 4, in response to Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start” plan, which is a four-phased approach to safely reopen the state.
Whatcom County Health Department Director Erika Lautenbach, expressed the need for continued vigilance when it comes to social distancing measures and preventing the spread of COVID-19.
After citing an observed change in the public’s behaviors following the loosening of restrictions, Lautenbach pleaded for everyone to stick to strict social distancing guidelines. Wear a mask when you go in public, and don’t see your friends or neighbors, no matter how much you miss them.
Lautenbach also gave an update on Whatcom County’s testing capacity. “About 2,400 specimens can be collected each week, with capacity to run tests on about 10 times as many specimens weekly as we are now.” This is partially due to asymptomatic cases still not being widely tested in Whatcom County by many physicians.
Whatcom County Health Department has been working on creating a Public Health Advisory Board Task Force. Lautenbach announced that this task force had received 164 applications from members of the community that wanted to be a part of it. If approved by the Health Board, this task force will begin meeting by next week.
Small Business Relief Could Be Coming
Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood mentioned that potential small business relief may be in the works at the City Council meeting.
“We are doing a lot of work trying to develop a framework that will support our communities with Federal CARE dollars,” Fleetwood said. According to Fleetwood, the City of Bellingham will be receiving $2.7 million for COVID-19 related expenses.
Fleetwood continued by stating, “We’re anticipating creating a small business assistance program.”
Although Fleetwood did not go into any details about what that small business assistance program would entail, he explained that more information on this would be coming soon.
Public Hearing for Emergency Ordinance
On Monday, May 4, Bellingham City Council held a public hearing in regard to the emergency ordinance imposing a moratorium on the processing of applications for detached, single-family development in multi-family zones that was approved on March 9.
This emergency ordinance puts a halt on the application process for single-family home development permits in areas that are zoned for apartments, duplexes and other various forms of multi-family housing.
According to the ordinance, the main goal of this moratorium is to “ensure land designated for multi-family development will be preserved and utilized at appropriate densities.” As opposed to single-family homes taking up the already limited land, that could be used for multi-unit residences.
At the public hearing, City of Bellingham’s Development Services Manager Kurt Nabbefeld stated, “Allowing low density, single-family building to occur in zones intended for higher density limits the amount of land available for housing, thereby exacerbating our housing shortage.”
Nabbefeld explained that since 2016, single-family development has consumed 3.5 times more land per unit than multi-family development in areas zoned for multi-family development.
Amongst the many people requesting that the council terminate this ordinance is Washington House of Representatives District 42 candidate, Jennifer Sefzik who attended the meeting to voice her concerns.
“If the city were serious about addressing the issue of a housing crisis in Bellingham, I think there are some obvious steps that can be taken,” Sefzik said. Sefzik emphasized that the city should “stop attacking landlords,” and allow them to operate with limited government intrusion, in order to stop landlords from moving to areas that are more landlord friendly.
City of Bellingham Planning and Community Development Director Rick Sepler expressed his concerns that single-family homes are taking up land that the Planning Division had allocated for multi-family units to help curb the shortage of affordable housing.
Sepler stated in response to a concerned citizen, “If you can't build multi-family on multi-family zoned land, where are you going to put it?”
The public hearing that was deemed “necessary and routine,” had to happen within 60 days following its approval, as mandated by State law (RCW 36.70A.390.)
The city council decided to leave this ordinance as written, leaving it in effect until March 9, 2021.
You can watch a recording of the Bellingham City Council meeting here
You can watch a recording of the Whatcom County Health Department Press Briefing here