Four years after controversy, city seeks to relax ADU rules

People who spoke at a public hearing on September 22 gave the Bellingham Planning Commission no reason to change course as city leaders prepare to ease rules governing small single-family homes on residential lots known as “secondary suites”. Several people who testified at the hearing called on the city to go even further with proposed rule changes that would make it easier to locate and build ADUs.

Developers and some other people who spoke at the hearing applauded the proposed changes, including reducing off-street parking requirements and relaxing size restrictions and design standards.

Dan Welch of Bellingham architecture firm Bundle Design Studio said he was glad the proposed changes no longer give neighbors within 500ft of an ADU the opportunity to comment on the project before planning permission is applied for.

“It’s just been a huge waste of time for clients, us as a design company, and then also city staff,” Welch said.

He said his company rarely receives public comment on ADUs anyway. Meanwhile, city officials said complaints about the type of housing were rare, even though the number of annual requests rose from seven to about 50, after the city council in 2018 approved isolated ADUs in entire city except for the Lake Whatcom watershed.

The 2018 rule change was met with strong opposition at the time. Groups with slogans such as “Don’t Ballardize Bellingham” said the detached ADUs would undermine the character of the city. While that sentiment may have accounted for about half of the public comments to the city half a decade ago, any remaining critics of the ADU were absent from last week’s Planning Commission hearing.

As Derek Long of the Whatcom Housing Alliance said at the hearing, “The sky hasn’t fallen on us”.

In a nod to criticism of the ADU, the 2018 City Council required homes with individual ADUs to be owner-occupied, meaning the main house and accessory unit could not be rented out every day. of them. City staff proposes to keep this requirement in place in single-family residential areas, while removing the owner-occupant requirement in multi-family areas.

Some participants in the public hearing felt that the owner requirement should be removed altogether. Jack Wellman, a resident of the Sehome neighborhood, said he discriminated against tenants.

“I believe that all residents, regardless of ability or desire to build a home, should be able to live in all parts of our city,” Wellman said. “I think ADUs are a great way to work towards that goal.”

Opinions on owner occupancy, however, were mixed.

Wendy Scherrer, chair of the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association‘s housing committee, helped the planning department draft the 2018 rules. She told the Planning Commission that she supports owner-occupancy as a way to prevent profit-seeking speculators from buying single-family homes.

City officials see ADUs as a way to increase Bellingham’s housing stock, although it is unclear whether the recent proliferation of individual housing units has eased the community‘s affordability crisis. In 2021, the City Council asked planning staff to incorporate affordability requirements into revisions currently under consideration, but the changes proposed by staff do not include such measures.

Planning Director Blake Lyon told the Planning Commission that city leaders would have to define what they meant by “affordable” before they could make it part of city code.

A full account of proposed changes to the UDA can be found along with further information on the Planning Commission meeting of September 22 at

The commission will continue to collect public comment on the ADUs by emailing [email protected] until October 25. Commissioners plan to offer a recommendation to city council at their Oct. 27 meeting. The board will hold its own public hearing on the ADU rule changes in the coming months before making a final decision.

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