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Bellingham council adopts state ADU, drug laws

City still requires ADU owners to live on site

More accessory dwelling units may be built in Happy Valley and other Bellingham neighborhoods
More accessory dwelling units may be built in Happy Valley and other Bellingham neighborhoods
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

The City of Bellingham will adopt new state laws easing restrictions on accessory dwelling units and criminalizing drug use and possession — with one notable difference in the ADU rules.

The city council voted 6–1 Monday, July 24, to incorporate new regulations passed by the state Legislature in April that encourage construction of ADUs as a way to increase affordable housing stock. 

Council had been on a similar path early this year, developing new rules for the housing type, which includes attached apartments and detached cottages on single-family lots. But the Legislature beat them to the punch, with rules that are more permissive than those being debated in Bellingham City Hall.

The state law requires cities to allow up to two ADUs on a residential lot and allows for an ADU to be sold separately from the main house on a lot, as a condominium, with the intent of expanding affordable home ownership options. 

City officials were looking to limit properties to just one ADU, up to 20 feet high and 800 square feet in size. The new state law will allow ADUs up to 24 feet high and 1,000 square feet.

The council voted to keep one of the city’s preferred restrictions in place for now: If an ADU is built on land zoned for single-family homes, then the property owner must live on-site. State law has no such owner-occupancy requirement.

Dan Hammill cast the lone “no” vote on the council because he disagreed with the owner-occupancy requirement.

“I think the state got it right,” Hammill said. “This is the only housing type where we require the owner to be on-site. We don’t require this with duplexes, triplexes, apartment buildings or other rental properties.”

Council member Michael Lilliquist explained why he voted for owner occupancy on properties with ADUs in single-family neighborhoods.

“I’ve noticed a worrisome national trend, that more and more of our housing stock is owned as investment property,” he said. “We shouldn’t encourage investor ownership, we should look for ways small and large to encourage local ownership and resident ownership.”

About 23% of Bellingham’s approximately 19,000 single-family homes are rentals, according to figures provided by Planning Director Blake Lyon at a council committee meeting Monday afternoon. Of those — more than 4,000 residences in all — 602 are owned by people with out-of-state mailing addresses, Lyon said. Another 655 are owned by people who live in Washington but outside Whatcom County.

As it stands, the council’s owner-occupancy requirement will end in January 2026, when the city must adopt the state law in its entirety.

In a separate action, the council adopted into city code the state law approved during a one-day special session on May 16, criminalizing drug use and making drug possession a gross misdemeanor with a maximum six-month jail sentence. 

The law gives drug offenders the opportunity to have their charges dismissed if they substantially complete a treatment program. To bolster the bill’s treatment-first intent, it provides $63 million for “wraparound” programs such as housing, and education and employment services, to support individuals recovering from substance use disorder.

Council was required to adopt the state law for it to be enforceable in Bellingham Municipal Court. The vote was unanimous.

Before the vote, however, council member Kristina Michele Martens expressed a reservation about the new law. The city and other jurisdictions need to find ways to attract more case managers and social workers, she said, by paying them more.

“I just hope that the discussion of what we’re compensating the people doing the work on the front lines is going to come back to the forefront,” Martens said, “because it’s going to be, I imagine, an impending wave (of clients).”

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