Jean Hamilton, long-time Sehome Neighborhood Board Member, is retiring from the Board this month. Before leaving, she gave us a summary of her time on the board and offered her insights on its greatest accomplishments and some of its most significant challenges.
Jean joined Sehome in 1978, when she and her husband moved into a brand new home on Mason St., just a few steps from the shadow of the Sehome Hill Arboretum. Jean became affiliated with the Sehome Neighborhood Association (SNA) as a result of the Olympic Pipeline Explosion in 1999. The explosion occurred just off Whatcom Creek, caused almost $60 million in damages and killed three people. This tragedy had many ripple effects, one of them being the creation of neighborhood plans for disaster preparedness. Jean became a block captain as part of the SNA plan.
Jean officially joined the SNA Board in 2009, first serving as Secretary, eventually becoming President, and finally being Secretary again. She is especially proud of three large projects that the SNA was involved in during her time on the Board.
The first is the creation of the Samish Way Urban Village Plan. Samish Way is the former Highway 99 that used to serve as the primary north-south corridor along the Pacific coastline. This history is reflected in the many motels, gas stations and fast food restaurants crowded into a few short blocks. In the early 2000’s, several of those motels became largely unmanaged, and rooms were rented indiscriminately. This contributed to an increase in crime that culminated in a murder in 2013. Various organizations and citizen groups (including the SNA, the York Neighborhood Association and a group of Western Washington University (WWU) students) came together to propose changes to the area. They aimed to increase public safety and enhance community cohesion. The Samish Way Urban Village Plan is the result of those efforts. Jean credits another former SNA president, Alan Matsumoto, with much of the groundwork that made this development project possible.
The second project is the institution of rental property licensing in 2015, i.e. the City of Bellingham Rental Registration and Safety Inspection Program (RR&SIP). Prior to licensinve, Bellingham landlords faced notoriously ineffective oversight, dependent on tenants first filing official complaints. In the decade before rental licensing began, there were a series of fires in rental properties in Bellingham. While no one was killed, multiple renters were displaced. In the case of several of those fires, complaints had been made, but no significant changes occurred. Unsurprisingly, creating the RR&SIP was quite difficult and faced serious resistance. Jean points to former Sehome resident Harriet Spanel and former SNA President Charlie Dyer as crucial forces in ushering this program into existence.
Unfortunately, Jean worries that the program does not protect renters as well as she initially believed. For example, rental property fires have continued to occur in Bellingham since the licensing program began. Additionally, many rental properties continue to be obviously poorly maintained. This is an especially important problem in Sehome, as almost half of our properties are now rental properties, and that proportion is increasing. Jean continues to hope, however, that the RR&SIP might be amended and made more effective.
The third project is the set of parking restrictions that now limit non-residents’ ability to park on Sehome’s residential streets. Due to Sehome’s proximity to WWU, students used to commonly drive to campus, park on the Sehome side of the Sehome Hill Arboretum and walk to their classes, leaving their cars for many hours. Sehome residents routinely faced challenges in finding street parking close to their homes. The SNA worked with the city, and now, the enacted parking restrictions have made that a problem of the past!
Jean says that she has loved being on the SNA Board. It has given her multiple opportunities to engage with her neighbors and fostered a greater sense of community and connection among Sehome residents. She has also deeply enjoyed being able to advocate on behalf of her neighbors, although she has also faced a few surprises. On Sunday, October 13th 2013, she received a call from a reporter with the Bellingham Herald. The reporter asked for her thoughts, as SNA President, about the student riot that had taken place the previous night just blocks from her home. Jean knew nothing about any riot, but she had a ready response: “We love our students!” Beyond that, she was unwilling to speculate.
It turned out that several hundred young people, including many WWU students, had turned a rowdy party into an opportunity to damage property, which then escalated into a serious confrontation with Bellingham police. The group only dispersed after police used tear gas and flash grenades. Jean was later asked by the Bellingham Mayor’s office to speak about the problem. She used the opportunity to point out that a group of WWU students got together the next day to clean up the street, and that most students clearly condemned the reckless behavior. Jean and her husband chose their Mason Street home partly because of its proximity to WWU, and she deeply values the inclusion of WWU students among her neighbors.
As a final note, Jean points out that it tends to be problems that lead people to get involved in their neighborhood associations. In the case of the Samish Village Urban Development Project, people got involved because they were worried about urban blight and crime. In the case of the rental licensing program, people were concerned for their neighbors’ well-being, as well as unhappy with the eyesores that rental properties sometime became. In the case of parking restrictions, people were tired of parking a block away from their homes. In each of those cases, the SNA was able to contribute to real efforts to solve or mitigate those very real problems. There’s no reason to think similar contributions can’t be made going forward.
Jean’s retirement leaves a significant gap in the SNA Board membership. She has been happy and proud to have been an SNA Board member. Her participation has led to her being more connected to her neighbors and feeling a greater sense of community. She hopes you’ll consider joining – now’s the time!