Comp Plan Update: Working on the Environmental Element

Jon Quitslund

In recent weeks, Joni Mitchell’s catchy lyrics have been running in a loop at the back of my mind: “how it always seems to go / you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”  Doesn’t that just get you where you live?  Nevertheless, we ought to plan for a future brighter than today – earnest effort tinged with irony.

On Thursday, September 24th, the Planning Commission will continue work on the Environmental element, responding to changes proposed by the drafting committee and discussing a few topics on which the committee hasn’t yet proposed language for the Plan.

There’s other important business on the agenda; the Update work is scheduled between 7:40 and 8:40.  Public comment on the Update will be heard before and after those times.

I’m writing now about our work in progress because I’ll be traveling for a couple of weeks from the end of the month until mid-October, and there’s a lot to do before we hit the road – destination, the Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks, with sightseeing along the way there and back.

As a separate entity, the Environmental element was new in the 2004 revision of the Comp Plan; parts of it originated in the Land Use element of the 1994 Plan.  Structurally, it’s a solid foundation, and we’ve changed only a few Goal statements, while adding specifics to the Policies.

I think the citizens of Bainbridge Island are generally, and sometimes acutely, aware of new stresses upon and within our natural environment.  The recommendations for new language respond to those circumstances.  The page-long introductory statement from 2004 includes this sentence: “As our Island grows and develops, continued protection of varied open space areas and environmentally sensitive landscape is necessary to maintain the quality of life that is currently enjoyed on Bainbridge Island.”

That statement is good, as far as it goes.  The Planning Commission will consider adding this: “Additionally, the unpredictable cumulative impacts of climate change in our region justify appeals to the Precautionary Principle.  Climate change may require that the areas we protect and the approaches we use to achieve our goals and policies will change.”

(Here is a definition of the precautionary principle: “An approach to risk management, stating that if an activity carries a threat of causing serious harm to the public or to the environment, the burden of proof that it should not be limited or prohibited falls on proponents of the activity.”)

Observed and anticipated impacts of climate change are mentioned many times in the recommended changes to the Environmental element, and they will be mentioned elsewhere in the Plan, largely thanks to the work of EcoAdapt, a local consulting firm headed by Lara Hansen.  (Lara and EcoAdapt are under contract to produce a Climate Impact Assessment for Bainbridge Island.)

The intent of many changes in the goals and policies is to make both citizens and City authorities less reactive, more pro-active in support of the community’s interests.  We must all bear in mind, however, that the Comprehensive Plan will only be as good as the Municipal Code, ordinances, and resolutions that implement the Plan.  And it’s my great hope that enlightened self-interest and citizen initiatives will stay out in front of what’s required by law.

The Planning Commission will be asked to give direction on a few matters that are not yet covered in the revised draft.  Also, there’s a substantial part of the 2004 version, dealing with a Greenways Plan, that has been tagged for review later, when we study non-motorized transportation planning in the Transportation Element.

The parts of the Environmental element of greatest interest to me pertain to agriculture (i. e., farm lands and farming) and the many parts of Bainbridge Island that remain forested, more or less in a natural state.

Farming, along with kitchen gardens and community gardens, is reviving and coming into some prominence within the culture of Bainbridge Island.  “No farms, no food!”  And although we have to rely on industrial agriculture and big-business suppliers for much that we eat, local and small-scale producers add quality to our diets and strength to our social fabric.

Over the long term, though, farming won’t flourish here if we don’t plan and provide land for agricultural uses.  To quote a statement from the draft, under the heading of “Agricultural Lands”: “Agriculture is a vulnerable enterprise in any rapidly growing area.”

If you’re concerned about suburban-style sprawl and escalating prices, think about the impact of those trends on land that is now devoted to farming, or could be if the cost of purchase or lease were compatible with a farmer’s income.  Further, in my view, open space devoted to crops or pasture is an invaluable antidote to the monotony and placelessness of subdivisions and big houses on small lots.

Open space and small lots devoted to agriculture contribute significantly to the Island-wide conservation strategy described (sketchily and optimistically) in the revised Land Use element.  Forest lands and significant trees, groves, and parks are even more important in this regard.

Two segments of the Environmental element are devoted to the Island’s forest resources.  The first, under the heading of “Forest Lands,” applies specifically to the dwindling number of “large tracts of second-growth timber” which, at least theoretically, exist to provide the property owners with commercially valuable timber and an opportunity to convert the land to non-forest uses.

In recent years, largely thanks to the Bainbridge Island Land Trust and the foresight of many property owners, many acres of forest have been preserved.  Still, clearing and development have taken place that I (and other watchdogs more vigilant than I have been) consider reckless and wasteful.  And most of the time it’s ‘all perfectly legal.’

In several parts of the Municipal Code, the regulations relating to trees and forests are quite elaborate.  For the most part, what’s required, permitted, and prohibited is spelled out clearly, and planners know very well what part of the Code applies in a specific instance.

However, the several parts of the Code are not, as a whole, coherent.  “How could they be?” you might ask.  Well, they could be better, and the Comp Plan update can point in that direction, to be more responsive to the need for balance and compatibility between the pressures for development and conservation.

Under the heading of “Forest Lands,” a descriptive paragraph states that as of August this year, “529.34 acres were classified as timberlands by the Kitsap County Tax Assessor.”  That’s down from 620 acres in 2004.  The Planning Commission will consider adding to that descriptive paragraph: “These forest lands, together with tracts that are protected by conservancy agreements and other privately owned forested acres that may not be classified as timberlands, have immeasurable value within the Island-wide conservation strategy.”

The Goal statement (EN-23) has been revised by the drafting committee to read as follows: “Encourage the retention of forest land and multiple-aged forests, since healthy forests provide many ecological benefits to all forms of life on the Island.”  The policies linked to that goal emphasize stewardship, selective harvest, protection of critical areas, and (when land is converted from forest use) compact development that limits the extent of clearing and soil disturbance.

Several more policies are proposed under the heading of “Community Forests and Trees.”  Consider this revision of language from the 2004 Plan: “The community forests on Bainbridge Island are comprised of the street tree system in the urban center, trees in parks and on other public lands, and trees and forested areas on private properties throughout the Island.  Bainbridge Island’s urban and rural forests have historically been a source of community identity and civic pride.  Trees and forested areas are essential to the Island-wide conservation strategy.”

The 2004 Plan included this statement: “The Community Forestry commission should be supported and maintained to provide leadership in community outreach.”  As it happened, a few years ago, after the production of a Community Forest Management Plan (2006) and a Best Management Practices Manual (2007, 2010), a quarrel developed over Municipal Code regulations and the Forestry commission disbanded.

Times have changed, and the Planning Commission will consider this policy statement (EN 24.4): “A community-wide program to educate Island residents about the functions and values of trees should be put into effect.  The City should consider partnering with the Bainbridge Island Land Trust and re-establishing a Community Forestry Commission.”

The agenda also calls for a review of public comment on the Economic element that was received during a workshop discussion on July 29.  Revision of that element will be our next big challenge.  I’ll miss the Planning Commission meeting on October 8, but I’ll be back in time for a meeting on October 15.

Stay tuned.

Posted in Climate Change, Community, Comprehensive Plan, Environment, Farms, Long range planning, Parks, Place, Stewardship | Tagged | Comments Off

Comp Plan Update: “Completion” of the Land Use Element

Jon Quitslund

At the August 13 meeting, the Planning Commission agenda included an all-but-final review of the Land Use element, which has been through several stages of revision.  The meeting was sparsely attended (the crowd gathered nearby for the ‘Farm to Table’ spread offered by Friends of the Farms were surely better served) and nothing momentous happened in the Council chambers, but the Commissioners and City staff did their diligent best with some nit-picky details, and now we can move on to the Environmental element.

Here are some wrapping-up comments on the Land Use element, both on what it contains and on what remains to be done.

The Land Use element establishes a foundation for the Comprehensive Plan as a whole.  Several goals and policies are introduced there that will be more extensively handled in other elements (in the Environmental, Economic, and Water Resources elements, for example).

Working with the text of the 2004 Comp Plan, we did a good deal of trimming and reorganizing.  In the process, and not only in the most recent meeting, we encountered vehement objections from citizens who suspect that any change in the Comp Plan is likely to be for the worse.

On the contrary, I believe that in the revised Land Use element we have clarified and improved, considerably, the presentation of  proactive Goals and Policies.  Effective implementation of the policies through ordinances that revise the Municipal Code won’t be easy, but the new Plan will provide clearer pathways than we have had in the past.

Major improvements appear in the first five Goals and the associated Policies (pp. 7 to 13 in the current draft).  These are not all new; some have been brought to the front from the back pages of the 2004 Plan.  Together, they constitute an Island-Wide Land Use Strategy, and they modify the current strategy that sought to place 50% of new development in Winslow, 5% in the three Neighborhood Service Centers (primarily in Lynwood), and 45% dispersed elsewhere in the Open Space Residential zones.

The next segment (LU-6 through LU-12, pp. 14-18) carries the heading General Land Use: it further articulates the strategy and relates it to the GMA and Kitsap Regional Planning Council predictions of our population growth between 2010 and 2036.

The Island’s population in 2010 was 23,025; the estimated increase is 5,635 persons.  That number (24.5% over the 2010 census figure) is sometimes referred to as a “target,” and more accurately as an “allocation” – the share of estimated regional growth that we are obligated to plan for.

It has been established that without changes to current zoning regulations, Bainbridge Island has more than enough undeveloped and underdeveloped land to accommodate that increase in population.

Do we need to institute “pro-growth” policies, to “build so that they will come”?  Some people say that’s the long-standing Planning Department policy, and they deplore it.  They want the Comp Plan, in this update, to stop growth, or at least place stringent constraints on it.

I don’t see much wisdom, or even common sense, in the “no-growth” attitude, so long as we have property owners, architects, and builders who want to add something of value to the existing housing stock.  The cornerstone of land use regulations is that property owners have rights to the use (including development and sale) of their land, within the limits set by the applicable state and local regulations.  It’s this basic legal principle, and not an agenda that favors unlimited growth, that guides our planning staff and the Planning Commission.

I suppose I am, within limits, “pro-growth,” but more than that, I’m “pro-planning”: I’m wary of unrestrained market forces and profit motives.  And I agree with those who argue that development must be constrained by policies that conserve our natural resources and protect our community’s quality of life.

We need to plan for growth in our population; it’s happening all around us, and I think that (barring some regional disaster) growth in the next twenty years may outpace the current estimates.  We need to plan for turnover and flux: births, deaths, people moving here or moving away for all sorts of personal reasons.  I hope Bainbridge Island will, in the years ahead, attract and accommodate a demographic mix that is more diverse – economically, culturally, and age-wise – than we are now.

At the same time that we plan for growth, we need to plan for conservation and stewardship of all our natural resources.  Maybe climate change, and all the stresses and uncertainties that come with it, will make people more aware of the long-range thinking and day-to-day mindfulness that our privileged place in Puget Sound requires of us.

I mentioned above that the current 50/5/45 ratio for allocating growth to Winslow and other parts of the Island has been set aside.  Although there is capacity for some increase in population within Winslow (the urban core and the broader area served by the city’s water and sewer systems), it would be unrealistic to expect 50% of future growth to take place there.  Also, Lynwood Center is close to its capacity for residential development, and as things now stand, Rolling Bay and Island Center don’t have much capacity.

The new strategy is less Winslow-centric, and it responds to an emerging interest in clustering residential and small-scale commercial development in several parts of the Island, not only in the established NSC and Business/Industrial districts but in other “nodes” such as Port Madison and Fort Ward.

The strategy is introduced in Goal LU-1 as a long-term and Island-wide plan to combine, or to balance, conservation and development.  Can we do this?  It’s not impossible, but it will be difficult.  We don’t have the necessary regulations in place; in a series of large and small endeavors, the community’s political will is going to be tested in the years to come.  Regulations and sub-area plans aren’t all that will be needed.

Goal LU-2 reads, “Conserve the Island’s ecosystems and the green, natural, open character of its landscape.”  Island-wide, a large percentage of the Island’s undeveloped and under-developed acreage is in areas designated, in this goal statement and the policies under it, for conservation.  Policy LU 2.1 begins, “Preserve the open space area outside Centers through a land use pattern which will enhance the character of the area”; Policy LU 2.2 begins, “Protect open space, critical areas, and agricultural uses through public and private initiatives . . .”

These policies apply to areas zoned for low-density residential development (R-2, R-1, R-0.4), and some lots are constrained, even impractical to build upon, because of critical area conditions.  It’s appropriate, therefore, that conservation should be a priority in these areas, and the space cleared for housing should be limited.  But this will not happen consistently without more stringent regulations.

* * *

The Planning Commission will move on now to work on the Environmental element, and will return later to add to the Land Use element.  For example, we haven’t yet given adequate attention to Goal and Policy statements that respond to specific impacts of climate change.

Policy LU 8.1 acknowledges “that the carrying capacity of the Island is not known,” and this is a somewhat embarrassing admission.  I expect that before we’re done with the update, more information and some educated guesses can be brought to bear on this issue.

It has been proposed that the City’s parks, which exist (as a permitted use) on land zoned Residential, be re-classified through creation of a Park zone.  The benefits and possible drawbacks of this re-classification have yet to be fully explored, and no language that might be added to the Land Use element has been presented for discussion.

As I understand this matter, the re-zoning of land under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Recreation District would involve the Planning Commission and the Council in the creation and approval of an Ordinance, but it seems that the first step would be a Comprehensive Plan amendment.

Stay tuned for these and other developments.

Posted in Climate Change, Community, Comprehensive Plan, Long range planning | Comments Off

The Update: What’s Happening in July

Jon Quitslund

Here’s another sketchy account of developments in the month ahead pertaining to the Comprehensive Plan.  There will be two Planning Commission meetings, on the 9th and the 23rd, and two Workshops for public comment: on the Environmental element, Wednesday July 22nd, and on the Economic element, Wednesday July 29 (both in City Hall, 6:30 to 8:30 p. m.).

I’ll comment on the workshops first, then on this month’s Planning Commission meetings.

Public participation in the Workshop sessions can make a big difference in how effectively each of the Comp Plan elements is revised.  We are still working to incorporate the ideas of citizens in the updated Land Use element.  By the end of July the drafting group will shift their focus to the Environmental and Economic elements, and if we can keep to the schedule, the public discussion and Planning Commission decisions on those parts of the Plan will be completed in September.

If you want to participate in either (or both) of the Workshops later in July, there are a few things to bear in mind.  First, read what’s in the current Plan, which is readily available on the Navigate Bainbridge part of the COBI website and can be downloaded.  The principal text of the Environmental element is 24 pp., and the Economic element is 20 pp.

Are the goals and policies in these parts of the current Plan fundamentally sound?  What is out of date?  What should be added, given your view of our current circumstances and the changes, in the foreseeable future, that we should either guard against or bring into being?

If there are passages in the current Plan that strike you as misguided or inadequate, the Workshops offer opportunities to blow the whistle.  Also, if you find that policies set out in the Plan are not being implemented, now is the time to say so, because implementation through ordinances and the Municipal Code will be crucial to the Update’s success.

You are urged, but not required, to put your thoughts in writing and send them to the Planning Department in advance of the Workshop meeting.  Check the Navigate Bainbridge page on the COBI website for more details.  Your written comments will be forwarded to Planning Commissioners.

There are reasons for looking at the Environmental and Economic elements in tandem and coordinating both of them with the Land Use element, which may be revisited and further revised as we go forward.  Within the Land Use goals and policies, there’s an obvious tension between development, in all its forms, and conservation, both of our essential and limited resources and the quality of life that accompanies our sense of place.

Why is “development” a bad word – a word that makes people wince?  It’s because we’ve seen development (i. e., growth) happen without effective conservation strategies.  And development will happen here; it’s all around the region and we can neither run nor hide.  But we can insist on conservation strategies that manage growth; we must.

For a long time, conservation (of water, land, energy, forests, wildlife) was a good idea and a private virtue, but not a focus of public policy, community standards and regulations.  Now, with development pressures increasing, we’re being tested: is there political will and popular support for a break away from ineffective laissez faire attitudes?

If there’s tension between conservation and development, a similar tension is evident when you ponder the agendas of “Environment” and “Economy” together.  Obviously, they are apt to be in conflict, and some would argue that the pursuit of economic gain is bound to harm the natural environment, so environmental protection and the precautionary principle must come first.

I tend to prefer both/and to either/or thinking, seeking a balance between the parts of a complex whole that exist in dynamic tension.  But that’s putting things too abstractly.  Coming down to earth, getting down to cases, let’s try to imagine an economy that can thrive within environmentally determined limits, and let’s recognize the economic potential of a healthy environment.

*  * *

In the two meetings this month, the Planning Commission has lots of work to do in revision of the Land Use element.  I expect that in the first meeting, on the 9th, we’ll confirm some changes in policies related to the Neighborhood Service Centers, and preserve the Transfer of Development Rights program – presumably with recommendations that will increase its usefulness.  Plans for an island-wide Conservation Strategy will be discussed: that’s going to be important, and it will form the basis for draft language that will be closely considered on July 23rd.

The agenda for July 9th also includes consideration of six distinct applications for Comp Plan amendments, and two other topics in response to proposals that were submitted during the Workshop on May 7th: policies in the High School Road district, and policies related to local agriculture and food security.

The drafting group will be working on revised language and policy directives for consideration by the Commission and public comment on July 23rd.  It’s been noted that we haven’t yet found ways to introduce responses to climate change in our Land Use policies.  Stay tuned.

Posted in Climate Change, Community, Comprehensive Plan, Economy, Environment, Farms, Finite Natural Resources, Food, Long range planning, Place | Comments Off

Transfer of Development Rights in the Comp Plan Update

Jon Quitslund

I’ve composed this post in order to organize my thoughts on a topic that will be discussed in the next Planning Commission meeting – tomorrow night.  So this is not the usual after-the-fact report, or a long-range forecast, but a tipping of my hand, or a kind of overture to the Commission’s deliberations.

The Land Use element of the 2004 Comprehensive Plan refers in several places to a program that permits the transfer of development rights from sending areas, where development could adversely affect critical areas and aquifer recharge, to receiving areas where infrastructure and other factors favor development above the density permitted by base zoning.

As defined in our TDR program, ‘sending areas’ are the undeveloped or under-developed areas of open space, forests, and agricultural acreage, and ‘receiving areas’ are in Winslow and the Neighborhood Service Centers.

In the Final Report of the 2025 Growth Advisory Committee, the implementation of a proposed Island-wide conservation plan relies upon such transfers of development rights as a way to protect designated areas and promote compact development of new homes.

However, for a number of reasons, the TDR program has been a flop.  Can it be fixed, or should it be replaced by something else?  In 2006 and 2008, COBI commissioned two studies by a Seattle-based firm, Community Attributes.  I find valuable information and useful recommendations in the two reports, but looking at them now I’m left wondering if the obstacles to success with TDR procedures can, or should, be removed.

Right up front in the longer of the two reports (Transfer of Development Rights Program Review, 2006), in the ‘Summary of Findings’ on pp. 9-12, eight findings are stated and explained, and they do not say anything good about our program.  On p. 14, several ‘Keys to Success’ are described, and as it stands the program falls short in almost every respect.

The first of the key factors that would support a TDR program – “A strong real estate market in receiving zones; ideally, the demand for development rights outweighs supply” – is worth discussing.  We have had a strong real estate market in receiving zones, but purchasing or otherwise qualifying for an FAR bonus has been “more predictable, easier, and cheaper for developers,” as the report points out (p. 12; see also pp. 19-20).  Furthermore, I’m not aware of property owners in the sending area who want to sell their development rights, even though they are valued higher per unit than rights in the receiving area.

Another item from p. 14 (see also p. 3) is “A TDR bank to facilitate transactions.”   This strikes me as essential to any success, if we see any need and opportunities to purchase development rights.  Currently, as I understand it, the TDR program requires match-making and a transaction between a willing buyer and a willing seller; I wonder if any two such people have ever found each other.

A “bank” of some sort (it might not be specifically a ‘TDR bank’), or a special-purpose fund within COBI, could be funded from FAR bonus payments and/or other sources, to purchase development rights in areas where the conservation value of an undeveloped lot outweighs the costs and benefits entailed in full exercise of the right conferred by zoning.  I don’t think there will be many opportunities for such purchases, but a small fund could be a problem-solver.

Both the TDR program and the two reviews of its flaws are, in my view, relics of a by-gone time in City government, when the Council and the administrative staff, including the elected Mayor, competed for the high ground and defended their separate prerogatives, without much in the way of results.  In those years some good policy initiatives were never implemented because they lacked the support of a majority on the Council.  As a consequence of this dissention, the Planning staff were sometimes stuck holding the bag, administering imperfect regulations and ineffectual programs because attempts at problem-solving had not been endorsed by the Council.

It’s time to let by-gones be by-gones.  Right now I am cautiously optimistic that we will come through the Comprehensive Plan update with a Council and an administrative staff under the City Manager that will trust and empower one another.  Let’s hope we will also have a community that is broadly supportive of the Comp Plan’s goals and its implementation.

Although it is clear that a TDR program has not worked on Bainbridge Island, and I doubt that a modified program will work in the future on a scale that makes a real difference, there’s a good reason why efforts were made to understand the obstacles and overcome them.  The basic purpose of such a program – “to preserve wetlands, high vulnerability recharge areas, agricultural land and open space” – certainly motivates planning efforts here, and the stakes are higher now than they were a decade or two ago.

So if not by a TDR program, we need to find other ways to prioritize conservation in some parts of the Island and promote dense or compact development in other areas, so that property development and population growth, as they happen, can be managed with minimal negative impacts on our resources and quality of life.

* * *

The drafting group has done some work on a conservation strategy.  The Planning Commission will discuss that topic on June 25th, and probably return to it on July 9th.  Attention will be focused on the part of the Land Use element devoted to Residential Open Space (i. e., the part of the Island zoned R-0.4 or R-1; see LU-25 to LU-29 in the text now being reviewed).

In the current draft, LU-25 opens with this Goal statement: “Adopt a conservation strategy to preserve the open space area outside Winslow and the Neighborhood Service Centers through a land use pattern that enhances the character of the area – forested areas, meadows, farms, scenic and winding roads that support all forms of transportation – and the valuable functions the open space area serves on the Island (i. e., aquifer recharge, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation).”

That’s a solid foundation for policy statements, and in the pages that follow, the current Comp Plan includes a number of policies that the update will reaffirm and enhance.  I’ll try to keep up with the ongoing work in subsequent posts.  Stay tuned.

Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Environment, Farms, Finite Natural Resources, Housing, Island values, Parks, Place, Property Rights | Comments Off

Lines for the Summer Solstice, 2015

Jon Quitslund

Lines for the Summer Solstice, 2015

  • The sun stands still,
  • Our heads are spinning;
  • We’re in the middle of a long emergency.
  • O father sun, enlighten us.
  • The human heart is a dark place,
  • The human world, the Anthropocene,
  • Sclerotic.  The daily news
  • Calls us to account and moves on.  Can we
  • Turn back, look up, and mend our ways?
  • The universe – no, just our small part
  • Circling the sun – calls us to celebrate
  • On this momentous day, as ancient people
  • Did, time out of mind.
  • Let’s join hands in a circle,
  • Resolved to enter, with energy
  • And humility, the great turning.

I composed this poem to share with a small Sunday-morning group of friends who gather to reflect upon and discuss poems.  This is the first time I’ve offered one of my own.  It came together easily, like cream rising to the top of unpasteurized milk.

I don’t feel a need to explain all the echoes from my reading, but I want to acknowledge the inspiration of David Korten in my reference to “the great turning.”

And the poem will make more sense if I comment on two conspicuous words, “Anthropocene” and “Sclerotic.”

The term Anthropocene is discussed in depth by Elizabeth Kolbert in chapter 5 of her great book, The Sixth Extinction (2014), and there’s also a good Wikipedia discussion of the topic’s several facets.  As you may know, the earth’s history is measured in eras and epochs lasting thousands, even millions, of years.  The latest, the Holocene, began 11,700 years ago at the end of the last ice age, but geologists have begun using Anthropocene to acknowledge that in recent centuries earth’s dominant species, mankind, has had a profound and permanent effect on our planet’s geology as well as on its atmosphere and organic life.

“Sclerotic,” the other word that’s out of keeping with my poem’s simple style, echoes a passage in the philosopher E. M. Cioran’s classic book, History and Utopia (1960, English version,1998): “Suppose we put an end to such speculations [as the ancient idea of a Golden Age]: total stagnation would ensue. For we act only under the fascination of the impossible: which is to say that a society incapable of generating – and of dedicating itself to – a utopia is threatened with sclerosis and collapse.”  Globally, and especially in the United States, the sclerosis has reached an advanced stage.

I want to believe, however, that in our emergency, action “under the fascination of the impossible” is emerging.

Posted in Activism, Altruism, Climate Change, Community, Creativity, Cultural Change | Tagged , , | Comments Off

The Update: What’s Happening in June

Jon Quitslund

This will be a sketchy account, as brisk as I can make it, of activities related to the update process this month.  It will be a mix of information and opinion, meant to be useful to citizens who are following the process and may have something to contribute.

There are facts to face; we live within constraints.  For instance, there are only four weeks and a few spare days in a month, so it’s hard to fit in all the meetings and the other work that needs to be done.

The two regular meetings of the Planning Commission, on the 11th and the 25th, will each involve work on the Comp Plan.  On the 11th, we should finish a draft of the new Introduction and decide how to handle many aspects of the Land Use element.  On the 25th, we’ll continue discussion of Land Use policies. In between, on the 18th, there will be a program devoted to the Island’s aquifers and water supply: more on that below.

The process of reviewing, editing, and adding to the 2004 version of the Comprehensive Plan has proceeded deliberately and collaboratively.  Written and oral comments gathered in the early stages, plus testimony and written comments that are still coming in, are being taken into account.  Public comment on Land Use policies may be submitted through June 30th.

Joe Tovar, COBI’s consultant, who has the benefit of experience with several other Comp Plans, has a sharp eye for what’s needed, what’s extraneous, and what needs to be clarified.  He’s a good listener, even though some of what he hears from citizens is hostile or based on inadequate information.

In the draft of a new Introduction that will be discussed on June 11th, people will see some new language, articulating goals not only for Land Use policies, but for the Comp Plan as a whole.  Several people have expressed a concern that the familiar Five Overriding Principles are being compromised.  I think it will be clear from the Introduction as a whole, and what follows, that those principles will continue to guide the Plan.

{The agenda packet for the Planning Commission’s June 11th meeting is now on the City’s website, and the new Introduction (8 pp.) is on pp. 21 to 28 of the packet.  The Introductions from 1994 and 2004 are also in the packet; they will be retained as appendices.}

It’s been said several times that the City staff and the Planning Commission are involved in “watering down” the Comp Plan’s original Vision, Principles, and Goals.  On the contrary, most of what we’ve done so far has been distilling rather than watering down: removing out-dated information and verbiage, organizing and clarifying the most important contents of the current Plan.

The goal of this process is to make the new Plan more effective as an instrument of strategic planning across the whole range of the City’s responsibilities, and to make clear what will be required, in the near future, to implement the Plan with ordinances, capital projects, and regulations in the Municipal Code.

{For all the policy wonks out there who want to be well prepared for the Planning Commission’s deliberations (scheduled from 7 to 8:55 p. m. on June 11th), Jennifer Sutton’s memo (pp. 10-16 of the agenda packet) is packed with information on the matters to be decided.  It ends with a list of 33 propositions, designed for focused discussion and for ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers; if the Commissioners all do their homework we should, as a group, be able to get a lot done.}

One issue that calls for careful deliberation is the current strategy of allocating 50% of growth to the Winslow ‘study area’ (downtown plus the ‘frame,’ zoned for relatively high density development and served by City water and sewer systems), 5% to the three Neighborhood Service Centers, and 45% to all the rest of the island.

That strategy has worked well, and Winslow still has some capacity for growth, but not enough to absorb 50% of what’s expected in the next twenty years.  Also, as currently constituted, the NSC areas don’t have much capacity for residential growth.

So we need to plan carefully for growth outside of Winslow.  There’s no lack of capacity there, but haphazard development, regulated only by current zoning designations, would be instantly regrettable and would cast a long shadow over the Island’s future.

A major study completed in 2007, the Final Report of the Mayor’s 2025 Growth Advisory Committee, offers an analysis of the challenges we face and the choices available to us.  (Full disclosure: I was a member of that committee of volunteers.)  The report was shelved at the time by an indifferent City Council, but its recommendations are by no means out-dated now.

Here’s a sentence from page 1 of the Final Report: “The Committee recommends that the City immediately initiate a study to develop an Island-wide Open Space Conservation Plan that analyzes existing open space, identifies future opportunities and prioritizes the preservation of additional open space.”

The scope of such a conservation plan remains to be determined, but I expect all parties to agree that it’s necessary.  The Land Use element should include a description of the purposes it will serve.

* * *

You may have seen some publicity for A Community Conversation on Bainbridge Island’s Water Supply.  Here are some details.

This important meeting will take place on Thursday, June 18, at City Hall, beginning at 6:30 p. m. and scheduled to end at 8:00.

If you’re concerned (and who is not?) about the adequacy of Bainbridge Island’s water supply, currently and in years to come, this will be an occasion to voice your concerns and get answers to your questions.  By all means, come if you can, even if you’re not inclined to pose a question: chances are, what’s on your mind will be addressed in response to someone else.

The City has assembled a panel of eight people with expertise and a range of responsibilities pertaining to hydrology and aquifers, the standards that must be met to ensure that we have a supply of clean and safe water, and the performance data on Bainbridge Island’s water systems.

The U. S. Geological Survey, the E. P. A., the state Department of Ecology, and the Kitsap Public Health District will be represented.  Two people from Aspect Consulting, the firm that has been preparing an update of the U. S. G. S. study of our aquifers, will be present to describe the status of their work, which is a few months away from completion.  Two people from COBI – Cami Apfelbeck, who is responsible for the Groundwater Management Program; and Chuck Krumheuer, the manager for Operations and Maintenance – will also be participating.

I’m especially interested in what Cami Apfelbeck will have to say: the public has had too few occasions to hear explanations of the substantive and complicated information that’s available on our water supply and its relevance to estimates of the Island’s carrying capacity.  Obviously, this information has a bearing on current and future land use planning.

Most of the meeting will be devoted to Questions and Answers.  If possible, submit your questions in advance to .  Written questions can also be submitted during the meeting.

* * *

The Environmental and Economic elements will be next up for revision, and as before, there will be a “Workshop” session with the Planning Commission, with a request for comments on what’s valuable and what should be added to those elements.  July is a month with five Thursdays; I’m guessing that we’ll begin talking about the next two elements on either July 2nd or July 9th.

Citizens who wish to contribute to the Workshop discussion of these elements should read them in their current form and, if possible, provide written comments in advance of the meeting.

Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan | Comments Off

Comp Plan, Land Use Element Workshop, Before & After

Jon Quitslund

As sometimes happens, this post has been a long time in the works, subject to stalls and other calls on my time.  I’m writing now on the eve of yet another Planning Commission meeting, May 28th.  What happens then may be grist for another commentary.

* * *

The ‘Workshop’ session of the Planning Commission on May 7th was both encouraging and, for me at least, unsettling.  Writing now with hindsight, after some work with the drafting group and discussion in the Planning Commission meeting on May 14th, I feel better, but somewhat intimidated by the complexity of the work that has now begun in earnest.

Before I started writing this post, I imagined I would provide an account of comments received from citizens, getting into some specifics and indicating how the Planning Commission is proceeding.  I’ve decided to stop short of that.  Later, when we have a draft of the Land Use element, I may comment on how the revised text compares to the current one.  The drafting group has started by eliminating passages in the current Land Use element that are out of date; we’ve only begun the process of adding new ideas based on community input and discussion.

I think it will be most useful if, at this point, I offer some perspective on the public process and the contributions of many citizens that will be involved in the Comp Plan update in the months ahead.

There are several factors that can create obstacles as basic issues are addressed, and as we (City staff, Planning Commissioners and Council members, and concerned citizens) work together to craft a forward-looking Comprehensive Plan, plus a work plan that will implement it effectively, with new or revised provisions in the Municipal Code.

The many participants in the update will bring various assumptions, interests, and objectives to the table.  This diversity of viewpoints will complicate things, but it can be a source of strength, not discord, so long as there is tolerance and mutual respect among the parties.

Also, as we’ve seen already, different folks have different ways of describing the problems that need to be addressed.  Take the central issue, population growth.  I think everyone agrees that growth is problematic, or will be soon enough, but if you ask, “Who’s responsible?” and “What’s to be done about it?” you’ll get many responses and some deep disagreements.

How can we move from incoherence toward consensus?  Let’s be patient and methodical.  There are hot-button issues (aquifer capacity, for example) that are pertinent to land use policies, but will be dealt with later in the update, leading perhaps to changes in the rough draft of the Land Use element.  At this stage, I think we should consider a range ideas, settle some things, and in other places reach only tentative conclusions.

I want to address some of the disagreements that have arisen in response to the Growth Management Act and its requirement that Bainbridge Island, like other cities across the state, make plans to accommodate a certain amount of population growth over the next 20 years.

The estimate for growth on Bainbridge between 2014 and 2035 is 5,300 persons, and if the average household size is 2.5, that would be 2,120 households.  Are these mind-boggling numbers?  I don’t think so, taken in perspective.  The estimate for population growth in Kitsap County as a whole is 80,483.

I’ll discuss two assumptions about our Comp Plan and the update that I consider mistaken, tending to create obstacles to the fact-finding and clear thinking that the update project requires.  Then I’ll present a third assumption that seems to me more pragmatic and constructive.

1. Does the Growth Management Act impose a “quota” on us that should be resisted, because it will result in more population growth than we can handle?  No.

We are only required to plan for growth, to show through our work on the Comp Plan that our island can handle an estimated increase if it materializes over the next twenty years, and do so in a way that preserves, as best we can, our quality of life and the character of our community.

That’s a heavy obligation, but we had better take it on.  Many Islanders are convinced that the development we’ve seen since the creation of our first Comp Plan has not been effectively managed.  I see the planning process we’re embarked on now as Bainbridge Island’s last good chance to get things right.

2. Should we be planning for no growth at all, or for a very slow rate, in order to protect our limited and essential natural resources (ground water, forests and open space, low density residential areas)?  No, but with a concession: protection of our limited resources is absolutely essential, for our present population and for any future growth.

Maybe a majority of Islanders would be happy to see our population stay flat, or even decrease, but is there a plausible no growth scenario, a way to opt out of what happens elsewhere in our region?  I haven’t heard one yet, and I don’t see how, without another Great Recession, the pro-growth market forces can be contravened.

Under current zoning, we have enough undeveloped and under-developed land to accommodate a growing population: soon enough, the draft of an updated Land Use element will lay out the facts.  Could the City place a general moratorium on development, or down-zone to limit development on some properties?  I dare say these are not legally viable planning tools.

3. You will have noticed that, in response to pent-up demand, building is going on now in many parts of the Island.  It’s only reasonable to assume that commercial and residential development will continue over the next twenty years and beyond.  Let’s make the best of it: let’s have good design that is ‘low impact’ in every respect, that will contribute positively to its immediate neighborhood and the larger community.

The rate of growth on Bainbridge, and the kinds of houses that are built, have been market-driven for decades, and the market has been through ups and downs, responsive both to local conditions and to regional and national factors.  Now there’s a new elephant in the room: the cumulative effects of climate change in many parts of the U. S., leaving the Northwest relatively unscathed, are bound to have a cumulative effect on demand here.  One already hears talk of “climate refugees,” and I expect we’ll see wave after wave of them.

To the climate refugees from California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas, I’d like to say, “Learn to appreciate our grey skies and our rain, and do all you can to live within limits, even if you didn’t where you came from.  Adapt to the big trees around you, and enjoy the sun when you see it. We have seasons here, dark months and light, and a long growing season. Don’t try to change things to suit yourself; let the place change you.”

We can’t do much to control the rate at which property gets developed, but my work on the Planning Commission is driven by a belief that we can, to a considerable extent, control the kinds of new development that happens, and thereby influence the character of our community.

Climate change is only one aspect of the era stretching ahead of us that has been aptly called “the long emergency.”  Locally and regionally, our circumstances require us to be both daring and cautious in our planning, and in the regulatory measures we develop, both to manage what’s predictable and to limit the adverse effects of unpredictable events.

Our task within the update process must be to articulate goals and policies that will make it possible to protect our vital resources more effectively, and to distinguish between responsible land use and that which is ill-conceived and wasteful.

Posted in Climate Change, Community, Comprehensive Plan, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Housing, Island values, Long range planning, Place, Property Rights, Stewardship | Comments Off

“How many citizens really want to put Green into action?”

Jon Quitslund

Something I’ve been reading took me back to a comment that I cited in my previous post, and I’m prompted to put my thoughts in order in a short postscript.

Here’s the whole quotation from the compilation of comments recorded during the recent ‘Listening Sessions’ at City Hall: “We wondered if anyone has [an] idea how many citizens really want to put Green into action not just words. Private property rights are important to people too. People want to be green but not necessarily regulated.”

I don’t know who spoke words to this effect.  I can’t say for sure where the speaker was coming from: is the comment a negative reaction to the Green principles that so many are talking about, or does it express a sincere desire to know what most others want?

These sentences express attitudes that many people can take seriously, no matter where they stand ideologically.  Negative reactions to the simplicities of groupthink and a desire to ‘do the right thing’ coexist in our community, and may be mixed together in an individual’s thoughts and behavior.

The question that I excerpted to use as a title is important for all of us, whether we’ve traversed the tipping point and devoutly hope that more and more Islanders are ready to ‘go Green’ in earnest, or (on the other hand) we see Green advocates as preachy and impractical bores who ought to realize that most people just want to be left alone.

From my experience of the listening sessions and my cursory reading of the comments drawn from them, I would say that the majority of the participants are supportive of Green values, but are they ready to “walk the talk”?  And how representative were those small samplings of our diverse population?  As a community, we’re just beginning to get acquainted with views different from our own, and just beginning to come to grips with the challenges we face.

I trust that we’ll find out, in the course of this revision of the Comp Plan, how far people are willing to go toward a truly sustainable environment, economy, and social order.  We’ll have to make a concerted effort, though, to come to that understanding.  I see a risk that we’ll just discover differences of opinion and then drop back into our comfortable old positions.

You don’t have to read much of the current Comp Plan to realize that it’s already very Green, but as you must know, in the past we’ve done a good job of paying lip service to the Comp Plan’s principles, while shrugging off the burden of putting the hard propositions into practice; the letter of the law, which is what matters when push comes to shove, hasn’t prevented offences against its spirit.

Our short history as a city supports a cynical interpretation of the question, “How many people really want to put Green into action?”  But history is a cornucopia of surprises, and the big historical picture, beyond our shorelines, has been inviting us to wake up, smell the coffee!

The third sentence, “People want to be green but not necessarily regulated,” deserves to be mulled over carefully.  How much of being Green depends on regulation?  We need regulations to prevent bad things from happening (not that they always work that way, I’m sad to say), but does regulation promote good behavior?  Human nature being what it is among the regulators and the regulated, it depends.

I said in my previous post that we can’t regulate our way to a sustainable future, and I firmly believe that.  How about the old concept of “enlightened self-interest”?

Perhaps the most thought-provoking sentence in the comment I’ve been discussing is this: “Private property rights are important to people too.”  Yes, of course!  But how does “putting Green into action” impose upon property rights?  I guess we had a lesson on that subject during the long struggle over the SMP update, but I want to acknowledge that conflict in order to turn the page, to say that in the Comp Plan update we are on a different footing, trying to articulate community values that are not in conflict with individual interests, but support their flourishing over the long term.

As Kermit the frog sang long ago,** “It’s not easy being green,” but does the difficulty really have much to do with stringent regulations?  Granted, compliance with rules and regulations can be burdensome, but I don’t like to think that’s what adulthood and citizenship are all about.  What about a willingness to live within limits?

Living on an island, albeit one with a bridge at one end and a ferry terminal in the middle, we are encouraged by our geography to live within limits, and to delight in what’s available to us as tenants and stewards, not through property rights alone but for the common good.

I would like to think that liberals and conservatives could all enjoy a social contract that seeks to reconcile and harmonize individual rights and community values.  It will be difficult to achieve, for all our local circumstances, the kind of balance that’s the overarching goal of the Growth Management Act, but I believe Bainbridge Island today can find the talent, and the political will, equal to the task.

**1970 in fact, in a song by Joe Raposo that’s been covered many times and put to various uses (see Wikipedia, “Bein’ Green”).

Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Individuality, Island values, Long range planning, Place, Property Rights, Stewardship | Comments Off

Elements of the Comprehensive Plan: #1, Land Use

Jon Quitslund

The Comprehensive Plan update is now beginning in earnest, with a step by step analysis of the existing Elements and a thorough re-drafting of many of them.  The Land Use element is first in line, to be followed by the Environmental element.

Plans for this process have been set out by Joseph Tovar, the expert consultant who is under contract with COBI to manage the update.  His plans are being reviewed by the Planning Commission, and their recommendations will go to the City Council after the Commission’s meeting on April 9.

In the current Comp Plan, the Land Use Element opens with this sentence: “The Land Use Element and Environmental Element are at the heart of the Comprehensive Plan.”  To my way of thinking, that remains a true and useful statement – a good starting place.  Go a little further into the 38 pages (plus 5 pages of maps) that comprise the whole text, and you’ll see plenty that needs work.

Serving on the Planning Commission, I’ve had many occasions to consult the Land Use element and other portions of the Comp Plan.  It has always seemed to me a sound statement of the principles that should guide planning for the future of Bainbridge Island, and a good summary of the salient characteristics of our community: its identity as a physical place, and the qualities we most value in our lives here.

In this update, we’re not starting from scratch, but working to improve coherence, incorporate new information, and flag those places in the Comp Plan that are not adequately supported by implementing language in the Municipal Code.

However, now that the framework and all the details of the Comp Plan have been “unlocked,” so to speak, I’m reading the old text with new eyes, and I can see lots of room for improvement.

I quoted the first sentence of the Land Use element above, referring to Land Use in relation to the Environmental element.  Here’s what comes next: “Together they describe the balance between the distribution, location, preservation and protection of uses of land, including housing, commerce, light manufacturing, recreation, open spaces, natural resources, public utilities, public facilities, and other land uses necessary to plan for future growth in a manner that reflects the overall vision of the Comprehensive Plan.”

Is that comprehensive enough, and also clear enough for you?  That kind of sentence – fortunately, there aren’t a lot more just like it – makes me think of a wet paper bag full of grapefruit.  We can do better this time around.

The sentence I have quoted refers prominently to the idea of balance, which is a crucial concept in the Growth Management Act, but what is being balanced?  Do the Land Use and Environmental elements each, or both together, achieve a balance?  It certainly doesn’t happen in this sentence, even though “preservation and protection” are mentioned.  The very idea of balance (involving land uses and development on the one hand, and preservation and protection of environmental resources on the other) is smothered, overwhelmed by an attempt to enumerate all the different uses of land.

This is not a good start: the balance seems to be tipped, not only in favor of future growth, but against environmental protections and everything that doesn’t qualify as useful.

If the Comprehensive Plan is really going to be committed to sustainable development, the Land Use chapter might begin by acknowledging that we’re far from attaining the goals of sustainability, and it will be difficult to preserve and protect our essential resources and the quality of life we enjoy now.

What is muddled in the first paragraph gets stated clearly enough later within the first page, when the Plan’s “five overriding principles” (set out with the Vision in the first two pages) are cited.  Principle 5 is “Base development on the principle that the Island’s environmental resources are finite and must be maintained at a sustainable level.”  And for good measure, in a second iteration of the Framework of the Plan, the five principles are stated once again on page 5.

Throughout the Comp Plan update, and especially in the Land Use and Environmental elements, we ought to be looking out for pious and comforting language that is not backed up by reasonable, enforceable regulations.  The Comp Plan should be a hopeful and even an idealistic document, but if it makes promises, they will have to be kept.

Bainbridge Island’s limited carrying capacity is a matter of urgent concern for many people.  The current Comp Plan speaks to this concern in Goal 3 of the Land Use element, which “recognizes and affirms that, as an Island, the City has natural constraints based on the carrying capacity of its natural systems.  The Plan strives to establish a development pattern that is consistent with the goals of the community and compatible with the Island’s natural systems.”

That’s all well and good, but the paragraphs that follow (on page 8 if you take the trouble to consult the text) only pave the way with good intentions.  “During the timeframe of this plan, additional information on the carrying capacity should be developed.”  Also, “A public education program should be established to foster the community’s understanding of the natural systems on the Island and their carrying capacity (emphasis added).”

In this update we can’t continue to say, as the current Plan does, “the carrying capacity of the Island is not known.”  It can’t be known precisely, even for present-day circumstances, and the future is more iffy: there are many variables, and a potentially profound instability in our climate is one of them.  But we must develop a body of data, and a respectable method for crunching the numbers, such that carrying capacity estimates, modified from time to time, are readily available to the public.

In what is probably the area of greatest concern – our supply of potable groundwater – much more information is available now than when the current Plan was completed.  You may have heard about the USGS study of the Island’s aquifers that was completed several years ago; I believe it’s been updated since.  So we are not just guessing about our most critical natural resource, although too few people are familiar with the study’s findings.

Water Resources are dealt with separately in the Comp Plan, and work on that element is now scheduled to begin in August.  Prior to that (perhaps in May) there will be a workshop devoted to providing information and responding to questions about our aquifers and groundwater supply.  Also, interwoven with work on the Comp Plan update, we are obligated to revise the Critical Areas Ordinance in order to provide protection for specific aquifer recharge areas.

It can’t be said that planning for growth is going forward without regard for public concern about our water supply.  I think it can be said, legitimately, that the City has been inept in making information on the Island aquifers available, in a form that’s comprehensible by non-specialists.  It would also be useful to know where gaps in our knowledge exist, and what can be done to fill them.

Equally important, perhaps, the update ought to make good on the current Plan’s endorsement of “a public education program” that fosters conservation and stewardship of our limited natural resources: fresh water is only the most obvious of them.  We can’t regulate our way to a sustainable future; public education and informed choices can take us further in that direction.

The Land Use element comes first in the update for a number of reasons.  It is linked in some way to most of the other Comp Plan elements, so it won’t be finished at the end of the three months (April through June) allocated on the schedule.  I imagine we’ll create a provisional draft of the whole text, and return to modify segments of it as information and policies are developed during the work on other elements.

For each of the elements, the schedule allows one month for “staff & consultant work” on the draft, then another month (two in the case of Land Use) for discussion and revision in meetings of the Planning Commission, when there will be opportunities for public comment at each meeting.

Extensive public comment was recorded during the ‘Listening Sessions,’ and the comments, summarized in a sentence or two, have been sorted and published: those pertinent to the Land Use element total 204.  Don’t imagine, though, that these comments, well-intentioned as most of them are, make it easy to re-draft the Comp Plan.  Rather, they raise questions; they provide snapshots of attitudes, wishes, and worries.

Here’s one example that sort of jumped out at me: “77. We wondered if anyone has [an] idea how many citizens really want to put Green into action not just words. Private property rights are important to people too. People want to be green but not necessarily regulated.”

The drafters of the elements – Mr. Tovar, working with staff from Planning and Public Works, perhaps with others at the table – need to hear from informed and engaged citizens who can offer well-considered information and opinions, either as individuals or as members of a group.  (When I mention groups, I’m thinking first of the Island’s non-profit organizations, but neighborhood groups and colleagues in a line of work may find it worthwhile to exchange ideas and compose a position paper.)

I believe – and I’ve discussed this with others who agree – that participation by the public will be immeasurably more valuable if it is received before the staff and consultant work is done.  After that, during the Planning Commission’s public sessions, public comment will tend to be “pushback,” which may be legitimate but is apt to be less constructive.

The roles of Planning Commissioners in the whole process have yet to be defined; to some extent it’s up to us as individuals to choose how to participate.  In the first Planning Commission meeting on the plans for drafting and revision, I said that with some of the elements, I think I can contribute most effectively to the drafting process, rather than waiting impatiently to come in at the end, to edit something that’s already more than half baked.  Take this commentary, then, as a foot in the door, beginning what I hope will be a cordial relationship that serves the public interest.

Both within the Planning Commission and independent of it, there has been discussion of a series of public meetings pertaining to the various Comp Plan elements, timed to contribute ideas and opinons to the drafting process.  Most likely, they will take place outside of City Hall, sponsored and organized by various organizations, including Sustainable Bainbridge.  Stay tuned for more information.

Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Island values, Long range planning, Place, Property Rights, Stewardship | Comments Off

“Development Never Pays for Itself”: True or False?

Jon Quitslund

On several occasions I’ve heard my friend Robert Dashiell say that development never pays for itself.  If you believe that all development is dangerous, it’s easy to come up with examples to illustrate, if not to prove the point.  But is the observation valid as a general rule?

The question is crucially important right now in our community.  A great deal depends on how we consider development-related issues.  What is decided, and what is done with all that is learned during the Comprehensive Plan update and other work that’s going forward in this year and the next, will establish the patterns for our long-term future.

Let me be specific about what I mean by “development.”  It’s a mixed bag.  New housing is uppermost in my mind, since I assume that like it or not, there will be a net increase in Bainbridge Island’s population over the next twenty years and beyond.  New houses will be built, and some of our existing stock will be demolished or rehabbed.

There will be other building to accommodate businesses of all sorts.  If, as I expect, the demand for local produce continues to support new providers, farming will flourish.   A changing population will call for changes in infrastructure, to provide more effectively for mobility, water and other utilities, and waste disposal.

If it is true, as a general rule, that development doesn’t pay for itself, then all visions of “sustainable development” are moonshine: the trend lines will move eventually to exhaustion of resources and entropy.  But are we doomed to a boom and bust future?  Can we turn the trend lines in a positive direction?

I should make clear at this point that I’m not a booster for development.  Being in favor of regulation and long-range planning for the community’s needs is not, in my book, a pro-development stance.  But how can the City prevent undeveloped land from being developed?  The question is, what kind of development should be permitted?

Looking back a few decades, it’s not hard to see development that has paid for itself generously, both in the short and the long term.  Imagine Bainbridge without the Agate Passage bridge, and with the roads and the ferry service of the 1940s.  Imagine a much smaller population, with anyone’s sense of place and community focused on separate neighborhoods, not on a thriving civic identity.

With the passing of each generation, much is lost, but it’s my sense that as our population has increased, so has the potential for individual growth and communal vitality.  However, we have not consistently realized our potential, and our increasing population has only begun to get the message that the rent’s due, the piper has to be paid.  Now we see the long-term consequences of short-sighted policies.

Robert Dashiell would probably point out that the impact fees and other costs involved in taking undeveloped land and building either housing or commercial real estate don’t come close to covering the many practical consequences of development, and I would agree with him.

To too great an extent, our market here is at the mercy of people who take the money and run; profits don’t stay within the community, and many ventures that are profitable offer little or no benefit except to the buyer and the seller.  So should impact fees, other costs of development, and property taxes be jacked up?  I doubt that that would fix the problem, and it would certainly create other problems.

If we look more closely, and in a broader context, at the costs and benefits of different types of development, we should be able to discriminate between those that pass muster as sustainable and beneficial, and those that fail to pencil out.

I see a need to say at this point that I’m no expert at cost and benefit analysis; I’m just trying to apply common sense to a matter of concern to all citizens.  I want to see others, who have more expertise and may have a stake in solutions, taking part in a long problem-solving discussion of these issues.

In what follows, I want to focus the discussion on the costs and benefits of building new homes.

The first set of costs has to do with the environmental impacts of development.  These will vary, case by case.  To be sustainable, the impacts of construction, from road-building and site preparation to the finished and furnished home, have to be kept to a minimum.  Elaborate regulations apply to all aspects of land clearing and building, but in practice everything is biased in favor of the developer: the bottom line requires the most efficient, least expensive way to get the job done, and what gets in the way is gone.

I recognize that there may be a big difference between what’s seen as beneficial to the neighborhood or the larger community, and what the owner or owners of a piece of property regard as their best interests.  Sometimes there’s an unbridgeable gap, and property rights prevail.  Like gravity, the right to use property for profit is “not just a good idea, it’s the law!”  Which is why it’s so difficult to craft good land use regulations, and so important.

Most of the undeveloped acreage on the Island is zoned R-0.4, which permits (if I may simplify) one house per 2.5 acres.  Many individual lots in that zone are smaller than 2.5 acres, and some of them are impacted by wetland or other constraints on development.

The development potential in those areas is still considerable, but also limited.  And the same can be said for the conservation potential: the land’s value for forests and open space, as wildlife habitat, and for aquifer recharge.

We have to think critically, and imaginatively, about trade-offs.  Surely it is possible in many circumstances to plan for homes that make good use of all that’s given on the property in its undeveloped state, keeping the disturbance of its natural beauty and ecological characteristics to a minimum.

If you look around the Island, it’s easy to find examples of incompatibility between a house and its surroundings, but there are also many examples, in older homes and recent construction, where harmony has been achieved.  I want to see reckless development prevented; I hope to see harmony prevail.

Our natural resources are resilient; given time, they can recover even from ruthless exploitation.  (Try to imagine the island during and after the clear-cutting that accompanied heavy industry in the mills at Port Madison and Port Blakely.)  The tall trees we see today were much smaller in the 1940s and 50s, when Bainbridge as we know it began to take shape.  But for all sorts of reasons, we can no longer afford ruthless exploitation.

A culture of stewardship exists here, thanks to the voluntary, sometimes highly organized, efforts of many citizens.  Voluntary stewardship has prospered here outside the scope of regulations in our Municipal Code, but stewardship efforts can be undercut when gaps and incoherence in the regulations permit reckless and scofflaw activities.  This has to be fixed.

Inevitably, development changes the ecology of undeveloped land, and people moving into acres that had been uninhabited will make other changes to suit their lifestyle.  Let’s imagine, though, development that is careful to preserve much more than the prescribed “buffers,” and that minimizes the impacts of building and dwelling on the land.  Can’t we expect the people living there to be changed by the house they live in, and by the pleasure they take in their surroundings?  Their impact on their property can be positive.

That’s my utopian scenario.  It’s sketchy and tentative, in need of critique and elaboration.  And there’s a dystopian side to my preoccupation with the

future of Bainbridge Island.

In ten to twenty years, will we have a population that is committed to a substantive stewardship agenda, to tend and sustain what remains of our natural environment?  Do we have such a population now, or are we losing touch with our rural heritage?  Are we, perhaps, already involved in an inexorable slide toward a fancy, green, exclusive suburbia?

I have said – and I want to believe – that a culture of stewardship is still vital here on Bainbridge.  Many people are willing to commit both time and money to caring for their own property and the common good.  I have believed that all we need are regulations and voluntary programs that support such stewardship, in order make positive changes in the patterns of land use and development.  I’ll be the first to admit, though, that I don’t yet know the strength in numbers of people who will just say, “I haven’t got time for your ‘stewardship,’ let me live my life.”

I worry that we will blow our last chance to change our land use regulations and the institutional culture in City Hall, allowing market forces to carry us willy-nilly into a future that many people now say they don’t want.

It’s one thing to say, “these are my values, this is what I want for myself and my community,” and it’s quite another to make the choices and do the work required to put the future you imagine on a solid footing.  There’s a host of forces at work in our culture, and within our individual habits, dreams, and illusions, working against the survival of those values from one generation to the next.


Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Cultural Change, Environment, Farms, Finite Natural Resources, Housing, Long range planning, Place, Property Rights, Stewardship, Values | Comments Off