“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

“A Lot of Live Wires in the Room”

Jon Quitslund

I have two topics in this essay; maybe I should call them ‘areas of interest’ rather than topics.  I want to write from my impressions at the end of the six ‘Listening Sessions’ that have brought groups of citizens into the process of updating our Comprehensive Plan.  I also want to engage in a sort of dialogue with an essay by Wendell Berry that I find pertinent to our planning process.

I’ll take up the second subject first.  The latest issue of YES! magazine (Spring 2015) arrived recently, and when I saw Wendell Berry’s name on the cover I went straight to his essay.  (“Revolution Starts Small and Close to Home” excerpts passages from two essays in a new book, Our Only World: Ten Essays, which I may need to add to my long shelf of Berry’s books of fiction, essays, and poetry.)

As you may know, Wendell Berry writes from a place in rural Kentucky where he has deep roots.  Although his perspective on the world is different from mine, I find that the wisdom he draws from his experience partakes of universal and eminently useful truth.  Even when he surprises me with what seems to be an obtuse opinion, I stop to ponder the idea: maybe I missed something, or maybe I’ve been on the wrong track.

In this essay he takes up the momentous subject of climate change, and stubbornly refuses to get excited about it.  That’s refreshing and paradoxical.  Who can justify a refusal to plan for a future shaped by the consequences (environmental, ecological, economic, cultural, geographical) of climate change?  Well, Wendell Berry can.

I can’t agree, but I can see his point, and on reflection, I take it seriously.  His basic message is this: we live in the present, informed by historical experience that helps us to understand our current problems and opportunities.  We can’t know the future, and experience reminds us that many of our educated guesses about what the future holds (not to mention our worst fears) turn out to be mistaken.  So preoccupation with the future, with the enormity of the problems the world will face in coming decades, is itself a problem in need of a radical remedy.

Here’s a piece of what he wrote:

We can begin backing out of the future into the present, where we are alive, where we belong. To the extent that we have moved out of the future, we also have moved out of ‘the environment’ into the actual places where we actually are living.

     If, on the contrary, we have our minds set in the future, where we are sure that climate change is going to play hell with the environment, we have entered into a convergence of abstractions that make it difficult to think or do anything in particular. If we think the future damage of climate change to the environment is a big problem only solvable by a big solution, then thinking or doing something in particular becomes more difficult, perhaps impossible.

Berry makes a useful distinction between “prediction” and “provision”: “To provide, literally, is to see ahead,” and we need to be so oriented, living prudently (like ants, not grasshoppers).  But our provision for hard times, or for a long journey, is based on experience and common sense, not assumptions about a distant future.

Berry doesn’t consider what a trap – a tender trap of comfortable circumstances, or a vicious circle formed by self-destructive habits – the present can be.  He challenges us to be clear-eyed, not self-indulgent, not defenders of a place in the status quo: “all we can do to prepare rightly for tomorrow is to do the right thing today.”

For a better understanding of what Wendell Berry regards as ‘the right thing,’ I’ll urge you to consult the current issue of YES!, where you’ll find several other items pertinent to our present, and to a future that’s already being provided for.

* * *

The series of ‘Listening Sessions’ that took place in City Hall over the past few weeks left me feeling that we’re off to a good start in the Comp Plan update process.  I was present for five of the six sessions.  The comments at my tables didn’t all offer sweetness and light: we heard from critics of the whole idea that Bainbridge Island is obliged to participate in ‘growth management,’ and from individuals who have been frustrated in their past dealings with City Hall.  In general, though, I found the participants ready with good ideas and eager to come to grips with the issues, large and small, inherent in the Comp Plan update process.

In the first stages of planning for the update, a commitment was made to include the predictable impacts of climate change in our revision and implementation of the Comp Plan.  I found it regrettable, therefore, that the questions prepared to prompt and guide discussions didn’t pursue that theme.  In retrospect, though, and in line with Wendell Berry’s emphasis on inhabiting the present and the place where we actually live, I would say that the participants were doing “the right thing today.”

A passing comment in the session on Monday morning, March 2nd, remains resonant for me.  It was a simple statement: “This is everybody’s problem.”  What that specific problem was, I don’t recall.  It doesn’t matter; I felt the response was not only apt in that instance, but expressive of an attitude widely shared throughout the roomful of separate discussions, time and again.

There will be contentious issues, and we won’t always agree on what should be done in response to a problem, but when something that directly affects a segment of the community (the shortage of reasonably priced rental housing, for example) is recognized as everybody’s problem, we’re proving the strength of our social fabric.

To my way of thinking, the Comprehensive Plan is a verbal embodiment of the social contract that holds us together as citizens, in a certain place and time – “where we are alive, where we belong” (to quote Wendell Berry again).  People find different ways of participating in that contract; some may opt out, or feel excluded from the prevalent norms of public life and policy; we may wish the Island was more inclusive, more representative of the full spectrum of humanity; it’s too simple to say we are all one community.  Nevertheless, the pronouns “we” and “us” can be used here sincerely, without make-believe, to include much more than one’s family and close friends.

I think some Islanders are uneasy with the notion that there are, implicit and intangible but still firmly in place, a set of “Island values” to which we are all supposed to subscribe.  I myself feel that uneasiness; I prefer to regard my own values as provisional, always under review, a muddled mixture of pragmatism and idealism.  What our widely shared values are will be discovered and better understood as we go through the update and implementation process.

Do Island values include sustainability, as that too-familiar term is generally understood? (Let’s use the Brundtland Commission’s definition: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”)  I think that within the listening sessions, attitudes toward development varied dramatically, but people implicitly understood the Brundtland principle and supported it.

One contribution at my table in the last session was a reference to tools for measuring the sustainability of a community.  (This came as if in answer to what I heard in an earlier session: “We need metrics; we need goals in the Comprehensive Plan.”)  I wasn’t familiar with the STAR Community Rating System; I expect that our professional planners know of it.  Perhaps it will be of value as we move further into the update.

(If you’re interested, go to www.starcommunities.org/  The rating system can be downloaded, free of charge – be advised that it’s a document of 132 pages.)

It will take some time to compile and analyze the record of the listening session discussions.  The City’s consultant, Joe Tovar, has referred to the results as a list of “amendments” to the Comp Plan, and it’s my understanding that all of these will be discussed by the Planning Commission, with many occasions for public comment: Kathy Cook has promised that we’ll be very busy through the rest of this year.

Posted in Climate Change, Community, Comprehensive Plan, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Island values, Place | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Riffing on Themes from “The Sixth Extinction”

Jon Quitslund

Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, published in 2014 and already available in paperback (New York: Picador, USD $16), has been celebrated among the best books of 2014.  It’s a serious and intellectually daunting work of non-fiction, based on deep research and wide-ranging travels.  Kolbert talked with experts around the world and did some field work herself, exploring the subject of extinctions in the present and in the five previous big die-offs (the first being at the end of the Ordovician period, approximately 443 million years ago).

Since before it was published I’ve been planning to review another book, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and I’ll make good on that promise as soon as I can, but Kolbert’s book proved to be an irresistible and worthwhile digression.  In their differences and similarities the two books are hugely enlightening.  If you haven’t read either, you might start with The Sixth Extinction, because it may make you more receptive to Klein’s message, which is more radical and urgent than Kolbert’s science-laden narrative.

This won’t be a proper review of The Sixth Extinction, which consists of thirteen chapters, each with a different focus, a new location and another set of intriguing characters.  I’ll deal with only two chapters, V (“Welcome to the Anthropocene”) and XII (“The Madness Gene”), both of which moved me to deep thoughts about human nature and the dynamics of the culture that our kind have created during the millennia of prehistory and in the accelerating pace of recent centuries.

The main character in Chapter V is Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist (more specifically a stratigrapher, an interpreter of ancient geological strata and the traces they preserve of life-forms and events deep in the earth’s past).  He has studied the Ordovician extinction, in which 85% of marine species died off, and recently his focus shifted to the latest geological epoch, the Anthropocene – the world we humans, in historical time, inhabit and dominate.

Kolbert cites a number of other geologists who are interested in making a clear distinction between the present epoch and the Holocene (“wholly new”) epoch, dated from the end of the last ice age approximately twelve thousand years ago.  The rationale for distinguishing the Anthropocene from the long post-glacial epoch arose from a recognition of profound changes in the earth’s surface, its atmospheric envelope, and the species our globe supports, all of which modern humans, accidentally or on purpose, have altered drastically.

Can we (the wealthiest, best educated, most powerful and technically savvy creatures ever to walk the earth) take responsibility for what we have done – and what we continue, rather heedlessly, to do?

According to Kolbert, the Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel prize for discovering the causes of the ozone hole, was the first to publicize the full spectrum of “geologic-scale changes” that are “anthropogenic” (caused by human activity).  The most significant of these changes, due to its long-term ripple effects, has been alteration of the atmosphere.  “Owing to a combination of fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air has risen by forty percent over the last two centuries, while the concentration of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas, has more than doubled.”

Starting far back in prehistory, humans have hunted many species out of existence, and it may be within our power now, through a cascade of environmental impacts, to cause a die-off that will not only decimate biological diversity around the globe, but have a profound effect on the food chain we now take for granted.

Is it also within our power to reverse these trends?

Kolbert’s book raises this question, not blatantly but in many subtle ways, and the fact that neither she nor the scientists she reports upon have an answer only makes the book more haunting.

Chapter XII recounts what Kolbert learned on a visit to the Neander Valley, “about twenty miles north of Cologne”: in German it’s das Neandertal, and it was there, in 1856, that bones of the Neanderthal man were first discovered.  “Today the valley is a sort of Paleolithic theme park.”  The ancient Neanderthal branch of the hominid lineage populated a broad territory: “bones have been found as far north as Wales, as far south as Israel, and as far east as the Caucasus,” and they document occupation of Europe “for at least a hundred thousand years.  For the most part, this was a time of cold, with ice sheets covering Scandinavia.”

The Neanderthal lineage went extinct, according to Kolbert, “roughly thirty thousand years ago,” but not before they had interbred with the invaders of their territory, Homo sapiens – our ancestors.  What caused the demise of the Neanderthals?  “Often climate change is invoked, sometimes in the form of general instability leading up to what’s referred to in earth science circles as the Last Glacial Maximum” – very harsh conditions that overtaxed the ability of that hardy race to adapt and prevail.

Throughout Kolbert’s book, accounting for mass extinctions over millions of years, profound changes in the physical environment are often decisive, but in this case her emphasis falls on the human factor: “Modern humans arrived in Europe around forty thousand years ago, and again and again, the archaeological record shows, as soon as they made their way to a region where Neanderthals were living, the Neanderthals in that region disappeared.”

Neanderthals and the more modern humans who presided over their demise were similar enough, genetically, to permit interbreeding (most of us contain somewhere between 1 and 4% of Neanderthal genetic material), but the invading and eventually triumphant humans carried DNA that provided them with superior adaptive abilities.

The part of this chapter that most intrigued me was her conversation with the evolutionary geneticist Svante Paabo (umlaut the a’s in that last name to get it right) about the difference between archaic humans and Homo sapiens: he doesn’t see the superiority of our species as an unmixed blessing.

The archaic humans lived for thousands of years and “spread like many other mammals in the Old World,” hunting and gathering, stopping at the water’s edge like the animals they hunted when they encountered broad rivers and seas of salt water.  They had the tools that met their needs, and it seems they preferred the familiar to the unknown.

“It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land.  Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it.  But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there.  You know?  How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island?  I mean, it’s ridiculous.  And why do you do that?  Is it for the glory?  For immortality?  For curiosity?  And now we go to Mars.  We never stop.”

This “Faustian restlessness,” as Kolbert calls it, is not pure madness, of course: it accounts for much (not all) of our creativity, and our fantastic ability to adapt to strange places and changing times.  But these traits can be dangerous, and maladaptive – worse than ridiculous.  It’s risky to romanticize the Faust figure, to take any proud rebel against the norms of his culture out of the context of tragedy.

We live in a post-heroic time.  That doesn’t mean that heroism is impossible, but we have to hold the old mainsprings of heroism up to scrutiny.  “The difficult we can do at once; the impossible takes a little longer”?  That slogan, which I associate with American efforts during World War II, still sounds good to me, but not as a justification for aggression.  And I’m afraid we’re no longer capable of the discipline and teamwork that got us through World War II.

Generosity, compassion, and self-sacrifice make better foundations for heroic effort than a self-centered desire to prove oneself, to be the best, to risk everything, or to win at all costs.

I’m not going to say anything against curiosity, since more often than not it’s my main motive, or my excuse, for doing this rather than that.  Even idle curiosity has its place, but even I can see that if you’re going out of your way, it’s better to have a purpose, or a problem to solve.

Let’s count the costs of Faustian restlessness and impatience with limits – especially limits on appetites, ambition, and the will to power.  Consider the broad socio-economic forces that shaped the modern world – the Anthropocene – starting in the 17th century: global exploration and trade, colonialism, slavery, wars, growth of cities and frontier settlements, longer life expectancy and more children leading to population growth, with some growth of democratic institutions and state bureaucracies.  Not all bad, and more real progress in store, but more and more trade-offs, exploitation and self-deception.  And so it goes, but forever?  Dream on.

— A few minutes ago, before completing the preceding paragraph, I wrote in my journal: “I spent hours today, having started yesterday, on a post that came to seem quixotic, on the subject of extinctions and the kinks in human nature that drive us to destruction, aiming over the horizon at we know not what.”

That seems like a good place to stop for now, so I can turn to more practical matters.  The next post will be a fresh start, with unfinished business related to the Comprehensive Plan.

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A Rediscovered Recipe

Jon Quitslund

In the spirit of Zero Waste, here’s something to do with leftover rice.

At least twenty-five years ago, in an old-fashioned cookbook by Stella Standard called Our Daily Bread, I discovered a simple and delightful recipe for Rice Pancakes, and I can guarantee, “If your family’s tried ‘em / You know you’ve satisfied ‘em.”

The paperback cookbook fell apart and we left it behind in our move west, but several years ago, with some trial and error, I reconstituted the recipe.  Then I lost track of it, and I’ve been doing without.  Well, going through a jumble of clippings and photocopies and jotted-down notes, I recently found a copy, and I had the pleasure of making a batch of pancakes for myself on a recent Sunday morning.

These pancakes are light, with a delicate flavor, and they are filling but not heavy in your tummy.  The recipe will be enough for two or three people with good appetites.

Take one cup of leftover rice, more or less (preferably white basmati), and in a small container, add enough milk to cover (approximately one cup); place in the refrigerator overnight.

The other ingredients are two eggs, sour cream, white flour, baking powder and salt; butter for the frying pan and maple syrup at the table.

Separate the eggs, with whites in a small bowl and yolks in a larger one.  Whisk the yolks briefly, then mix in one cup of sour cream.  Add the rice and milk mixture to the bowl, stirring to break up any clumps of rice.

Sift together ½ cup of flour, 3 teaspoons of baking powder, and ¾ teaspoon of salt; add these dry ingredients to the mixing bowl.  If the batter seems too thin, add a little flour.

While the baking powder begins to work, beat the egg whites to the soft peak stage; fold them in and the batter is ready.

Heat a frying pan or griddle, with a generous amount of butter, and let it get hot, but not enough to brown the butter.  (You want a sizzle when the batter goes in, so the pancake will hold together when you turn it.)

* * *

I’ve seen rice pancake recipes that use ricotta rather than sour cream, and you may want to experiment with that substitution.  And you might use brown rice, for a different flavor and a heartier texture.

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“A Source of Pride”?

Jon Quitslund

At the Planning Commission meeting on December 18, most of our time was devoted to discussion of a new Vision Statement.  We focused on a draft that had been developed by the Steering Committee and City staff.  There will be further discussion at the next Planning Commission meeting  on January 8, and recommendations will go to the City Council for review and action.

The new Vision Statement is quite different from the current one: it doesn’t describe the Island or its inhabitants in any detail, but focuses on values and a shared sense of civic purpose.

The first sentence refers to “the qualities that keep us here” and claims that our vision will sustain those qualities for future generations.  The substance of those qualities is somewhat fleshed out in the four sentences that follow, but a good deal is left to individual interpretation.

I think it is wise to allow generously for diverse opinions on what constitutes and sustains “quality of life” here, but it’s already clear that some citizens would prefer a more prescriptive and down-to-earth description of the future we envision for Bainbridge Island.  Few citizens were present at the December 18 meeting, but I expect we will have more public comment and give-and-take on January 8.

And this is as it should be.  I don’t think the Planning Commission wants to get tangled in a war of words before we even begin to talk about the substantive elements of the Comp Plan, but consensus on principles can’t be produced easily, by dictation or sleight of hand.

Here is the last sentence in the proposed Vision: “We work to make the relationship between each citizen and the Island a source of pride.”  Is “pride” the right word, ‘le mot juste’?  I tried substituting “satisfaction,” but decided that it’s a lack-luster word in this context.  Pride sounds good to me if, as proposed, it arises from a personal connection to the place we share.  I’m wary of the kind of pride that insists on imposing a reckless will on the land, pursuing a private vision.

I like the fact that the Vision ends by evoking a relationship at the individual level – “between each citizen and their Island” is how I’d put it. Each of us, based on our interests and experience, could describe a different relationship to the place and its people; the differences could all be arrayed in a spectrum, with many common elements.

It’s appropriate and enjoyable, I think, to work communally in support of a generally shared sense of pride in the place where we live.  There’s an underside to the sentiment of pride, of course: belief that Bainbridge is an exceptional or “special” place can lead to a hoity-toity attitude, or to an unrealistic fear of changes that might threaten our precious quality of life.

How do we reconcile a vision of sustainable quality of life with the sorts of growth and change we will face in the next two or three decades?  Nobody has a good answer to that question yet, but it should be on our minds throughout the long enterprise of our Comp Plan update.

Here’s the second sentence of the proposed Vision: “We address growth and change, mindful of the limits and the possibilities of our Island geography and environment.”  That’s a sound statement, and it’s in its proper place.  I have proposed some revisions that make the sentence more elaborate and descriptive, and we’ll see if they are regarded as improvements.  The key phrase is “mindful of the limits and the possibilities”: striking a balance, responsive to the place where we find ourselves, won’t be easy, but it’s necessary.

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‘Visioning’ and the Vision Statement in Our Comprehensive Plan

‘Visioning’ and the Vision Statement in Our Comprehensive Plan

Jon Quitslund

In two workshops on Nov. 12 and 17, I took part in discussions of the ‘Vision Statement’ that serves as a preamble to our current Comprehensive Plan.  The workshops covered other ground as well, and did so very constructively.  In this post, after some broad comments, I will focus on the first paragraph of the vision statement, which I think should be radically re-thought.

Looking back on the two meetings, several things stand out in my memory.  Both workshops drew capacity crowds, and a range of viewpoints were represented in the group discussions at separate tables.  The current Vision Statement was regarded critically, as a description that now seems dated and incomplete.

The most interesting general critique that I heard was this: Present what matters most to us in one paragraph, then describe strategies for bringing that imagined future into being.  I heard a good deal of impatience with rosy descriptions of the way things are, and with the litany of “should” and “should not” statements that only remind us how little leverage resides in the Comprehensive Plan.

Here is the first paragraph, from which I’ll excerpt some passages for discussion:

Bainbridge Island is a cohesive community with a distinctive urban center and individual settlements. Winslow is the heart of the Island. It is the place where all residents come to transact daily commerce and to meet for social activities. Its vibrant, pedestrian-oriented core should be enhanced as a center for the Island’s commercial activity, a common area or center where the local community can meet.  The neighborhood service centers of Rolling Bay, Island Center, and Lynwood Center offer small-scale commercial and service activity outside Winslow. These areas would remain much as they are, with some in-fill development.

I have several problems with this description of our population and the way we live together.  Are we, the citizens of Bainbridge Island, a cohesive community?  I don’t think so; I don’t think we ever were.  In saying this, I’m not complaining; I don’t feel a lack of cohesion, only an awareness of complexity in our cultural fabric.

I’ve always felt that ours is not one community, but many cliques and affinity groups, sometimes at odds but mostly maintaining a respectful distance from others, claiming freedom to pursue different goals, and resentful when they are imposed upon by people unlike themselves.

However, there’s a strong ‘sense of place’ that our diverse and dispersed population enjoys, and that sense brings us together to protect the common good – although people may differ vehemently in their definition of it.  The whole island is more than the sum of its parts, and it’s the place, not the people, that can be called cohesive.

Winslow is the heart of the Island.  This is true, and more true today than when the Vision Statement was first composed.  (I don’t know if these words go back to 1994, or to the update in 2004.)  But some of what follows in the paragraph, describing Winslow’s importance, strikes me as blather and special pleading.

Its vibrant, pedestrian-oriented core should be enhanced.  Well, now it has been enhanced in several ways, and further improvements are going forward, although many downtown merchants are still struggling, and the perennial parking problem in the pedestrian-oriented core has yet to be solved.  So Winslow still needs work.

The paragraph ends with two sentences about the neighborhood service centers, and I want to see the demeaning term service dropped.  Each of the three neighborhood centers is a different place, and they don’t possess an equal potential for commercial and residential growth, but each is an attractive hub not only for neighbors, but for people living some distance away.

Should the neighborhood centers remain much as they are for the next ten or twenty years?  Certainly not.  Only Island Center has remained much as it was in 2004.

I expect some serious sub-area planning to take place in the context of this Comp Plan update.  Perhaps pocket-size mixed-use zoning could be introduced in other neighborhoods to allow for more gathering places outside of Winslow.  (Recent developments in the Business/Industrial zones have already given Islanders more places to go.)

Historically, Bainbridge Island has been composed of distinct neighborhoods (quaintly called individual settlements in contrast to the distinctive urban center).  That pattern persists today in some parts of the Island, and growth in our population has only increased the importance of neighborhoods and good neighbors.

* * *

I want to return to what was said above about our sense of place, and my statement that it’s the place, not the people of Bainbridge Island, that can be called cohesive.  One thing that brings crowds of people together is a sense that our island’s environmental integrity is continually being compromised, sometimes heedlessly and sometimes by permission of the authorities.  If only we could all agree to live within the limits defined by our physical environment . . . but cultural and economic imperatives pull in a different direction.

The “should” and “should not” statements running through our current Vision Statement express an earnest desire to protect and preserve our sense of place – but by what means?  There, I believe, our vision needs to be clearer.  We, the resolute defenders of ‘Island values,’ tend to dwell on threats posed by our adversaries, those unreliable ‘Other People,’ when we could advance a more positive agenda, assuming responsibility for managing change.

During the visioning workshops we were challenged to imagine the changes our island – the place and the people – will face in the decades ahead.  Climate change will bring on many other changes, predictable but still unknowable; increases in population throughout the Northwest will be, I’m sure, one of the consequences of worsening conditions elsewhere.

In the workshops, we began to talk about adaptive strategies, and those conversations will continue, involving more people and going deeper, gathering information on which to base goals and policies.

Can the sense of place that is meaningful today provide a baseline and guide us as we look ahead?  I believe so, if we allow that some features of the place will change, even radically, as they have changed in the past.  Is there some better compass than our sense of what this place provides, and what it asks of us?  If so, tell me about it.

I’m going to propose – you’ve seen this coming, haven’t you? – a radical revision of the Vision Statement, making it less about us and our fears and wishes, and more about the place where we are temporary inhabitants, stewards of what was germinating or already flourishing when we, or our parents perhaps, settled here.

Let’s begin by describing where Bainbridge Island is, and what our position in Puget Sound means to us: proximity to Seattle, with the Cascades and Mt. Rainier visible in good weather and a short drive away; proximity also to communities and shopping on the Kitsap Peninsula, with the Olympics and several attractive towns not much further away.

But there’s a catch: with access to all that surrounds us, and an earning and spending population that depends on that access, we must also adjust our ambitions to living mindfully, within our island’s limited resources of land, water, and air.  And another catch: we’re connected to both sides of the Puget Sound region by two-way streets, and we don’t control the traffic.

After acknowledging that our location provides both advantages and problems, we could describe the physical geography of the Island itself, with its miles of shoreline (most of it privately owned); its hilly terrain, streams and wetlands, forests and open space (with many acres publicly owned or in conservancy); its beaches, and several harbors that accommodate boating.

Then, and only then, this version of the Vision Statement would describe the built environment, commercial and cultural activities, and the evolving demographic characteristics of Bainbridge Island.

* * *

To some readers, surely, it will appear that I am advancing environmental interests and neglecting people, whose well-being is much more important.  On the contrary, I think I am only providing a sound framework for long-range planning and community development.  I’ve left to someone else, or to another occasion, the thinking through of the last part of the Vision that I outlined in the brief paragraph immediately above: it may be the most important part, and at this point I don’t know enough to complete it.

Let’s agree at this point, though, that in the decades ahead, land use planning will be very different, and more demanding, than it has been in the past.  As our population increases and the land available for development diminishes, environmental impacts become more significant.  Minimizing impacts by good design and best practices becomes essential.

 

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

13th Annual Environmental Conference, Nov. 15

“The Future of Trees on Bainbridge Island”

Jon Quitslund

The Association of Bainbridge Communities, with Sustainable Bainbridge as a co-sponsor, has scheduled this year’s event for Saturday, November 15th, from 1:00 to 5:00 p. m. in the Waterfront Park Community Center.

It’s a timely event, with potential to make a difference in policies being developed for Winslow, and in response to the different problems and opportunities we face in other parts of the Island.

The organizers have assembled a great panel of experts – people to learn from and to work with as we build a consensus around some overdue changes in policies related to “significant” trees, “heritage” trees, the tree canopy that provides aesthetic and other benefits on our streets and in our parks, the trees and other vegetation in rights-of-way along our roads, and the forested areas that still flourish in many parts of the Island.

The first featured speakers are a couple of Island treasures.  Dr. Kathy Wolf, who teaches in the UW School of Forestry, is a behavioral scientist and an authority on the psycho-social benefits of urban forest environments.  Dr. Olaf Ribeiro is not only an internationally recognized plant pathologist, expert in all aspects of silviculture; he has deep knowledge of the great variety of rare and remarkable trees that coexist with us on Bainbridge Island, and he has been persistent and passionate in his efforts to document, celebrate, and protect them.

We will also hear from two professionals visiting from Seattle.  Ben Thompson, an urban forestry specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources, will describe “Essential Elements of a Tree Ordinance,” and Nolan Rundquist, the official City Arborist for Seattle, will speak on Seattle’s efforts to retain and protect trees throughout the city.

The town of Langley on Whidbey Island recently enacted an ordinance to protect trees, and two individuals involved in that effort, Steve Erickson and Marianne Edain (members of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network), will speak from their experience.  The Langley ordinance may be a model we can adapt as we revise our Municipal Code.

I have been one of two members of the Planning Commission on an Ad Hoc Committee, along with three members of the City Council, charged with revising the Interim Tree Ordinance and other chapters of the Municipal Code pertaining to trees and forested properties in our community.

I will join Ben Thompson, Steve Erickson, and Marianne Edain for a panel discussion of the purposes to be served by tree ordinances and the issues that have to be considered in developing them.

The conference will conclude with break-out sessions, enabling all participants to interact with the experts and explore the ways that citizens can become involved in protecting trees on Bainbridge Island.

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Public Participation in the Comprehensive Plan Update

Jon Quitslund

I began this post early in October, but my writing always proceeds slowly, subject to interruptions – by the world around me if not by my own second thoughts and lapses of concentration.  And this time I fell deep into a ‘writer’s block’ predicament.

I turned away to avoid the pain; eventually, I discovered that some things I had written were not true, and other facts had emerged that I should report upon.

I hope that what I’m posting now is both true and useful.

The Planning Commission meeting on October 1 was entirely devoted to discussion of the Public Participation Program, which will serve as the basic framework for the review and update of our Comprehensive Plan.  The Program describes some of the occasions and methods by which citizens can obtain information and make their own contributions to the charter for our community’s future.

A Steering Committee, consisting of three Council members (Blair, Blossom, and Tollefsen) and three members of the Planning Commission (Gale, Lewars, and Pearl), working with COBI staff, developed a draft of the Program, which was first discussed in a Planning Commission meeting on September 11.

After discussion at the October 1 meeting, the six Planning Commissioners present were unanimous in recommending to the City Council that they formally adopt the Program.  The Council discussed the Program on October 21; they are scheduled to complete their review and vote on the enabling resolution on October 28.

In the discussion of the Public Participation Program on September 11, there was strong interest in adding citizens unaffiliated with COBI to the Steering Committee, and that desire was expressed again at the second meeting.

The Steering Committee is responsible for guiding the update process, keeping track of all written and oral comments and making recommendations on the scope of the project, both in the elements of the Comprehensive Plan and with regard to its implementation in the Municipal Code.

I was persuaded that adding members to the Steering Committee would impact its efficiency.  All of the Committee’s meetings will be public, and citizens can both observe and contribute to discussions.  I’m aware that some citizens continue to feel that the update process is being too tightly managed from within COBI, and I’m hoping that such attitudes will dissipate over time.

One thing I’m sure of: the update process is not going to be an exercise in steering around problems, shrugging off criticism, and preserving the status quo for the benefit of City staff and business as usual.

The involvement of citizens with specific interests and expertise will be crucial to the success of the update project when several Ad Hoc Committees are formed to draft changes to the various elements of the Comprehensive Plan and its implementation in the Municipal Code.  Much of the real work of the update, as I envision it, will take shape in those committees, during the Winter and Spring months of 2015.

The first steps in deliberation on the scope and substance of the update will be taken soon, in a pair of meetings in the Council chambers: first in the evening, 6 to 9:30 on Nov. 12, and then in the daytime, 10 to 1:30 on Nov. 17.  These meetings will be important opportunities for citizens to share their visions of our community’s present circumstances and our future.  Members of the Planning Commission and the City Council will be present and involved in small-group breakout sessions; I hope that the broad spectrum of our citizenry, and especially those who are seldom seen in City Hall, will turn out for these meetings.

As I understand it, reference points for the Nov. 12th and 17th meetings will come from two key pieces of the current Comprehensive Plan: the Vision Statement and the Five Overriding Principles That Guide the Plan.  (These are two pages that preface the Comp Plan’s Introduction; they can be accessed easily on the Navigate Bainbridge page of the City website.)

Are these still accurate and adequate descriptions of our community’s values and our ‘sense of place’?  Should anything be added to the vision or the principles?  Do we need to correct course in specific areas to be more consistent with our ideals?

Discussion and, perhaps, redefinition of the community’s vision and principles will set the stage for six subsequent meetings of a different sort, beginning in December and extending through March.  These will be “scoping/listening forums”: Planning Commission and Council members will be present primarily to listen to citizens – and citizens, presumably, will be speaking and listening to one another, exploring differences and common ground.

* * *

Are you familiar with COBI’s Priority Based Budgeting system?  It’s a new way of thinking about the City’s biannual budget, adopted in the Spring of this year, and it looks like an excellent set of tools for planning and funding the City’s necessary and discretionary operations.  (For more information, go to the City website: http://www.bainbridgewa.gov/633/Priority-Based-Budgeting.)

There’s a reason for my digression: I’ve mentioned COBI’s budgeting system because its key elements will be used to organize the six public forums.  In a graphic display that you will find on the COBI website, the City’s services are organized in six categories: Safe City; Healthy and Attractive Community; Green, Well-Planned Community; Vibrant Economy; Reliable Infrastructure & Connected Mobility; and Good Governance.

Starting out clueless about this new budgeting system, I was somewhat dubious about its relevance to the update process: I thought it would add an extra layer of complexity to a project that is already awfully complicated.

I still have a lot to learn, but I can now see several advantages to linking our revision of the Comprehensive Plan to the budgeting system.  As different as they are, both the Comp Plan and the budget framework are toolkits for planning and managing our civic life; each ought to be consistent with the other.  Both are asset maps, describing what goes on in our community, and both also describe goals and aspirations – “the way it’s s’posed to be.”

Using the budgeting system as a frame of reference for re-thinking the Comprehensive Plan may help to bring our ideas and our language down to earth, focused primarily upon the City’s core responsibilities.  (Pragmatism is, I hope, one of the community values that will be exhibited throughout this project.)  The update process could also test the will and ability of our City Council and the COBI staff to deliver on the commitments that the budgeting system lays out.

* * *

I’ve now said more than once that throughout the long update process, the entire COBI apparatus (the City Manager and administrative staff, the Council, and the Planning Commission) will be on trial in the eyes of the general public.  I say that not to be cranky, but in a good way, as a true believer in good governance and long range planning.

As you’ll see if you visit the City’s website and its description of Priority Based Budgeting, the page describing Good Governance explains what that shiny concept means in an array of specific commitments.  One of them reads, “Supports decision-making with timely and accurate short-term and long-range analysis that enhances vision and planning.”

Another says that the City “fosters trust and transparency by ensuring accountability, efficiency, integrity, innovation and best practices in all operations.”

These commitments pertain directly to what’s involved – and what’s at stake – in the Comprehensive Plan update.  These are promises to keep.

* * *

You must know that the update of our Comprehensive Plan (and those of other communities across the state) is required by law in accordance with the Growth Management Act.  I expect that you’ve also heard that Bainbridge Island is required to plan for increases in our population over the coming decades.

The prospect of population growth is a cause for alarm here, and rightly so.  Some citizens have reacted angrily, finding fault with the GMA and saying that a ‘quota’ for growth can’t legitimately be applied to us.  It is widely believed that the Growth Management Act is part of a state-level strategy to promote growth, imposing population increases, willy-nilly, on communities such as ours.

This is an unfortunate misunderstanding.  There’s a big difference between promoting growth, within limits or without, and managing growth – planning for what is likely to happen and accommodating future needs with the necessary infrastructure and development standards.

The Puget Sound Regional Council, based in Seattle, is responsible for guiding counties and cities as they update Comprehensive Plans and respond to regional projections of growth in population and employment opportunities.

If you are interested in gaining a better understanding of these issues, I recommend consulting the PSRC’s multi-part study, VISION 2040, which is available online.  I plan to write about the study and its relevance to our project in my next post, some time before the end of November.

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