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 | Leave a comment

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 , , | Leave a comment

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 pcd@bainbridgewa.gov .  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

“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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