“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.

Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Cooperation, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Individuality, Island values, Place | Comments Off

‘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.

Posted in Community, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Place | Comments Off

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.

Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Island values, Long range planning, Place | Comments Off

Withdrawing, Reflecting, Looking Forward

Jon Quitslund

Life is sweet, life is good!  Toby and I are spending September on the Big Island, Hawaii.  It’s our fourth year of enjoying a house-sitting opportunity in Waimea, a town in the ranch and farming country, upland from the Kohala Coast.

Our main responsibility to the house owners is care for a big dog.  He’s getting up in years, grizzled in the muzzle and slowing down, but still as friendly as ever and eager to play or be petted.

My life is regulated somewhat by Samu’s needs; he’s a very early riser.  That dovetails with another consideration: conditions for snorkeling among the reef fish are best in the early morning, before the surface gets choppy and wave action churns up the water, reducing visibility.

This past Sunday I got to Puako and its ancient ‘birthing place’ (a revered site, and a favorite of local swimmers and scuba divers) before 8: nobody around, and everything calm, the water smooth and welcoming.  Colorful reef fish are plentiful as soon as you enter the shallows.

I’m not an athletic swimmer, but with fins and a mask I can swim as long as I like.  I headed offshore to the point where the reef drops off dramatically, then moved along that boundary for a while, seeing nothing rare or dramatic, just enjoying the panorama.  (On my first swim a few days earlier, a handsome young sea turtle glided gracefully across my field of vision.)  It’s marvelous, how the sea bears you up, and how swimming out two hundred yards from shore simplifies your life!

* * *

The broad Pacific’s waters and three time zones separate me from Bainbridge.  Disengagement from responsibilities and the happenings back there feels good, although my mind remains tethered to home and I feel the tugs from time to time.  I can choose what I want to respond to; I’m a free agent.

The Comprehensive Plan update remains on my mind, of course.  I won’t be attending either of the Planning Commission meetings (9/11 and 9/25) at which the draft of a Public Participation Plan will be discussed, but I’ve studied the agenda packet prepared for the first meeting.  I hope there will be large and diverse audiences for both meetings, prepared to learn from what’s discussed and to add their own opinions to the mix.

The Steering Committee of three City Council and three Planning Commission members have developed a process by which citizens can participate in the Comp Plan review and revision, along with a tentative schedule for different parts of the complicated (and oh-so-important!) project.

Our community as it is now (fragmented, distrustful, anxious, and impatient for changes in the status quo) stands to benefit greatly from the update process, and if we all rise to the challenge before us, we’ll have not only a more accurate and useful Comprehensive Plan, but development regulations in the Municipal Code that support and implement its vision.

In its DRAFT form, the Public Participation Plan provides numerous public occasions for people to weigh in on various issues that will be considered as the update takes shape.  Some issues have already been identified, and many more will emerge.  No doubt some will be controversial; both God and the devil are in the details.

I had thought that there might be defined roles for citizens in various ‘work groups’: that’s how the first Comp Plan was created, and selected citizen volunteers have played policy-drafting roles in several other planning and regulatory projects, most recently for the SMP update.

This time around, the Steering Committee has proposed something different.  If the Participation Plan works as intended, more citizens from the full spectrum of our community will be informed, engaged, and contributing their ideas over the course of this long process.

The Participation Plan identifies the Planning Commission as ‘the steward of the Comprehensive Plan,’ and gives its seven members responsibility for facilitating ‘public listening sessions to hear citizen input on the scope of the update.’

On the basis of these sessions (also called ‘scoping forums’), the Planning Commission will draft amendments to the Comprehensive Plan and a list of potential changes to the Municipal Code.  As usual, public hearings will be held on all such amendments before they are voted on and forwarded as recommendations to the City Council.

Throughout the process, the City Council and the Planning Commission will be working together, sometimes hand in glove.  The first phase of the review and update process, beginning in October and extending into December, will involve joint meetings of the Council and the Commission ‘to review and consider changes to the overarching Comprensive Plan Vision and Principles.’  (The reference here is to two pages from the Introduction to the current Comp Plan, all of which is available on the COBI website: check it out.)  Those meetings will, of course, provide ample opportunities for public comment.

I expect that some concerned citizens will read what I’ve just written, or the more detailed and authoritative description of what’s being proposed on the COBI website (go to the agenda for the 9/11 Planning Commission meeting), and will see the draft Participation Plan as just another instance of COBI’s top-down style of management, frustrating the people’s will.

That’s a risk that the Steering Committee took.  I think they did so bravely, and wisely, but they have some explaining to do.

I’m speaking only for myself here, but I feel sure that everyone engaged in the Comp Plan update in their official capacity – Planning Commission and City Council members, plus the City Manager and his staff, the Planning and Public Works Directors and their staffs, plus the City Attorney – knows that they are on trial and answerable to citizens.

We can’t afford to screw up this project.  It has to be well managed; the process has to be fair to all concerned; the updated Comprehensive Plan has to be realistic, forward-looking, coherent, and convincing; the project won’t be complete until the Plan’s principles are implemented in development regulations.

* * *

I’ve made several different attempts at a rousing conclusion to this post, and none of them seem right.  I’ll just accept my distance from the issues and activities there on Bainbridge, and see what develops out of this month’s meetings, planning to play an active role in October’s joint sessions of the Council and the Planning Commission.

Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Cooperation, Island values | Comments Off

Navigating Bainbridge: Planning for the Comp Plan Update

Jon Quitslund

In the evening on July 22nd, the City of Bainbridge Island put on a program to explain the purpose and scope of the revision of our Comprehensive Plan, which will begin in earnest at the end of the Summer.

Navigate Bainbridge: Charting Our Future Together was designed to enlist citizen participants in the two-year update process.  Lots of volunteers will be needed to work with City staff, members of the Planning Commission, and representatives of other advisory groups and civic organizations.

I had hoped to see a larger turnout, but the audience included many people I didn’t know, and that’s always a good sign.  Even when we disagree, the diversity of interests and talents in our community is our source of vitality.  Questions during the Q & A period covered a wide spectrum, dealing both with the process and opportunities for citizen involvement, and with issues that need to be addressed.

The centerpiece of the program was a presentation by Joseph Tovar, a city planning professional with deep experience at the state level with growth management principles, and in city governments with Comprehensive Plans and their implementation.

What Mr. Tovar said laid to rest some concerns that have been on my mind for months.  He described the work ahead of us as two-fold.

First, there’s work to do on the Comprehensive Plan, in the light of fresh information and current concerns.  Another set of tasks arises from the need for consistency between the Comp Plan and the Municipal Code – the regulations by which the norms and goals of the Plan are implemented.

Mr. Tovar proposed that while we review and revise the Comp Plan, we should also undertake, on a parallel track, an audit of the Municipal Code; he spoke of a ‘parking lot’ for Code amendments that will be considered after the Comp Plan has been updated.

Following this advice will add complexity and some controversy to an already daunting challenge, but in crucial portions of the Code (pertaining especially to development and growth management), we have “pre-existing conditions” that hinder the implementation of the current Comprehensive Plan’s vision.

The Comp Plan and the Code serve different purposes and they can’t be perfectly consistent, but both will be improved if they are brought closer into alignment.

* * *

As boaters know, to navigate you need accurate charts, and familiarity with the information they contain.  Without such knowledge, even in fair weather you may run aground.  The Comprehensive Plan is not a chart but a charter – and not a charter boat on which, for a sum of money, you’ll be taken for a carefree cruise.

Nor is the Comprehensive Plan much like a charter granted to corporations by royal authority or a state agency, conferring certain rights and privileges.  Rather, it is an agreement entered into by citizens and their government (elected representatives, salaried employees, and volunteer members of advisory boards and commissions).

Our Comprehensive Plan enacts at the local level the principles and objectives of Washington state’s Growth Management Act, which requires that we plan for and maintain an infrastructure (systems for mobility, commerce, water, electricity, waste disposal, parks, schools, etc.) consistent with our population.  (Population throughout our region is expected to grow in the next twenty years and beyond: I’ll say more about this below.)

The facts about our population, community life, and physical infrastructure make up much of the Comp Plan’s bulk, and now, twenty years since the first plan was completed, that information needs to be brought up to date and reinterpreted, as the basis for planning in the years ahead.

To the facts of community life as we each experience them, we join aspirations and concerns about the future of Bainbridge Island.  Of the things that we value most, what seems to be at risk?  What positive trends should be encouraged, by citizens’ efforts and by changes in public policies?  What developments can be managed, and what will we have to put up with or adapt to?

I don’t expect that reform of City government will be a topic for discussion and decisions during the Comp Plan update, but staff in the Public Works and Planning departments will be involved in managing the whole project, and major changes in the Plan and its implementation will entail changes in the missions of those departments.

Land use policies and population growth will be important and difficult topics for discussion during the update: somebody gave 23,300 as our present population, and 28,000 as the estimate for twenty years from now.  I don’t know whether that estimate takes into account the population shifts and economic impacts resulting from climate change: 28,000 might be a lowball figure.

You won’t need to learn how to breathe under water, but get ready to ponder the imponderable.

The island’s “carrying capacity” is currently a Rumsfeldian “known unknown.”  I trust that before we’re done, people will know better how to talk about our capacity for growth, and also about the prudent use of natural resources that support our quality of life.

To conclude, let me repeat here what I’ve said before: this project, for as long as it takes and as difficult as it may be at times, offers an incomparable opportunity for all the participants to deepen their understanding of this place and its people.

Posted in Climate Change, Community, Comprehensive Plan, Cooperation, Cultural Change, Demographic Groups, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Island values, People, Place, Stewardship, Values | Comments Off

Further Thoughts on Comprehensive Plan Principles

Jon Quitslund

When I posted my two-part essay on the current Comp Plan’s Overriding Principles, I thought I might follow it up when I had some reactions from readers.  A couple of members of the City Council thanked me for sending the essay to them, but as a group the Council seems still to be unready to discuss policy directives.  Ron Peltier, the leader of Islanders for Responsible Development, took the trouble to respond to several passages, and what he wrote has prompted me to think again about some of the principles that will, I hope, guide our update of the Comp Plan – and, in due time, the other planning and regulatory instruments that need to be aligned with it.

Ron Peltier and I differ in some respects, but our differences are amicable; there’s a good deal of common ground between us.  He has helped me to clarify my own thinking, and on one important point, to correct a mistaken interpretation of the Comp Plan’s language.

Commenting on what I said in Part I of the essay about Islanders’ attitudes toward development, Ron calls me out for “trivializing” concerns that he considers legitimate.  I agree with him that some specific proposals for development should be contested, even protested, and some of the forces driving development run counter to the common good.

All development proposals should be carefully examined, in accordance with the Municipal Code and other applicable regulations, including the Comprehensive Plan: that’s the rule that the City’s planners are sworn to abide by.  In my view they take their responsibilities seriously, sometimes facing resistance from people who think the rules shouldn’t apply to them.  Some of the decisions made in City Hall are questionable, but I don’t find fault with the staff so much as with the regulations they are obliged to administer.

The biggest problems arise when technical details in the Municipal Code are out of synch with the Code’s (and the Comp Plan’s) description of goals and purposes.  I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when the letter of the law is insisted upon, not the spirit: it’s interpretations of the technicalities that are contested in court.

We have to fix inconsistencies, and require property owners (and the people who work for them) to pay more attention to the goals and purposes at the heart of our regulations.

The Comp Plan’s fifth principle calls for maintaining finite “environmental resources . . . at a sustainable level.”  I said that “as a concept, sustainability is nebulous,” and Ron objects that I gave away too much ground to the opposition – people whose “aspirations are . . . at odds with the notion of limits and preservation of environmental capital for the benefit of future generations.”  He has a point: we need to confront and resist the reckless pursuit of short-term profits, and we need to put sustainability on a solid foundation.

The problem, as I see it, is that it’s much easier to see what’s not sustainable than to establish fundamental sustainable practices, in a culture and a built environment that will support them, that will also disallow or discourage non-sustainable lifestyles.  That’s our real work; it’s going to take a long time, and if the word “nebulous” stands in the way of clarity about what needs to be done, let’s dispose of it, and get on with building consensus around a specific agenda.

I started Part II of my essay with comments on Principle 4: “The costs and benefits to property owners should be considered in making land use decisions.”  My first point was that this principle “focuses on the interests of private property owners” in a way that could be in conflict with Principle 5, which mandates conservation of environmental resources.

Ron’s comment on this point is most welcome.  He observes, and I agree, that the property owners affected by land use decisions are not only the individuals applying for permits to clear land, to build, or to modify structures or uses on their private property.  The costs and benefits to neighbors, and ultimately to a broader community, must also be considered.

Seen in this light, Principle 4 establishes a context in which all individual interests (specifically, “costs and benefits”) have to be weighed carefully.  (Too often, I think, “property rights” are claimed, and protected or promoted in regulations, as if they belonged to individuals in isolation from others.)

In several other comments, Ron expresses a strong desire to place limits on the growth of the island’s population, and to do so “when we can still preserve the quality and character of the island.”  I agree with him that a number of factors (water in our aquifers being the most discussed) impose limits on our ‘carrying capacity.’

While I’m a great believer in living within limits, I’m also aware that our ability to predict the future and control human behavior is very limited.

Some of the information needed for modeling growth and capacity over the decades ahead is already available, but we need more data, and better analysis of the many variables.  Models need to be brought up to date, fleshed out, critiqued, and made widely available, to provide a frame of reference for all the discussions of growth management that will occur, more or less constructively, in the course of the Comp Plan update.

It has been decided that the regional and local effects of climate change have to be considered in all aspects of the update: what can’t be avoided, we must adapt to.  This decision is bound to make a big difference in the scope and focus of the update process.

While Ron feels that placing limits on growth is already justified, he expresses doubt that the City Council and COBI staff are willing and able to do what needs to be done.  I’m approaching the tasks ahead in a more positive spirit, believing that anyone who wants to be respected and welcomed as a participant in the hard work and decision-making must first model respect for the sincerity of other participants.

The members of the City Council aren’t all on the same page regarding the principles and purposes driving the Comp Plan update, and that’s a good thing, because there are diverse, and sometimes conflicting, ideas and interests that have to be taken into account.

It’s going to be difficult for staff of the Planning and Public Works departments to manage the update process.  The whole project is not supposed to be “staff-driven,” but COBI staff, who have expert knowledge and ultimate responsibility for the Comprehensive Plan’s effectiveness, need to be fully engaged in the process, keeping it on track, more or less on schedule.  There will be a great deal of factual information and communication to be routed and recorded.  I don’t see how everything can be managed effectively without additional staff.

I am eagerly anticipating “Comprehensive Plan 101,” the public meeting at the High School on Tuesday evening, July 22nd, which will formally begin the project.


Posted in Climate Change, Community, Comprehensive Plan, Cooperation, Cultural Change, Economy, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Island values, Place, Property Rights, Values | Comments Off

The Comprehensive Plan’s Five Overriding Principles (Part II)

Jon Quitslund

trees4. The costs and benefits to property owners should be considered in making land use decisions.

I discussed the fifth Principle at length in Part I of this essay.  That principle establishes the importance of maintaining environmental resources (open space, habitat for wildlife, surface water and aquifers, clean air, beaches and the waters of Puget Sound) at a sustainable level.  And that principle, stated on behalf of the common good of the community, stands in contrast to Principle 4, which focuses on the interests of private property owners.

I don’t see an inherent conflict between private and public interests, although in some specific circumstances a conflict may arise.  I know that for some citizens it is a given, and a sore point, that policies justified as “good for the environment” involve impositions on some private property owners.  Likewise, for some citizens the policies and procedures of Planning and Community Development tilt too far in favor of private interests, neglecting the common good.

Principle 4, as stated in the Comp Plan and as implemented in our Municipal Code, declares on behalf of the community as a whole that the interests of property owners should be (and will be, in fact) respected when decisions are made on land uses.

The zoning code and all ordinances governing land uses (in general and in specific decisions by the Director of Planning) must be in accord with this and other principles in the Comp Plan.  Inevitably, public and private interests exist in some tension.  I believe they can be kept in balance, so long as all parties recognize the need for balance and avoid over-reaching.

Experience suggests that throughout the update process, it will be difficult to maintain a balance that is satisfactory to the great majority of Islanders.  The Council has a role to play in affirming the importance of that balance, and designing a process that will improve the public understanding of measures that will support, for the foreseeable future, both private property rights and the welfare of the community.

3. Foster diversity of the residents of the Island, its most precious resource.

In its present demographic makeup and in what it may become, diversity in the Island’s population wears many faces.  Bainbridge is not typical of communities in the Puget Sound region, but “special” in ways that excite local pride and may also be problematic.

Racially and ethnically, we are not especially diverse, but more so than we were twenty years ago.  Relative to other communities, a high percentage of our citizens are 55 and older, and a low percentage are between 25 and 40.  Many in the community are affluent, to the extent that affluence rather than a middle-class income may be regarded as the norm.  It is not the case, however, that any single group or set of values dominates our local culture; diversity in backgrounds, lifestyles, and interests defines our social fabric and civic life.

Can individuals and families of modest means feel secure on Bainbridge?  Does our community contain and support its own service sector, or do people in low-wage jobs and professions have to live elsewhere and travel long distances to meet our needs?

The update process should involve gathering and interpreting up-to-date information on our population, our economy, and any trends apparent in the Puget Sound region.  We need to be prepared for both prosperity and economic hardships in the decades ahead.

In the broad, basic sector of health, housing, and human services, Bainbridge Island has for some years lacked a comprehensive agency for planning and delivery of services.  The Comp Plan review and update should consider whether this is a problem, and if so, propose responses.

2. Protect the water resources of the Island.

One way of measuring – or, if you will, worrying about – the ‘carrying capacity’ of Bainbridge Island involves trying to determine how many people our aquifers and water systems can support.  In recent decades the Island’s population has gone through periods of rapid growth, and we may see rapid growth again in the near future.  (Lately, I believe, our average household size has gone down while the number of households has increased.)

It is hard to see how the number of people who move to Bainbridge can be controlled, but our water resources can be protected by conservation measures, by land use and housing policies that conserve open space and promote aquifer recharge, and by efficient management of water and sewer systems.

We need to be prepared for the impacts of climate change.  As life becomes more difficult in other parts of the U. S. and the world, more people may be moving to our region.  Rising tides in Puget Sound may increase the risk of salt water intrusion in some shallow aquifers.  Seasonal rainfall patterns may change drastically, affecting aquifer recharge.  Now is the time to plan for mitigation and for adaptation to these vulnerabilities.

1. Preserve the special character of the Island, which includes forested areas, meadows, farms, marine views, and winding roads bordered by dense vegetation.

The first version of the Comprehensive Plan referred to “the rural character of the Island,” and this term did not pass muster: the idea of rural character inside a city was too paradoxical, so “special” (an ‘as you like it’ word) was substituted.  Over time, that special character has been somewhat ‘suburbanized.’  (The process began, of course, long before incorporation and creation of the Comp Plan, and resistance to it had much to do with the decision to form an island-wide government.)

Those changes in our built environment and its natural setting have been market-driven, and I would say the consequences have been a mixed blessing.  I would also say that preservation of the Island’s ‘special character’ is far from being a lost cause.

I am sure there will be a concerted effort to constrain, and perhaps to slow down, residential development in the areas outside of Winslow, especially in the areas zoned for lower density (R-0.4 and R-1).  Such changes in the policies governing community development can’t be accomplished in the Comprehensive Plan, but the update process is, in my opinion, the proper context for the deep conversations we need to have.  I will look to the City Council to provide a policy framework for those conversations.

Posted in Climate Change, Community, Comprehensive Plan, Cultural Change, Demographic Groups, Economy, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Housing, income inequality, Island values, Middle class, People, Property Rights, Values | Comments Off

The Comprehensive Plan’s Five Overriding Principles (Part I)

Jon Quitslund

“Development should be based on the principle that the Island’s environmental resources are finite and must be maintained at a sustainable level.”

What I’ve just quoted is the fifth of the Five Overriding Principles that are stated prominently in the introductory segment of our current Comprehensive Plan.  (The Comp Plan, created in 1994 and revised in 2004, can be accessed on the City’s website; the Introduction begins with a Vision Statement and a list of Goals, followed by the Principles.)

The challenge ahead for citizens of Bainbridge Island, as we approach the two-year process of re-examining and updating the Plan, is to achieve a broadly accepted understanding of what Development means on Bainbridge Island: what sorts of development have occurred over the past twenty years or so, and what can be planned for (and, on the other hand, prevented or mitigated) in the years ahead.

“Development” is prominent among the bugaboo words in our vocabulary; it seems that whatever form new development takes, some people will strenuously take exception to it.  Change, in our beloved community, is unsettling, and even people who find a lot to dislike in the status quo are inclined to feel that, at least in the built environment, change is likely to make things worse, not better.

Still, we had better realize that we don’t live in Brigadoon.  Look around you: what sorts of property development do you see, and what can be anticipated in the foreseeable future?  Given the undeveloped and under-developed properties in all parts of the Island, we had better anticipate change and try to shape it in ways that are beneficial.

Going back to that fifth principle: What does it mean to maintain “environmental resources . . . at a sustainable level”?  Are we doing that now?  How can we attain that level?

The concept of sustainability is a good one, in spite of all the flak it has attracted: anyone capable of grownup thinking and behavior has to admit that only prudent long-range planning can provide for a decent future.  Of course, as a concept, sustainability is nebulous; it should be understood as an aspirational ideal, made real only in practice, in cooperation with others, over time and through trial and error.

While I believe that the obligation to update our Comprehensive Plan comes at a good time, I’m not sure how far the political will of the community is going to carry us on the path to that “sustainable level.”  Just as “sustainable” can’t be defined in advance, our political will has to be discovered in the process of working together.

An efficient process and good results depend, I think, on policy guidance from the City Council, working in collaboration with the City Manager.  As I understand it, the Department of Planning and Community Development (PCD) are wary of a process that’s perceived as “staff driven”: they want to preside over a review and revision of the Comp Plan that is shaped by citizens’ interests and values.

There will certainly be an elaborate plan for citizen participation, and success with such a plan will require structure, a schedule, and guiding principles.  It’s important to recognize, also, that to be effective, the Comp Plan requires implementing language in the Municipal Code: we’ll have to figure out how that can be achieved most effectively.

Are the Five Overriding Principles in the current Comp Plan still current and valid? I will look to the Council to examine and discuss them, either reaffirming or revising them so that all participants in the update process have a solid frame of reference for their work.

In the second part of this essay, I will offer some comments and questions prompted by the other four principles.


Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Cooperation, Cultural Change, Economy, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Island values, Place, Values | Comments Off

NO on the Keystone XL Pipeline

Jon Quitslund

keystone pipeline protestors“Guard well our human chain,/ Watch well you keep it strong,/As long as sun will shine.” (Pete Seeger, 1919-2014)

I am writing in anticipation of a demonstration in Seattle on Monday, February 3, saying “NO” in response to the State Department’s final Environmental Impact Statement on the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Chances are, you’ll read this some time after February 3rd, but the issues will remain with us for months to come, and there will be other occasions to voice your opinion.

The XL Pipeline decision has been pending for a long time, and still more time will pass before the buck stops and President Obama announces his decision.  First, Secretary Kerry has to speak his mind, and right now he’s dealing with more urgent business.

There’s background and a context for all of this, and I want to address some of that.  The recent State of the Union message didn’t contain any hints at the President’s inclination on the Pipeline; it only made clear that he considers other things more important – inequality and unemployment, for instance, and Republicans’ refusal to cooperate or compromise.

In the days before the State of the Union message, The New Yorker published a long article by David Remnick based on wide-ranging conversations with the President.  It’s revealing and appealing; it captures Mr. Obama’s character and the workings of his mind at a crucial point in his presidency.

One passage in the article jumped out at me, begging for interpretation.  Remnick asked Mr. Obama “what he felt he must get done before leaving office.”  The question led him to compare his circumstances to those faced by two other presidents: “I think we are fortunate at the moment that we do not face a crisis of the scale and scope that Lincoln or F.D.R. faced. So I think it’s unrealistic to suggest that I can narrow my focus the way those two Presidents did.”

This means, I take it, that although he doesn’t have the Civil War or World War II to fight, he faces challenges on several fronts that are harder to manage successfully.

He goes on, however, to narrow the focus: “I will measure myself at the end of my Presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society.”

I want to praise this emphasis on mending the flaws in our social fabric and controlling the economic forces that have created a widening gap between the rich and the rest of us.  For too long, too many Democrats have been unwilling to acknowledge these problems, let alone do something about them.

The President’s priorities are appropriate, and politically apt, but it will take more than a jobs program, an increase in the minimum wage, and more support for education to make lasting progress toward those goals.  My concern is that the basic conditions of our environment, globally and locally, are likely to undermine any short-term progress.

Over the long haul, everyone’s wellbeing will be threatened, or at least compromised, by the drastic consequences of climate change.  In many parts of the world the problems are urgent already.  Googling the scary phrase climate chaos, I was startled to find that it’s the name of a popular online adventure game designed for kids.  Unfortunately, sometimes life imitates art, and in this instance it’s not funny.

Back in May of last year, writing in the Financial Times, the eminent economist Martin Wolf took up the topic “Why the world faces climate chaos.”  He notes that “risk of calamitous change is large,” and he lists several reasons why, on a global scale, very little has been done to acknowledge the size of the problem and begin to address it.  Mr. Wolf asks, “So why are we behaving like this?”

“The first and deepest reason is that, as the civilization of ancient Rome was built on slaves, ours is built on fossil fuels. … Putting carbon into the atmosphere is what we do.”  How much longer will we be bound to continue doing business as usual?

The climate for thinking and taking action in response to what scientists call “carbon forcing” has changed somewhat in recent months.  Al Gore, for example, has come out strongly against the continued extraction of tar sands oil in Alberta, Canada, and the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to some accounts of the State Department’s Supplemental E I S, President Obama will have a hard time justifying a decision against the pipeline.  I’ve seen other accounts, however, that read that massive document differently.  They stop short of predicting what Obama will do, but find support for arguments that the pipeline is absolutely not “in our nation’s interest,” which is the crowning criterion for the final decision.

As I understand it, the State Department’s analysis was constrained by a basic principle of diplomacy: respect for Canada’s sovereignty meant that whether the tar sands oil should or would be extracted was not to be considered in the calculation of the pipeline’s environmental impact.

But as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, K. C. Golden, and others are pointing out, that analysis begs the most important questions.  Should the hard-to-transport and hard-to-refine crappy stuff from Alberta’s waste lands be extracted, or left alone?  Can our planet’s atmosphere and the oceans and earth digest all of the carbon-based gases and noxious by-products entailed in this enormous and reckless industry?

I’m going to end this post abruptly, leaving those questions hanging.  There is so much more to say, and I’ll come back to this subject and its local implications in another post, as soon as possible.


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