Conservation and the Economic Landscapes of Bainbridge Island

Jon Quitslund

I began this post months ago and left it half finished.  I’ve come back to it now with new enthusiasm; what I’m writing about pertains directly to work on the Housing element of the Comprehensive Plan (on the Planning Commission agendas for April 28 and May 12).  In that connection, I’ve been provided with ideas that may solve some of the problems I was unable to deal with two months ago.

If there were some way to protect Bainbridge Island from ups and downs in the regional and national economy, you’d think it would have been discovered by now.  We all indulge in wishful thinking:  Can’t we prevent off-Island developers from snapping up properties, taking their profits and running?  Can’t we protect the precious parts of this place that haven’t been spoiled by development?

Is there, after all is said and done, a vital local economy that will add to what’s most treasured in our natural and cultural resources, rather than exploiting opportunities for short-term profits and depleting those resources?

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At the end of October I published some ruminations arising from work on the Economic element.  (Scroll back to Oct. 31, 2015 in the archive if you’re interested: what’s said there about the building, construction, and real estate sector of our local economy is pertinent here.)

For help articulating what our local economy needs if it is to maintain integrity and vitality within the regional economy of Seattle and the West Sound, I appealed to ideas developed by Wendell Berry, and in this post I’m turning to Mr. Berry once again.

For many years, in his fiction and in essays, Wendell Berry has been celebrating the virtues of rural and small town life, and examining the broad historical trends and specific policies that, in many parts of the United States, have pushed small towns into decline and caused losses of the sense of place that had held them together.

We have moved on from the Economic element to other parts of the update, but I have continued to think about our local economy, not in itself but in relation to other elements – Land Use, Environment, and Housing in particular.

The essays in Wendell Berry’s recent book, Our Only World (Counterpoint: Berkeley, 2015) have again stimulated my thinking.  In his title and throughout the book, Berry calls attention to the vulnerability of the world we inhabit and the need for careful stewardship of limited resources.

Berry puts environmental issues in an economic context, and he also relates them to social values and relationships, between people and with the land they occupy.  He is somewhat critical of environmentalists and organizations dedicated to the protection of wilderness and undeveloped land.  Here’s an example.

“The issue of land use is not on the agenda of most conservation organizations, which have been primarily concerned throughout their history with the preservation of wilderness and wildlife habitat, even though most land is being used, and used badly, and though no wilderness or wildlife can survive the prolonged abuse of the economic landscapes.”

This passage, from an essay titled “A Forest Conversation,” led me to think about the Bainbridge Island Land Trust and that organization’s efforts, with the support of generous donors and hard-working stewards of privately owned land that will remain undeveloped, subject to conservancy agreements.

The Land Trust’s big conservation successes, such as the Grand Forest and Hilltop, are well known and properly celebrated.  You may be less aware of the Land Trust’s interest in smaller-scale easements and conservancy agreements that protect forested areas, wildlife habitat, streams and wetlands, on property that is already developed for residential use, or is slated for subdivision and development.

Residential development and environmental conservation don’t have be either/or propositions; actually, I believe we no longer have the luxury of seeing either choice in isolation from the other.  How can the two be reconciled?

In the years ahead, as we implement the policies now being laid down in the updated Comprehensive Plan, I will look to the Land Trust, along with forward-thinking property owners, developers and architects, to collaborate with the City in that work of reconciliation.

The Comp Plan’s Land Use element, now in draft form, requires that we develop an Island-wide conservation plan.  This plan, as I imagine it, won’t prevent development or render it more difficult, but it will manage the pattern and process with reference to long-range goals and the future of our community.  Very likely, the kinds and sizes of houses that are built will be different.

The Planning Commission’s discussion of the Housing element will begin in earnest on April 28th and continue on May 12th.  A thorough revision of that crucial piece of the Comp Plan has already been drafted by staff, and Joe Tovar has also prepared a ‘tool kit’ of materials that will help all who are interested to reach well beyond the regulations and attitudes that are now in place.

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Here’s another quotation from Wendell Berry, from an essay titled “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People”: “All of us who are living owe our lives directly to our connection to the land. I am not talking about the connection that is implied by such a term as ‘environmentalism.’ I am talking about the connection that we make economically, by work, by living, by making a living. This connection, as we see every day, is going to be either familiar, affectionate, and saving, or distant, uncaring, and destructive.”

This is either/or thinking that I can embrace.  Never mind the passing reference to ‘environmentalism’: like other abstractions, the term is a necessary evil.  What matters to Mr. Berry, and to me, is environmental stewardship, not in wilderness areas and legislative agendas, but close to home, in our own neighborhoods and daily lives.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned the building, construction, and real estate sector of our local economy.  I believe that, generally speaking, the people in those businesses are no less committed to environmental stewardship than the rest of us.  Still, there are too many instances of reckless, destructive development, indifferent to the lay of the land and the possibility of enduring connection to what are called, in the Municipal Code, “valued open space features.”

Gaps and flaws in our land use regulations can be blamed for some of the stuff that happens.  We can blame developers and others when they don’t do what’s required of them, but someone else is responsible when what’s expected is never made clear.

I have looked closely at several chapters of the Municipal Code that regulate land clearing and development, and it’s no wonder we have problems.  For instance, in BIMC 17.12, Subdivision Design Standards, I find “conservation and enhancement of natural or scenic resources” mentioned in one place as a worthy objective, but elsewhere the regulations don’t ensure that such conservation will be accomplished.

I’m happy to report that the subdivision design standards are being studied and will be revised.  And this will happen in tandem with the implementation, in response to a state-level mandate, of Low Impact Design standards.  (LID standards will govern how stormwater is handled, in a way that minimizes runoff; this is being described as “a paradigm shift” in planning for development, and it’s going to make the preservation of open space and forested areas a priority.)

I find other reasons to believe that we can, in the Comp Plan update and its implementation, find ways to combine residential development with conservation.  The materials provided to the Planning Commission in connection with the Housing element included a brochure titled Growing Greener; Putting Conservation into Local Codes.  It was written by Randall G. Arendt for the Natural Lands Trust in Pennsylvania.

Growing Greener was first published in 1997, and “conservation subdivisions” have become, I gather, common practice in several parts of the country.  Another iteration of Arendt’s ideas, from 2009, is more fleshed-out and illustrated: look online for Growing Greener; Conservation by Design.  We could have used these ideas some years ago when the subdivision regulations were revised!

I should say that here on Bainbridge some adjustments will have to be made as we apply the conservation design concept.  Bainbridge doesn’t have much room left for long plat subdivisions (5 lots or more), and the examples in Growing Greener are all bigger developments.  But we do have acres of valuable undeveloped land, especially in the R-0.4 and R-1 zones.

How can the long-term value of that land be fully realized, for the benefit of property owners and the community?  The process of “community assessment” described in Growing Greener looks like something well worth undertaking, and it will combine well with the site assessment that LID standards will require, and the protections for aquifer recharge that are also required by state law.

Perhaps I’ll have more to say on this subject after the Planning Commission meetings on Housing.  Come to those meetings if you can.  And stay tuned!

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