Our “Island Values”: What Are They?

Jon Quitslund

A while ago the managers of Inside Bainbridge, an invaluable online source for news and commentary on local affairs, put up “Tips for Bainbridge Island Newbies (& Visitors).”  I found the tips both witty and informative.  Among the comments in response was one from “Marty,” and it got me thinking.

“Now that you have tackled Island Etiquette,” he said, “would you be willing to write an article on ‘Island Values’?  I regularly read letters to the editor that speak of ‘Island Values.’  Having been here 5 years, I can’t figure out what ‘Island Values’ mean.  It reminds me of people who use the term ‘family values.’  It’s like code words for insiders and I would love to know the real code.”

Like I said, this got me thinking.  I posted an off-the-cuff reply, and somewhat to my surprise, it was published.  But ‘Island values’ are a big subject, somewhat enigmatic and therefore troublesome.  The topic is worth considering at length, and perhaps I can prompt some discussion.

It seems to me that our local cultural values favor a sustainability agenda up to a point, but also put some obstacles in the way of serious thought and radical action.

In my short reply to Marty, I said that Island values “have mostly to do with ‘fitting in,’ not ‘sticking out.’”  And Marty is right in his sense that there are unwritten and even unspoken expectations in our local culture: you may not know what they are unless you’ve crossed one of the invisible lines.

The “real code” is neither as complicated nor as strict as it is, say, in Japan.  Bainbridge society has never been homogeneous, nor is it caste-based.  We are still rather clannish or clique-ish, but with a larger and more diverse population, and much more going on than in the old days, there are many possible focal points for anyone’s effort to ‘fit in.’

Even though nowadays the dominant culture on Bainbridge is in the liberal mainstream, sometimes tending left of liberal, the Island values alluded to in such places as letters to the editor are rather conventional and conservative.  Island values do change, but resistance to change is a basic ingredient in the mix.

For example: both in private homes and public buildings, architecture that is affirmatively ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ is rare on Bainbridge.  When plans for the Bainbridge Island Art Museum were first presented, they were widely criticized as ‘too modern’: in its prominent location, the museum was expected to fit in, not to ‘make a statement.’  The Grow Community development has faced similar criticism.

In a number of ways, for reasons I can guess at but don’t entirely understand, our local culture tends to encourage ‘groupthink.’  Even very thoughtful people don’t engage much in dialogue with people who disagree with them, and as a consequence they don’t have to reflect critically on their own principles.

Most Islanders are averse to the risks and consequences of open disagreement with other Islanders.  (In private and among friends, of course, there’s plenty of talk about the people for whom we have, as my mom used to say, “a minimum of high regard.”)  ‘Civility’ places high among Island values, and this is a good trait in our local political culture, but that strength carries with it a soft underbelly.  We shouldn’t be afraid of open discord on real issues, and the usual circle-the-wagons response to criticism doesn’t serve us well.

Why, when factions develop in the City Council and some voices are loud or shrill, is it taken as a sign of dysfunction and a reason for citizens to deplore everything that goes on in City Hall?  This is an area where, in my opinion, wishful thinking about getting along by keeping disagreements out of sight serves only to make matters worse.  Unacknowledged, or met with a kneejerk response, disagreements don’t go away, and sometimes they fester.

Sometimes, in defense of Island values, it’s necessary to lodge a protest.  The scope and meaning of those values got a good test over the course of several months while the proposal for a shopping center on the northeast corner of the High School Road and Hwy 305 intersection made its way through the permitting process.

At first, unhappiness with the ‘Visconsi project’ was limited to a few individual voices, and expressions of outrage were tinged with uncertainty about what could be done.  Gradually, however, leaders emerged who were persistent in studying what was being proposed and considering whether or not it was consistent with provisions in our Comprehensive Plan, the zoning ordinance, and other regulations.

By the way, anyone seriously interested in understanding ‘Island values’ ought to study the Comprehensive Plan: its primary purpose is to articulate our community’s dominant cultural values, doing so in relation to our physical, economic, and demographic circumstances.

Simultaneous with the development of a very broad-based community opposition to the shopping center project and its impact on traffic and safety in its neighborhood, the seven members of the Planning Commission (myself included) studied all the information presented to them and sought to determine whether to recommend approval of the proposed development’s site plan and conditional use application, approval under certain conditions, or rejection.

The Planning Commission’s decision could not be based on anything so nebulous as ‘Island values,’ but those values are spelled out in the Comprehensive Plan and other applicable regulations and design guidelines; certain state laws also apply.

As is well known, at its meeting on November 14, 2013, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend denial of the Visconsi site plan.  The validity of this recommendation and the reasons given for it will be tested in a quasi-judicial public hearing before the City’s Hearing Examiner.  A date for this hearing has not yet been announced.

Cultural values do much to define a community, but by their nature they are in flux and subject to interpretation.  Events may clarify them: our recent election was unusual in that it involved two informal but well-defined slates of candidates for the three open seats on the City Council, and the result was a clear victory for one group over the other.  So the hopes of many people were vindicated, while others were disappointed.

I will end with some thoughts on another test of our values, which was an issue during the Council election but has not yet been settled.

The prolonged process of updating our Shoreline Management Program has revealed a deep fault line in our cultural values.  Universally, it seems, we value our natural environment and our situation in the middle of Puget Sound, but Islanders disagree passionately on the sort of regulations that should govern the use and enjoyment of our shorelines.

The state Department of Ecology’s guidelines make it clear that the public’s interest in the ecology of Puget Sound and the nearshore environment must be reconciled carefully with the rights of shoreline property owners, but at every meeting devoted to discussion of the SMP, irate citizens expressed their conviction that some part of the program, if not the entire regulatory shebang, imposes on their security and their rights as property owners.

The idea of self-government is absolutely fundamental to our Island values, but that idea means different things to different folks, and maybe some differences are incompatible.

Self-government was the civic principle behind incorporation of our partly rural, partly suburban island as an odd sort of city, legally as well as geographically somewhat separate from Kitsap county.  But how well is our government aligned with our values?

If the right to self-government is a civic, communitarian principle, it is also an individualistic, libertarian principle: the desire to be left alone by government, and to associate freely with like-minded friends and neighbors, runs deep in our community’s history.  And it runs sometimes in cross-currents, both at odds with Island values and in support of them.

At the most recent Council meeting devoted to public comment on the SMP, I heard some extreme and ill-founded objections to its regulations, but I also heard what seemed to me authentic complaints from people who feel that their commitment to stewardship of their property and the natural environment has been devalued and imposed upon.

I hope that over time, the principles animating the SMP will be better understood and some of the rough edges and nitty-gritty details will be rubbed away.

This entry was posted in Activism, Community, Cultural Change, Elections, Island values, Organized protest, Property Rights, Shoreline Management Program, Shorelines, Values. Bookmark the permalink.