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.