In recent weeks, Joni Mitchell’s catchy lyrics have been running in a loop at the back of my mind: “how it always seems to go / you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” Doesn’t that just get you where you live? Nevertheless, we ought to plan for a future brighter than today – earnest effort tinged with irony.
On Thursday, September 24th, the Planning Commission will continue work on the Environmental element, responding to changes proposed by the drafting committee and discussing a few topics on which the committee hasn’t yet proposed language for the Plan.
There’s other important business on the agenda; the Update work is scheduled between 7:40 and 8:40. Public comment on the Update will be heard before and after those times.
I’m writing now about our work in progress because I’ll be traveling for a couple of weeks from the end of the month until mid-October, and there’s a lot to do before we hit the road – destination, the Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks, with sightseeing along the way there and back.
As a separate entity, the Environmental element was new in the 2004 revision of the Comp Plan; parts of it originated in the Land Use element of the 1994 Plan. Structurally, it’s a solid foundation, and we’ve changed only a few Goal statements, while adding specifics to the Policies.
I think the citizens of Bainbridge Island are generally, and sometimes acutely, aware of new stresses upon and within our natural environment. The recommendations for new language respond to those circumstances. The page-long introductory statement from 2004 includes this sentence: “As our Island grows and develops, continued protection of varied open space areas and environmentally sensitive landscape is necessary to maintain the quality of life that is currently enjoyed on Bainbridge Island.”
That statement is good, as far as it goes. The Planning Commission will consider adding this: “Additionally, the unpredictable cumulative impacts of climate change in our region justify appeals to the Precautionary Principle. Climate change may require that the areas we protect and the approaches we use to achieve our goals and policies will change.”
(Here is a definition of the precautionary principle: “An approach to risk management, stating that if an activity carries a threat of causing serious harm to the public or to the environment, the burden of proof that it should not be limited or prohibited falls on proponents of the activity.”)
Observed and anticipated impacts of climate change are mentioned many times in the recommended changes to the Environmental element, and they will be mentioned elsewhere in the Plan, largely thanks to the work of EcoAdapt, a local consulting firm headed by Lara Hansen. (Lara and EcoAdapt are under contract to produce a Climate Impact Assessment for Bainbridge Island.)
The intent of many changes in the goals and policies is to make both citizens and City authorities less reactive, more pro-active in support of the community’s interests. We must all bear in mind, however, that the Comprehensive Plan will only be as good as the Municipal Code, ordinances, and resolutions that implement the Plan. And it’s my great hope that enlightened self-interest and citizen initiatives will stay out in front of what’s required by law.
The Planning Commission will be asked to give direction on a few matters that are not yet covered in the revised draft. Also, there’s a substantial part of the 2004 version, dealing with a Greenways Plan, that has been tagged for review later, when we study non-motorized transportation planning in the Transportation Element.
The parts of the Environmental element of greatest interest to me pertain to agriculture (i. e., farm lands and farming) and the many parts of Bainbridge Island that remain forested, more or less in a natural state.
Farming, along with kitchen gardens and community gardens, is reviving and coming into some prominence within the culture of Bainbridge Island. “No farms, no food!” And although we have to rely on industrial agriculture and big-business suppliers for much that we eat, local and small-scale producers add quality to our diets and strength to our social fabric.
Over the long term, though, farming won’t flourish here if we don’t plan and provide land for agricultural uses. To quote a statement from the draft, under the heading of “Agricultural Lands”: “Agriculture is a vulnerable enterprise in any rapidly growing area.”
If you’re concerned about suburban-style sprawl and escalating prices, think about the impact of those trends on land that is now devoted to farming, or could be if the cost of purchase or lease were compatible with a farmer’s income. Further, in my view, open space devoted to crops or pasture is an invaluable antidote to the monotony and placelessness of subdivisions and big houses on small lots.
Open space and small lots devoted to agriculture contribute significantly to the Island-wide conservation strategy described (sketchily and optimistically) in the revised Land Use element. Forest lands and significant trees, groves, and parks are even more important in this regard.
Two segments of the Environmental element are devoted to the Island’s forest resources. The first, under the heading of “Forest Lands,” applies specifically to the dwindling number of “large tracts of second-growth timber” which, at least theoretically, exist to provide the property owners with commercially valuable timber and an opportunity to convert the land to non-forest uses.
In recent years, largely thanks to the Bainbridge Island Land Trust and the foresight of many property owners, many acres of forest have been preserved. Still, clearing and development have taken place that I (and other watchdogs more vigilant than I have been) consider reckless and wasteful. And most of the time it’s ‘all perfectly legal.’
In several parts of the Municipal Code, the regulations relating to trees and forests are quite elaborate. For the most part, what’s required, permitted, and prohibited is spelled out clearly, and planners know very well what part of the Code applies in a specific instance.
However, the several parts of the Code are not, as a whole, coherent. “How could they be?” you might ask. Well, they could be better, and the Comp Plan update can point in that direction, to be more responsive to the need for balance and compatibility between the pressures for development and conservation.
Under the heading of “Forest Lands,” a descriptive paragraph states that as of August this year, “529.34 acres were classified as timberlands by the Kitsap County Tax Assessor.” That’s down from 620 acres in 2004. The Planning Commission will consider adding to that descriptive paragraph: “These forest lands, together with tracts that are protected by conservancy agreements and other privately owned forested acres that may not be classified as timberlands, have immeasurable value within the Island-wide conservation strategy.”
The Goal statement (EN-23) has been revised by the drafting committee to read as follows: “Encourage the retention of forest land and multiple-aged forests, since healthy forests provide many ecological benefits to all forms of life on the Island.” The policies linked to that goal emphasize stewardship, selective harvest, protection of critical areas, and (when land is converted from forest use) compact development that limits the extent of clearing and soil disturbance.
Several more policies are proposed under the heading of “Community Forests and Trees.” Consider this revision of language from the 2004 Plan: “The community forests on Bainbridge Island are comprised of the street tree system in the urban center, trees in parks and on other public lands, and trees and forested areas on private properties throughout the Island. Bainbridge Island’s urban and rural forests have historically been a source of community identity and civic pride. Trees and forested areas are essential to the Island-wide conservation strategy.”
The 2004 Plan included this statement: “The Community Forestry commission should be supported and maintained to provide leadership in community outreach.” As it happened, a few years ago, after the production of a Community Forest Management Plan (2006) and a Best Management Practices Manual (2007, 2010), a quarrel developed over Municipal Code regulations and the Forestry commission disbanded.
Times have changed, and the Planning Commission will consider this policy statement (EN 24.4): “A community-wide program to educate Island residents about the functions and values of trees should be put into effect. The City should consider partnering with the Bainbridge Island Land Trust and re-establishing a Community Forestry Commission.”
The agenda also calls for a review of public comment on the Economic element that was received during a workshop discussion on July 29. Revision of that element will be our next big challenge. I’ll miss the Planning Commission meeting on October 8, but I’ll be back in time for a meeting on October 15.