At the August 13 meeting, the Planning Commission agenda included an all-but-final review of the Land Use element, which has been through several stages of revision. The meeting was sparsely attended (the crowd gathered nearby for the ‘Farm to Table’ spread offered by Friends of the Farms were surely better served) and nothing momentous happened in the Council chambers, but the Commissioners and City staff did their diligent best with some nit-picky details, and now we can move on to the Environmental element.
Here are some wrapping-up comments on the Land Use element, both on what it contains and on what remains to be done.
The Land Use element establishes a foundation for the Comprehensive Plan as a whole. Several goals and policies are introduced there that will be more extensively handled in other elements (in the Environmental, Economic, and Water Resources elements, for example).
Working with the text of the 2004 Comp Plan, we did a good deal of trimming and reorganizing. In the process, and not only in the most recent meeting, we encountered vehement objections from citizens who suspect that any change in the Comp Plan is likely to be for the worse.
On the contrary, I believe that in the revised Land Use element we have clarified and improved, considerably, the presentation of proactive Goals and Policies. Effective implementation of the policies through ordinances that revise the Municipal Code won’t be easy, but the new Plan will provide clearer pathways than we have had in the past.
Major improvements appear in the first five Goals and the associated Policies (pp. 7 to 13 in the current draft). These are not all new; some have been brought to the front from the back pages of the 2004 Plan. Together, they constitute an Island-Wide Land Use Strategy, and they modify the current strategy that sought to place 50% of new development in Winslow, 5% in the three Neighborhood Service Centers (primarily in Lynwood), and 45% dispersed elsewhere in the Open Space Residential zones.
The next segment (LU-6 through LU-12, pp. 14-18) carries the heading General Land Use: it further articulates the strategy and relates it to the GMA and Kitsap Regional Planning Council predictions of our population growth between 2010 and 2036.
The Island’s population in 2010 was 23,025; the estimated increase is 5,635 persons. That number (24.5% over the 2010 census figure) is sometimes referred to as a “target,” and more accurately as an “allocation” – the share of estimated regional growth that we are obligated to plan for.
It has been established that without changes to current zoning regulations, Bainbridge Island has more than enough undeveloped and underdeveloped land to accommodate that increase in population.
Do we need to institute “pro-growth” policies, to “build so that they will come”? Some people say that’s the long-standing Planning Department policy, and they deplore it. They want the Comp Plan, in this update, to stop growth, or at least place stringent constraints on it.
I don’t see much wisdom, or even common sense, in the “no-growth” attitude, so long as we have property owners, architects, and builders who want to add something of value to the existing housing stock. The cornerstone of land use regulations is that property owners have rights to the use (including development and sale) of their land, within the limits set by the applicable state and local regulations. It’s this basic legal principle, and not an agenda that favors unlimited growth, that guides our planning staff and the Planning Commission.
I suppose I am, within limits, “pro-growth,” but more than that, I’m “pro-planning”: I’m wary of unrestrained market forces and profit motives. And I agree with those who argue that development must be constrained by policies that conserve our natural resources and protect our community’s quality of life.
We need to plan for growth in our population; it’s happening all around us, and I think that (barring some regional disaster) growth in the next twenty years may outpace the current estimates. We need to plan for turnover and flux: births, deaths, people moving here or moving away for all sorts of personal reasons. I hope Bainbridge Island will, in the years ahead, attract and accommodate a demographic mix that is more diverse – economically, culturally, and age-wise – than we are now.
At the same time that we plan for growth, we need to plan for conservation and stewardship of all our natural resources. Maybe climate change, and all the stresses and uncertainties that come with it, will make people more aware of the long-range thinking and day-to-day mindfulness that our privileged place in Puget Sound requires of us.
I mentioned above that the current 50/5/45 ratio for allocating growth to Winslow and other parts of the Island has been set aside. Although there is capacity for some increase in population within Winslow (the urban core and the broader area served by the city’s water and sewer systems), it would be unrealistic to expect 50% of future growth to take place there. Also, Lynwood Center is close to its capacity for residential development, and as things now stand, Rolling Bay and Island Center don’t have much capacity.
The new strategy is less Winslow-centric, and it responds to an emerging interest in clustering residential and small-scale commercial development in several parts of the Island, not only in the established NSC and Business/Industrial districts but in other “nodes” such as Port Madison and Fort Ward.
The strategy is introduced in Goal LU-1 as a long-term and Island-wide plan to combine, or to balance, conservation and development. Can we do this? It’s not impossible, but it will be difficult. We don’t have the necessary regulations in place; in a series of large and small endeavors, the community’s political will is going to be tested in the years to come. Regulations and sub-area plans aren’t all that will be needed.
Goal LU-2 reads, “Conserve the Island’s ecosystems and the green, natural, open character of its landscape.” Island-wide, a large percentage of the Island’s undeveloped and under-developed acreage is in areas designated, in this goal statement and the policies under it, for conservation. Policy LU 2.1 begins, “Preserve the open space area outside Centers through a land use pattern which will enhance the character of the area”; Policy LU 2.2 begins, “Protect open space, critical areas, and agricultural uses through public and private initiatives . . .”
These policies apply to areas zoned for low-density residential development (R-2, R-1, R-0.4), and some lots are constrained, even impractical to build upon, because of critical area conditions. It’s appropriate, therefore, that conservation should be a priority in these areas, and the space cleared for housing should be limited. But this will not happen consistently without more stringent regulations.
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The Planning Commission will move on now to work on the Environmental element, and will return later to add to the Land Use element. For example, we haven’t yet given adequate attention to Goal and Policy statements that respond to specific impacts of climate change.
Policy LU 8.1 acknowledges “that the carrying capacity of the Island is not known,” and this is a somewhat embarrassing admission. I expect that before we’re done with the update, more information and some educated guesses can be brought to bear on this issue.
It has been proposed that the City’s parks, which exist (as a permitted use) on land zoned Residential, be re-classified through creation of a Park zone. The benefits and possible drawbacks of this re-classification have yet to be fully explored, and no language that might be added to the Land Use element has been presented for discussion.
As I understand this matter, the re-zoning of land under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Recreation District would involve the Planning Commission and the Council in the creation and approval of an Ordinance, but it seems that the first step would be a Comprehensive Plan amendment.
Stay tuned for these and other developments.