Planning for the ‘Neighborhood Centers’ on Bainbridge Island

Jon Quitslund

It’s become possible for me to imagine the end of the Planning Commission’s work on the Comprehensive Plan update, which has occupied part of my mind and untold hours and days of my life for more than two years. (Others – especially Jennifer Sutton, Joe Tovar, and Maradel Gale – have also been deep in the process.)

There is work to be done on two more important elements of the Plan, but they are short and simple compared to where we started, with the Introduction, Land Use, and Environmental elements, and then with very substantial improvements to the Economic and Housing elements.

The Planning Commission is on notice that we need to complete a clean draft of the entire Comprehensive Plan by August 18th.  I’m looking forward to September, when there will be two public meetings in the Council chambers at which the Planning Commission’s draft of the Plan will be presented and discussed. The meeting on Saturday, September 17, will run from 9 a. m. to noon, and on Thursday, September 22, the meeting will start at 4:30 p. m. and end at 8. Save the dates, and tell your friends!

At each event, the first hour and a half will be an Open House, where City staff and Planning Commission members will be available to discuss goals and policies in the individual Elements. Each Open House will be followed by a Public Hearing, where the Planning Commission will accept comments on the Plan.

Oral comments, together with any opinions that we receive in writing, may lead to revisions before the Planning Commission’s draft is sent to the City Council for their review, and they will be included in the package that goes to the Council.

Copies of the updated Plan will be available well in advance of the meetings, along with summaries that highlight the most important changes in goals and policies. Citizens interested in contributing to the Public Hearing should be familiar with the part or parts of the Plan that pertain to their concerns.

Of course, we will also welcome expressions of support for the initiatives being taken in this very careful and thorough revision.

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If you’ve followed any of my earlier posts tracking the update process, you will be aware that the Planning Commission, with the help of COBI staff and many engaged citizens, has been working to come to grips with the problems we face today and challenges we will encounter over the next twenty years and beyond. This update has responded to a sense of urgency, and it breaks new ground in many areas.

I want to address here an important feature of the update that is sure to be somewhat controversial – maybe not as it appears in the language of the Plan, but as it is implemented in changes to the Municipal Code and put in practice, with all deliberate speed, over a period of years.

As you may know, the first Comprehensive Plan from 1994 and the 2004 revision both sought to manage residential development and population growth by accommodating 50% of growth in the Winslow area and the Neighborhood Service Centers (Lynwood, Rolling Bay, and Island Center). In recent years, that strategy has been working well: Winslow and Lynwood Center are very different from what they were in 2004, and change has also come to Rolling Bay.

But Winslow, within its current boundaries, can’t absorb 45% or even 40% of the population growth and property development anticipated over the next 20 years. This fact was recognized early in the update process, when we started work on the Land Use element. We also recognized that if current zoning and land use regulations remain unchanged, the broad green areas of the Island, zoned to permit low density residential development, would soon enough be cleared and dominated by large, expensive houses.

The suburbanizing tendency is already apparent, and I guess it is widely regarded as business as usual, like it or not. But must it continue unchecked? The updated Land Use element proposes an alternative.

The foundation of the Land Use element is an Island-wide Conservation and Development Strategy that distinguishes between designated centers (Winslow the established neighborhood centers), where development will be encouraged at urban and suburban densities, and the lower-density conservation areas – approximately 90% of the Island, where further development will be permitted, combined with preservation of forested areas and open space.

This conception of the most appropriate pattern for land use on Bainbridge is not new, and not radical. It’s consistent with the zoning code: most of the Island’s land (and most of the currently undeveloped land) is zoned R-0.4 or R-1, for one residence on 2 ½ or 1 acre. But in recent years we have not had regulations and procedures in place that emphasized the importance – even the necessity – of combining conservation with appropriate forms of residential development.

Public sentiment in favor of conservation and opposed to rampant, poorly planned development is obvious enough. So the City has some catching up to do. Planning for development in the ‘designated centers’ will be a crucial part of that.

A month ago I wrote about ‘Low Impact Development’ (LID) standards and the difference they will make, especially in the lower-density zones. I’ll have more to say on that subject in due time; now I want to focus on the ‘designated centers.’

Here on Bainbridge, there seems to be at least a ten year lag between the emergence of problem-solving ideas and the gear-grinding that precedes a productive response. The first Comprehensive Plan identified Lynwood Center, Island Center, and Rolling Bay as neighborhood service centers (NSC’s) and treated them more as relics than as potential nodes for positive development. In 2004, ten years later, things looked different.

I recently came across a column I wrote for the Bainbridge Islander, published in 2004 for the week of November 20-26. It’s somewhat dated, but I think the perspective it offers on the historic neighborhoods has some value. Here’s what I wrote back then.

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Signs on Highway 3 tell people how far they are from the “City of Bainbridge Island.” As everybody on Bainbridge knows, it’s a city only for administrative and political purposes. There is one town, Winslow, but if you say to a longtime islander, “I’m going to town,” they are likely to think you have something to do in Seattle.

From the beginning, people on Bainbridge have shared some sense of the island as a geographic whole, but there is no corresponding cultural coherence. Most of us live in secluded houses and disparate neighborhoods. Except for residents of Winslow, an everyday sense of the island as a community is formed around one’s own neck of the woods.

In all but the newest and most ambitious developments, one’s neighborhood is identified by a name that dates from the 19th or the early 20th century. When I’m asked where I live, I say ‘Crystal Springs’ or ‘near Lynwood Center.’ It pleases me that some of the earliest buildings that defined those neighborhoods still exist and remain useful.

I would like to see more attention paid – by citizens’ groups and City Hall – to revitalizing social and commercial activities in the old neighborhoods. Wouldn’t people be better off if they were less dependent for their daily needs on our most crowded roads? How about shopping in Winslow less, and enjoying it more?

The pre-eminence of Winslow among the island’s centers of population and commerce can be traced back to the late 1930s, when ferry service was centralized in Eagle Harbor. Changes in the island’s economy, exacerbated by the Great Depression, already had pushed other communities into decline. The growth of Winslow during and after World War II worked like a magnet to draw business away from neighborhood stores.

It looks like commuting and daily errands that add dozens of miles to the odometer will define most of our lives for some time to come. The “Winslow Tomorrow” congress, therefore, needs to worry constructively about transportation and parking.

Cars no longer signify freedom, however. The good people responsible for revision of the island’s Comprehensive Plan are at least dimly aware that dispersing traffic and commercial activity would be a good thing.

The original Comp Plan identified three neighborhood service centers: Island Center, Lynwood Center and Rolling Bay. In those areas outside of Winslow, significant commercial activity is already going on.

In the Comp Plan update now taking final shape, a door is opened to expansion of the boundaries of Rolling Bay. This is startling and most welcome, as some very interesting things are happening there. I would love to see the City get involved in stimulating and shaping future developments around the intersection of Sunrise Drive and Valley Road.

The Rolling Bay that I remember from the 1950s was a quiet place that had survived from busier and more prosperous times. The post office, established in 1892 and threatened with closure in more modern times, now attracts people who would rather stand in line there than in Winslow. Rodal’s general store, an almost-empty shop where I bought candy as a kid, now houses part of Bay Hay & Feed, a reinvention of the general store.

Community assets that will benefit the whole island are tucked away in Rolling Bay: the future home of the Island Music Guild, for example. There’s also land waiting for its highest and best use to be discovered. The hodge-podge look of things arouses mixed emotions: I see potential for healthy growth, and for a mess of missed opportunities.

The upscale Rolling Bay Bungalows are wedged between a wild garden and the venerable Coleman house, perched on the highest ground in the neighborhood. I hope the bungalows, nice as they are, don’t set the tone for further residential development. Rolling Bay could be a great location for some affordable cottage housing.

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1 Response to Planning for the ‘Neighborhood Centers’ on Bainbridge Island

  1. Brigetta Johnson says:

    Jon, I must just say upfront, you are so awesome! For as long as I have resided here, your stalwart and proactive dedication to the best interests of this island community has been a beacon of what is best and right about this place. Unfortunately, most Bainbridge Islanders probably have no idea how much gratitude they owe you for your selfless and graceful contributions on their behaves over so many years. May I humbly thank you for all of us! Cheers!

    You have made many good points here now and going back many years. I have much to add on the subject of community and land development on the island. Due to personal health issues, I have not been able to make an effort in this way for nearly a decade but, I hope to change that and to take a more active role going forward.

    I believe that rigorous and dedicated foresight and intelligent planning is absolutely crucial to mitigating for the exponential growth we are forecasted to experience both here and in our greater state. Of course, timely policy to reflect the best we can achieve in development with LID is imperative. Along these lines, a constant eye on zoning to preserve rural, recreational and conservation areas is paramount. As the county in our state with the highest shoreline to square area ratio, I think Bainbridge Island, with it’s higher per capita tax base, should serve as a role model for our county and wider state. We should aspire to be representative of a gold standard in all areas of community development from growth management to habitat conservation. If we can’t achieve that with our top education and income levels here, then where?!

    At the top of my list of desires is that we take a 100 year forward perspective. I hate the idea that future generations will have to pay a high price for our short-sightedness. I am very much in favor of building higher, multi occupant structures in lieu of suburban sprawl. Just the benefit of conserving all important, carbon waste capturing trees is worth taking a high rise approach to development. This is not to mention the added benefits of aquifer recharging, habitat conservation and rural esthetic preservation to name a few. I am dismayed, for example, by the permitting of such a large footprint per capita development like the Grow community which is so close to the heart of what should be our Island’s highest density area of Winslow. Going forward, building tall over sprawl should be our collective call. This is just the tip of a greater centennial master plan I hope to put out there for consideration. More to follow……

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