The Comprehensive Plan’s Five Overriding Principles (Part I)

Jon Quitslund

“Development should be based on the principle that the Island’s environmental resources are finite and must be maintained at a sustainable level.”

What I’ve just quoted is the fifth of the Five Overriding Principles that are stated prominently in the introductory segment of our current Comprehensive Plan.  (The Comp Plan, created in 1994 and revised in 2004, can be accessed on the City’s website; the Introduction begins with a Vision Statement and a list of Goals, followed by the Principles.)

The challenge ahead for citizens of Bainbridge Island, as we approach the two-year process of re-examining and updating the Plan, is to achieve a broadly accepted understanding of what Development means on Bainbridge Island: what sorts of development have occurred over the past twenty years or so, and what can be planned for (and, on the other hand, prevented or mitigated) in the years ahead.

“Development” is prominent among the bugaboo words in our vocabulary; it seems that whatever form new development takes, some people will strenuously take exception to it.  Change, in our beloved community, is unsettling, and even people who find a lot to dislike in the status quo are inclined to feel that, at least in the built environment, change is likely to make things worse, not better.

Still, we had better realize that we don’t live in Brigadoon.  Look around you: what sorts of property development do you see, and what can be anticipated in the foreseeable future?  Given the undeveloped and under-developed properties in all parts of the Island, we had better anticipate change and try to shape it in ways that are beneficial.

Going back to that fifth principle: What does it mean to maintain “environmental resources . . . at a sustainable level”?  Are we doing that now?  How can we attain that level?

The concept of sustainability is a good one, in spite of all the flak it has attracted: anyone capable of grownup thinking and behavior has to admit that only prudent long-range planning can provide for a decent future.  Of course, as a concept, sustainability is nebulous; it should be understood as an aspirational ideal, made real only in practice, in cooperation with others, over time and through trial and error.

While I believe that the obligation to update our Comprehensive Plan comes at a good time, I’m not sure how far the political will of the community is going to carry us on the path to that “sustainable level.”  Just as “sustainable” can’t be defined in advance, our political will has to be discovered in the process of working together.

An efficient process and good results depend, I think, on policy guidance from the City Council, working in collaboration with the City Manager.  As I understand it, the Department of Planning and Community Development (PCD) are wary of a process that’s perceived as “staff driven”: they want to preside over a review and revision of the Comp Plan that is shaped by citizens’ interests and values.

There will certainly be an elaborate plan for citizen participation, and success with such a plan will require structure, a schedule, and guiding principles.  It’s important to recognize, also, that to be effective, the Comp Plan requires implementing language in the Municipal Code: we’ll have to figure out how that can be achieved most effectively.

Are the Five Overriding Principles in the current Comp Plan still current and valid? I will look to the Council to examine and discuss them, either reaffirming or revising them so that all participants in the update process have a solid frame of reference for their work.

In the second part of this essay, I will offer some comments and questions prompted by the other four principles.


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