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

Jon Quitslund

trees4. The costs and benefits to property owners should be considered in making land use decisions.

I discussed the fifth Principle at length in Part I of this essay.  That principle establishes the importance of maintaining environmental resources (open space, habitat for wildlife, surface water and aquifers, clean air, beaches and the waters of Puget Sound) at a sustainable level.  And that principle, stated on behalf of the common good of the community, stands in contrast to Principle 4, which focuses on the interests of private property owners.

I don’t see an inherent conflict between private and public interests, although in some specific circumstances a conflict may arise.  I know that for some citizens it is a given, and a sore point, that policies justified as “good for the environment” involve impositions on some private property owners.  Likewise, for some citizens the policies and procedures of Planning and Community Development tilt too far in favor of private interests, neglecting the common good.

Principle 4, as stated in the Comp Plan and as implemented in our Municipal Code, declares on behalf of the community as a whole that the interests of property owners should be (and will be, in fact) respected when decisions are made on land uses.

The zoning code and all ordinances governing land uses (in general and in specific decisions by the Director of Planning) must be in accord with this and other principles in the Comp Plan.  Inevitably, public and private interests exist in some tension.  I believe they can be kept in balance, so long as all parties recognize the need for balance and avoid over-reaching.

Experience suggests that throughout the update process, it will be difficult to maintain a balance that is satisfactory to the great majority of Islanders.  The Council has a role to play in affirming the importance of that balance, and designing a process that will improve the public understanding of measures that will support, for the foreseeable future, both private property rights and the welfare of the community.

3. Foster diversity of the residents of the Island, its most precious resource.

In its present demographic makeup and in what it may become, diversity in the Island’s population wears many faces.  Bainbridge is not typical of communities in the Puget Sound region, but “special” in ways that excite local pride and may also be problematic.

Racially and ethnically, we are not especially diverse, but more so than we were twenty years ago.  Relative to other communities, a high percentage of our citizens are 55 and older, and a low percentage are between 25 and 40.  Many in the community are affluent, to the extent that affluence rather than a middle-class income may be regarded as the norm.  It is not the case, however, that any single group or set of values dominates our local culture; diversity in backgrounds, lifestyles, and interests defines our social fabric and civic life.

Can individuals and families of modest means feel secure on Bainbridge?  Does our community contain and support its own service sector, or do people in low-wage jobs and professions have to live elsewhere and travel long distances to meet our needs?

The update process should involve gathering and interpreting up-to-date information on our population, our economy, and any trends apparent in the Puget Sound region.  We need to be prepared for both prosperity and economic hardships in the decades ahead.

In the broad, basic sector of health, housing, and human services, Bainbridge Island has for some years lacked a comprehensive agency for planning and delivery of services.  The Comp Plan review and update should consider whether this is a problem, and if so, propose responses.

2. Protect the water resources of the Island.

One way of measuring – or, if you will, worrying about – the ‘carrying capacity’ of Bainbridge Island involves trying to determine how many people our aquifers and water systems can support.  In recent decades the Island’s population has gone through periods of rapid growth, and we may see rapid growth again in the near future.  (Lately, I believe, our average household size has gone down while the number of households has increased.)

It is hard to see how the number of people who move to Bainbridge can be controlled, but our water resources can be protected by conservation measures, by land use and housing policies that conserve open space and promote aquifer recharge, and by efficient management of water and sewer systems.

We need to be prepared for the impacts of climate change.  As life becomes more difficult in other parts of the U. S. and the world, more people may be moving to our region.  Rising tides in Puget Sound may increase the risk of salt water intrusion in some shallow aquifers.  Seasonal rainfall patterns may change drastically, affecting aquifer recharge.  Now is the time to plan for mitigation and for adaptation to these vulnerabilities.

1. Preserve the special character of the Island, which includes forested areas, meadows, farms, marine views, and winding roads bordered by dense vegetation.

The first version of the Comprehensive Plan referred to “the rural character of the Island,” and this term did not pass muster: the idea of rural character inside a city was too paradoxical, so “special” (an ‘as you like it’ word) was substituted.  Over time, that special character has been somewhat ‘suburbanized.’  (The process began, of course, long before incorporation and creation of the Comp Plan, and resistance to it had much to do with the decision to form an island-wide government.)

Those changes in our built environment and its natural setting have been market-driven, and I would say the consequences have been a mixed blessing.  I would also say that preservation of the Island’s ‘special character’ is far from being a lost cause.

I am sure there will be a concerted effort to constrain, and perhaps to slow down, residential development in the areas outside of Winslow, especially in the areas zoned for lower density (R-0.4 and R-1).  Such changes in the policies governing community development can’t be accomplished in the Comprehensive Plan, but the update process is, in my opinion, the proper context for the deep conversations we need to have.  I will look to the City Council to provide a policy framework for those conversations.

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