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Outraged property owners march on city hall to protest shoreline program
The scent of fresh ink wafted through the air as people picked through a pile of protest signs, with slogans such as “Views Not Trees” and “Lawyers have enough of your $$$.”
Talking points were practiced, and the fervor of frustration built as the crowd prepared to pound the pavement.
The march to Bainbridge Island City Hall was on.
“Nonconforming, not fair!” the marchers chanted as they paraded through downtown.
What could bring out a crowd that swelled to well over 150?
The perception of imperiled property rights, in a phrase.
The city council is currently updating Bainbridge’s Shoreline Master Program, and officials have drawn criticism and ire from many of the island’s waterfront homeowners. The group claims that the new designation of “nonconforming” for many waterfront homes will harm property values.
“We’ve been working with the city council for a couple of years but we needed to get people really focused on this, and this was the best idea we had,” shoreline homeowner Elizabeth Jones said of the grassroots demonstration.
Wednesday’s march took protesters along Winslow Way, up Madison Avenue and to the steps of city hall.
The city council was scheduled to discuss the shoreline program during its Wednesday meeting, and property owners made sure their voices would be a part of the discussion.
“You’ve made a lot of history today,” said Joe Honick through a bullhorn to the crowd as they gathered at the entrance of city hall. Honick came with a scroll of protest signed by 1071 islanders.
The protest had an impact. Near the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Councilwoman Anne Blair asked for a preliminary change to the new shoreline regulations. The controversial term “nonconforming” was replaced with “existing development,” though its legal impact will remain the same.
The council gave the idea a thumbs up with a 5-2 vote. Councilwomen Kirsten Hytopoulos and Debbi Lester voted against it.
The Shoreline Master Program was initially adopted by the city in 1996. It has been in the process of an update ever since the state imposed new rules in 2003.
More recently, the program has been the subject of public workshop in 2010, a citizen task force, and a review by the city’s planning commission.
Wednesday’s march packed the council chambers with islanders who remain dissatisfied with the city’s work on the program, however.
Deputy City Manager Morgan Smith quickly began setting out additional chairs to accommodate the crowd. But the swarm of concerned citizens overflowed into the lobby outside the chambers and out the front door.
Marchers stood outside the chamber’s windows holding their signs against the glass. Later, they munched on delivered pizza.
The city council and staff spent a portion of the night trying to correct what they called misunderstandings about the update, and said the program applies to new development and that existing waterfront homes could be rebuilt if they were ever destroyed.
Gary Tripp, who organized the march, took issue with the program’s regulations on buffers, which are largely vegetated no-build areas put in place to protect the shoreline environment.
“Does the city intend to eliminate our front yards and our homes which are now in the new buffers over time?” Tripp asked.
Council members, though, were reluctant to get into a question-and-answer session during the public comment period.
Undeterred, Tripp turned to Councilwoman Anne Blair.
“Anne?” he asked.
When Tripp was reminded that the public comment session was not a debate forum, he shot back: “Am I too lowly a person for you to answer a question to?”
He said the Shoreline Master Program effectively blocks shoreliners’ views by forcing property owners to plant trees. He then accused the city of unfairly developing the program in the first place.
“Waterfront property owners have all been ignored,” he said. “Committees were all stacked against the property owners. That’s not a fair process.”
“Are we going to let those rules, blackberry bushes and Scotch broom rule our lives?” asked Chris Otorowski.
“Mitigation is euphemism for government blackmail and that is what is going to happen if you have to fix your house if it is nonconforming,” he said.
One by one, waterfront property owners spoke up. Some claimed that they were being unfairly targeted as the cause of environmental harm to Puget Sound, and said runoff from upland property owners and streets were really to blame for pollution. Others said the Shoreline Master Program would only keep lawyers busy and waste taxpayer money.
And others doubted the science used as the basis for the regulations in the program.
But while the shoreliners were well-represented at the meeting, they weren’t the only voices in the room.
“I’m a shoreline owner, and I’m a land-use lawyer,” said David Bricklin.
He noted the history of the Shoreline Management Act since its inception in 1972 as a result of the Puget Sound’s shoreline being “nibbled to death.”
“No one development was doing it, no one house, no one dock, no one street, no single runoff from a roof. But the accumulative effect was devastating,” Bricklin said. “Forty years later we haven’t gotten any better.”
“Nobody is saying ‘tear down your house, make it go away,’” he said. “Establishing nonconforming is not the bugaboo that it’s been characterized by some.”
“Half of you may be on nonconforming lots and you may not even know it, because it hasn’t been a big deal until now,” he added.
Island teen and Bainbridge High student Chiara D’Angelo-Patricio agreed that the debate had become overly politicized in tone.
“I would like to think that landowners would be open to doing whatever it takes to protect our shoreline and the general economic welfare for the next hundred years,” she said.
“To be frank, I am scared. If this is where the political energy lies, how can we consider ourselves moving in a positive direction?” D’Angelo-Patricio asked.
“I know that groupthink is clearly at play here,” she added.
And though she was met with a few giggles and laughs from amongst the crowd, D’Angelo-Patricio continued undeterred. She noted that she had gathered signatures at the high school from young islanders to keep the program as it is.
“Nine out of 10 high school students I talked with last year…said that they cared more about the shoreline than their parents right to do whatever they want with their property,” she said.
“Please represent us,” she said. “Please hang in there and do what is in the best interest of the citizens of Bainbridge Island and not just the homeowners.”