Planners, councilors kick-off SMP review

Few terms floating around City Hall elicit more opinion then the Shoreline Master Plan update these days.

A group of citizens and a handful of city employees had already spent more than a year and countless hours hashing out regulations, opinions and science before the council decided to escalate the decision process to reach a December deadline, opting not to seek the optional one-year extension.

But for community members feeling a sense of panic that it’s too late to get involved, fear not, staff says.

“We have a lot of public process left to go,” said Planning Director Kathy Cook. “There is no reason for people to think that decisions have been made or the drafts are cast as stone.”

In response to the council’s unanimous decision to meet the state’s December deadline, city staff created a unique, staggered review process to tackle the complicated technical information with both the Planning Commission and the council simultaneously.

The commission will review a topic on Thursday, and the following Wednesday the council will review the same topic. The goal is to get the council up to speed so when the planning commissioners forward their recommendation to the council in October.

The leap-frog approach will give the community a chance to learn and make comment on any one topic at least twice, back-to-back.

The council is ultimately responsible for making the final policy decisions on amendments to the city’s SMP. The council is charged with considering all the community and planning commission input as it adopts a new SMP to be reviewed and approved by the state in 2012.

Public comment thus far has demonstrated a need for a high level of time and attention to handle the complex issues that will regulate how Bainbridge can interact with its 53 miles of shoreline. Striking a balance between marine environment protection and property rights is no simple task.

Lisa Macchio worked on the vegetation group task force and said she had to make compromises as an environmental advocate, but she is confident that the process will churn out the best possible SMP.

“You have a big job ahead of you,” Macchio told the commission and council. “There is a lot of information and misinformation out there and your job is to educate yourself.”

The city’s SMP was adopted in 1996 and has remained relatively unchanged. In 2003 the state amended the Shoreline Management Act (SMA) and adopted new SMP regulations for local governments to meet. Approximately 270 jurisdictions in the state will go through the update process in a staggered timeline from 2008 to 2015.

“We are not starting from scratch,” said Cook. “The existing SMP we have is pretty good. What we are working on is making sure the framework and the content of the existing SMP matches with the new state law.”

Citizens have worked with staff over the last year to review the city’s current SMP against the state’s new guidelines. Their work will supplement this next review phase.

Though the city is required to make changes to correspond with new state law, there are areas where the city expounded on the law.

Mayor Kirsten Hytopoulos suggested that staff make that clear by labeling mandatory and discretionary regulations.

During last week’s kick-council/planning joint meeting, several community members voiced concern with the gravity of the SMP changes.

“We still haven’t answered the biggest questions,” said Gary Tripp, a member of the vegetation task force and shoreline property owner. “What kind of island do we want to live on? One that has a robust residential shoreline or one that gradually forces its population off the shoreline and away from the beach behind a barrier of trees?”

Issues like buffers, shoreline armoring and shoreline designation are amongst the topics with the most split votes during the citizen committee votes.

Another citizen urged the council and commissioners to be mindful of creating predictable regulations.

“With the intention of being flexible we can sometimes lose our ability to know what we can do without relying on staff discretion,” he said.

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