Slopes ordinance is no picture of stability

(Left) Marcia Lagerloef stands near the hillside behind her South Beach Drive home. She’s worried the slope could be compromised by upland development. (Right) Carter Redish’s Point White home, which can’t be remodeled under existing laws. - Brad Camp/Staff Photos
(Left) Marcia Lagerloef stands near the hillside behind her South Beach Drive home. She’s worried the slope could be compromised by upland development. (Right) Carter Redish’s Point White home, which can’t be remodeled under existing laws.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photos

Planners and the council wrangle over provisions for building on steep slopes.

At its core are homes, hillsides and the human lives that hinge on the interaction between them.

But the long-running debate over a portion of the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance could also be explained as a tale of two tenants.

The first tenant resides in a small cottage at the foot of a steep, forested slope on South Beach Drive; the second in an average-size home on a grassy incline above Point White Drive.

Both have a great deal riding on the stability of their respective slopes. Most important is their safety.

“This is a matter of life and limb,” said Marcia Lagerloef, craning her neck to see a stand of madrona clinging to slanted soil above South Beach Drive. Her eyes then track the contour of the hill before coming to rest on the home of the first tenant, who lives in a cottage tucked away at the back of the property.

As both landlord and friend of the cottage’s inhabitant, Lagerloef is worried about the city’s plans to loosen building restrictions in geologically hazardous areas, like the hillside that looms over the cottage – the same hillside where, during winter rainstorms, torrents of water come cascading down toward her home and the street below.

“It’s literally like a waterfall,” she said. “And slope stability is all about drainage. My concern is that someone will build, clear or somehow destabilize that slope.”

If they do, she said, she wants to know about it.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, the second tenant doesn’t worry so much about the slope on which his rental home sits. The narrow, steep driveway is a hassle, but navigable. And the stay is only temporary anyway, until his full-time residence elsewhere on the island is finished being remodeled.

But even a temporary stay there wouldn’t have been possible, had it not been for the slope. That’s because his landlord, Carter Redish, would be living in the home himself – instead of at his other home in California – had the current law not halted his remodel plans.

Those plans include digging into the hillside to create a new entry to the home, bought by Redish and his wife, Kathrine, in the spring of 2006. At least one geotechnical expert already has signed off on Redish’s remodel plans, saying they would actually strengthen the hillside.

But under the current CAO, the project can’t move ahead, and the Redish family can’t move into the home they envisioned when they bought their property.

“At first it didn’t seem like it would be an impossible situation,” Carter Redish said. “It seemed doable. But once we got into it...”

Thus, the debate over slopes continues, with homeowners on both sides of the issue trying to maintain stable footing, and city councilors and planners struggling to set a legal framework that will both allow for development and ensure public safety.

That framework is contained within the Geologically Hazardous section of the CAO, which will again go before the council tonight for review.

The CAO was revamped at the end of 2005, with several changes taking effect in early 2006. Among them was the addition of a variance requirement designed to ensure that construction in unstable areas wouldn’t endanger neighboring residents.

But according to city planners, scientists and applicants like Redish, the change had unintended consequences, most notably the hindrance of projects that likely would pass geological safety tests.

As an example, city planner Steve Morse pointed to a large swath of land at Crystal Springs. Even though the land appears to be stable, it is designated as geologically hazardous based on a landslide that occurred there 1,000 years ago.

The result, he said, in combination with the problematic CAO, is that projects are too often tripped up needlessly.

John Peterson, of island firm Aspect Consulting, said that about half of the 100 proposed projects he’s reviewed on Bainbridge since the variance requirement was established have been stalled or changed because of it.

As an example, he pointed to the uphill portion of Madrone Lane adjacent to his office. The road connects Winslow Way to City Hall and a gravel parking lot next to the Farmers Market.

“The city could not have built that parking lot under these standards,” Peterson said. “It won’t be able to build a parking garage under these standards either.”

To remedy the CAO’s restrictiveness, the city has been working on yet another revision that aims to keep intact the safety measures planners originally intended, while clearing a path for construction.

Morse said planners have been reviewing ordinances in other cities as they crafted the changes.

Councilors in June directed staff to remove the variance requirement, allow for third-party review of projects in geologically sensitive areas, and create an administrative technical review committee to analyze development proposals, among other changes.

The council balked at the revisions presented in July, deciding the ordinance needed more work. It was slated for review by the Land Use Committee last week, but the meeting was one of several canceled by the city due to ongoing scheduling problems.

Instead of committee review, it will go before the full council tonight.

From the beginning, many residents – the majority of those who have commented publicly on the issue are opposed to removing the variance requirement – have expressed various concerns over the proposed changes.

The review process in the ordinance is particularly contentious. Though geotechnical review would be required for many projects, the expert conducting the analysis would be hired at the expense of the developer.

According to Peterson, such a review can cost between $1,700 and $12,000, depending on the project. Given the cost, some wonder whether the results might be skewed in favor of development, rather than public safety.

A third party review of a project could be ordered only at the discretion of the city engineer.

A recent provision in the document would allow the city engineer to waive the review requirement for proposed projects that would be built within a structure’s existing footprint.

A second recent change would require the notification of property owners adjacent to planned developments in addition to establishing a 14-day public comment period prior to project approval.

Stephanie Ross, a member of a safe slope advocacy group, said she still has a number of problems with the ordinance. But she’s more frustrated by the revision process.

“Our group would plead to the city to take care and err on the side of over-inclusion and caution,” she said. “The city must abide by the law, hear every point of view and not jump at any amendment for the hypothetical economic gain of upland developers.”

Ross said the council should be bound to its July decision to send the ordinance back to the Land Use Committee, where more discussion and testimony could be taken. Instead, she said, the changes are being rushed through without the opportunity for a thorough vetting.

“To not go through a full and fair process that includes all aspects of the community is irresponsible at best,” Ross said. “Human lives are at stake here.”

Lagerloef agreed, saying it’s more than reasonable for affected property owners to be involved in any decision that could impact their safety.

“Without a variance process,” she said, “how will this occur?”

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