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Million-dollar land donated for housing

Longtime islander Lois Curtis will gift six Ferncliff Avenue acres to the HRB.

Dollars to Dwell:

This is the third in a multi-part series on curent affordable housing issues on Bainbridge Island.

Saturday: The politics of affordable housing.

Lois Curtis could make millions if she put a dozen condos on her six acres of prime Winslow real estate.

Instead, the longtime islander won’t make a cent. She plans to donate the Ferncliff Avenue property so dozens of others who struggle to find housing on Bainbridge can save.

“This is a wonderful, wonderful blessing to the community,” said Carl Florea, director of the Bainbridge Housing Resources Board. “This land is a critical piece of what will make affordable housing possible, and ensure we have a diverse community.”

Within walking distance to downtown Winslow, the property is ideally situated among other high-value properties. It’s been years since Curtis had the property appraised, but she estimates the value in the $900,000 range.

Some local developers believe Curtis could have sold the property as-is for millions, or made millions more had she built condos or other high-end residences.

The long, narrow property stretches from the Winslow Ravine to the intersection of Ferncliff and Wing Point Way. Recently serving as a pasture land for neighboring llamas, the undeveloped land includes forest groves and meadow areas.

Under current zoning, the property could accommodate about a dozen residential units, or possibly 29 with the use of affordable housing density bonuses, Florea said.

Curtis, a former city councilwoman and school board member, was humble about her generosity and had kept the gift under wraps. The donation was announced earlier this month at an event hosted by HRB, which will assume control of the property and likely develop it over the next few years.

“I was being quiet about it, but this is a small island and you can’t keep things a secret,” Curtis said. “I just felt this was a good way to help on Bainbridge and help the people working on the island.”

Curtis said she’s especially concerned about the many middle-income earners who commute to the island but can’t afford to live here.

“From what I hear, housing prices are high and going higher,” she said. “This is one way to moderate that.”

As island home values soar, Kitsap Peninsula home prices remain about half the Bainbridge median.

Local affordable housing advocates say land prices – more than any other factor – are hampering efforts to create more residential options on Bainbridge. Once Curtis’ property is officially transferred, Florea said the HRB should have little trouble acquiring funding to build residential units.

While Florea is inclined to build as many units as he can on Curtis’ parcel, he’ll consider other landscape and design factors.

“We might consider townhomes clustered together with open space,” he said. “The land has park-like amenities, and we want to maximize that.

“This belongs to the community and we want their input in the process. This won’t be dictated from above.”

Some island residents have objected to affordable housing projects on aesthetic and other grounds, Florea said. They have expressing concerns that higher density developments, which are generally more affordable than single-family dwellings, may not fit a desired Bainbridge design style or that such projects may increase the island’s population, further impacting traffic and the environment.

Florea urges skeptics withhold judgment until plans are crafted.

“I’m excited to make this a showcase so people can see what we can do, especially people who fear affordable housing and think it will take away from or bring down the community.”

According to Curtis, developing more affordable housing will likely improve the island’s population diversity and help support those that support the island.

“I can’t help but be aware of the fact that employees of the city and the schools are having trouble and might like to live on the island,” she said.

“This is not going to solve everything, but I think many small efforts like it might keep a good mix of people here on the island.”

She added that she believes it’s important for young people to grow up in diverse communities.

“I went to school with all kinds of economic ranks and I think that’s good,” she said, referring to her hometown in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Curtis envisions a future for the property in which the land is held in trust but the homes are owned by their occupants. Generally referred to as a “community land trusts,” such programs remove the land value from the price of the home, greatly reducing the cost for qualified residents.

There are more than a dozen CLTs in Washington, including large and mid-size urban areas like Seattle and Bellingham, as well as communities similar to Bainbridge, such as Waldron, Vashon, Orcas and Lopez islands.

“I think (CLTs) are reasonable and manageable, and they’re not something that has to be invented from scratch,” Curtis said.

Curtis, who is in her mid-70s, has a long resume of community involvement. The 44-year island resident served on the island school board, the city Planning Commission and the Housing Trust Fund committee.

Curtis represented the South Ward on the City Council from 1995 to 2003. The donation to the HRB is not her first land gift. Over the years, Curtis gave adjacent parcels to the Bainbridge Cooperative Nursery School and a nearby day care center.

Florea said he’s excited to begin laying the foundation for new affordable units on Curtis’ property, and hopes her philanthropy will inspire others.

“It’s this kind of spirit of generosity that will make a difference on Bainbridge Island,” he said.

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Subsidized talk

A two-day discussion series slated for next week at City Hall will explore how Bainbridge could foster affordable housing and farm preservation through land trusts.

Hosted by the Bainbridge Community Housing Coalition, the series features Michael Brown, a national leader in the formation of “community land trusts,” as its keynote speaker. Brown has 25 years of experience in housing development, led CLT efforts in Vermont and Tennessee, and was director of a Minnesota housing coalition.

The series includes:

• A discussion of how the island can support multiple land trusts, including those that preserve open space, conservation areas and farmland. Tuesday, 1:30-3:30 p.m.

• A presentation on the key elements of CLTs, how they are funded, and what they have meant for surrounding communities, and what they could mean for Bainbridge. Tuesday, 7-9 p.m.

• A “brown bag” lunch discussion of how to buy and own a CLT home. The discussion will include information on eligibility requirements and responsibilities for home owners. Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

- A forum on how CLTs fit with other affordable housing strategies, including zoning and density rules. Wednesday, 2-3:30 p.m.

Contact Kat Gjovik at 842-1206 or chckat@bihhhs.org.

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