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Can builders strike a balance?

Visiting conservationists look at two island sites touted for ‘biodiversity offsets’ projects.

They came from Europe, Africa and Latin America to Winslow, to see how the brick and mortar of human habitat may grow alongside the flora and fauna of the natural world.

But many of the 30 conservationists strolling the largely undeveloped site Wednesday didn’t quite see it that way.

“I didn’t see jack,” said Swiss forest ecologist Pierre Berner after visiting the two-acre parcel on the southeast corner of Grow Avenue and Wyatt Way. “It’s a tiny little site. Maybe for ants it is hugely important. But for biodiversity, it’s at the bottom end of the bell curve.”

The property is one of two sites on Bainbridge Island where the city and Forest Trend’s Business and Biodiversity Offset Program, which held a conference on Bainbridge this week, are attempting to strike a balance between urban growth and a goal for no net loss of the natural environment.

The balance, conference attendee Mark Botha said, has tipped beyond any significant ecological value.

“It’s a totally trashed site,” said Botha, the Botanical Society of South Africa’s conservation director. “Between the (houses) you’ve got a few trees, but that’s not much. The rest is weeds and invasive grasses.”

Still in the early planning stage, the city, BBOP and developer Kelly Samson are working to conserve two acres near the Grow-Wyatt intersection as a public park. The site now has a handful of rental homes and a small stand of trees, including fir, pine and maple. In return for the park, Samson will develop higher density buildings on the remaining six acres.

“Encouraging this offset will benefit the livability of the community,” said city planner Marja Preston, who is overseeing the city’s BBOP pilot projects.

“There’s not a whole lot of biodiversity here now….but as we add density this will help maintain our green infrastructure.”

The project is important, Samson said, especially as the island’s population grows.

“The island is under tremendous growth pressure from Seattle,” he said. “Usually when a city grows, it just annexes the next five farms. But here, we have a moat.”

The project could lead to a shift in land use policy that may encourage developers to take the island’s environmental health into account, according to Samson.

“The (current) regulatory environment keeps developers from doing the wrong thing rather than making sure he does the right thing,” he said.

Sound planning

City planners noted that Samson’s property could provide a boost to biodiversity in indirect ways, such as absorbing contaminated stormwater runoff before it hits Puget Sound or providing habitat for birds that already live in urban environments.

One such bird – a raspy Stellar Jay – attracted the camera lenses of a few conference attendees. But Berner wasn’t one of them.

His digital camera was already crowded with pictures of lemurs living in a forest he is helping to preserve in Madagascar.

“I guess if you have three more birds here (defecating) on the lawn, that’s doing something for wildlife,” said Berner, one of the conference’s featured speakers. “But the next question is, how much is that really doing? If you want to be politically correct, you could say that’s something.”

Or, said Bothe, you could simply call it what it is.

“To be brutally honest, it’s not a biodiversity offset,” he said. “It’s sound urban planning, which is what all developers should be encouraged to do anyway. If you look at it that way, it’s a brilliant idea.”

It is an idea, said city Planning Director Greg Byrne, that city leadership is now aiming to incorporate into new land use policy with “a central focus on sustainability.”

Voluntary incentives, like those being tested at Samson’s property, must also come with strong regulations to lessen the combined impacts that small scale developments can have over time.

“Every snowflake in an avalanche declares itself innocent,” he said. “We have to look at the incremental impacts.”

While the project may not preserve much in the way of biodiversity, especially in comparison to the vast BBOP projects in Africa, the value to Bainbridge – and as a model for other communities – is quite significant, said Forest Trends President Michael Jenkins.

“What’s striking about Bainbridge is that it has an incredible political will and citizens who buy into these issues,” he said. “It can build on two insignificant acres and create a framework that can really bring these ideas out and stimulate movement in other places.”

One such place could be Mexico City, said Sergio Palafox, an official with the Mexican power authority.

“We’re here to watch what you can do,” he said. “If someone here says ‘Hey, are you interested in investing in conservation,’ people will pull out their wallets.

“But in Mexico, it’s another world. The municipalities don’t have financial resources for environmental programs or parks. They have resources only for getting the trash and for the lights on the streets – the basics.”

To get beyond the basics, cities can offer incentives encouraging developers and businesses to do what local government can’t afford to do alone, Palafox said.

“Bainbridge is ahead of a lot of places in the States and overseas in trying this,” said Jack Tordoff of BirdLife International, a conservation group based in England. “In terms of biodiversity, the project is small in comparison to some that are enormous.

“But I think, if you’re successful here, you’ll really have something to show.”

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Biodiversity offsets

This story is the second of two parts on the Business and Biodiversity Offset Program conference. The conference, which was held at IslandWood and City Hall, concluded Friday.

For more information on the city’s two BBOP pilot programs, call 842-2552. Also see www.forest-trends.org/biodiversityoffsetprogram of descriptions of other projects worldwide.

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BBOP 2

While the Business and Biodiversity Offset Program’s efforts in Winslow garnered low marks from some international conservationists this week, a related project on Blakely Harbor fared far better.

“What the city is planning here would not just benefit Bainbridge, but also Puget Sound as a whole,” said Joe Kiesecker, science director for the Nature Conservancy.

The project, which was profiled by the Bainbridge Review in January, aims to remove a rip rap bulkhead and restore 1,800 feet of shoreline for marine habitat. With the cooperation of nearby property owners, a portion of Country Club Road would be moved farther inland and away from the shoreline. The property owners would also develop only 27 percent of about 100 acres, leaving 73 percent in a largely natural state.

“That’s a huge amount (and) very rare,” said city planner Marja Preston, who oversees the city’s two BBOP pilot projects.

The owners are asking for no incentives for conserving a large portion of their land and would like to see a portion of the shoreline preserved as a public park, according to marine habitat specialist Jim Brennan, who is helping with the project.

“This has a lot more biodiversity potential than (the Winslow project site) for sure,” said Charles Kerchner, a University of Vermont environmental economics Ph.D student. Kerchner and Kiesecker were two of over 80 delegates from over a dozen nations attending BBOP’s conference on Bainbridge last week.

About 30 delegates toured an urban offset program in Winslow before visiting the Blakely site on Wednesday. Swiss forest specialist Pierre Berner, who gave a very low assessment of the Winslow site’s ecological value, praised the Blakely project.

“This road needs to disappear,” he said, pointing at inch-wide cracks running along a closed portion of Country Club’s west-bound lane. “What that will do for the shoreline is substantial. It’s worthy and you will see some biodiversity return here.”

The Blakely BBOP project will undergo a City Council Public Works Committee review in early July. If eventually approved, the project’s implementation could see delays due to low city staffing levels and an already full slate of Public Works projects, Preston said.

– Tristan Baurick

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