Fort Ward losing battle with change
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:16 PM
"Residents fear that rapid change is threatening to destroy the historic character of the Fort Ward neighborhood.And ironically, the real culprit is history. The area was carved into hundreds of small lots 40 years ago. And because those owners all have vested legal rights, there may not much the city can do.The fort, on the island's south end, was built at the turn of the century to defend the entry to Bremerton and the Naval shipyard there. In 1958, the fort was decommissioned. Roughly half the land went to the state for Fort Ward Park. The remainder was auctioned off.The developer who bought the land platted what he called Fort Ward Estates - more than 200 postage-stamp sized lots of roughly 6,000 square feet each. He marketed them as summer camp lots, someplace to pitch a tent or build a small cabin in the woods.The subdivision plan was filed just one week before Kitsap County imposed regulations that would have prevented such small-lot developments. And once the map was duly filed, the island was stuck with the subdivision. That was when the genie was let out of the bottle, said Sarah Lee, longtime resident and neighborhood sewer commissioner.Until recently, though, the genie was asleep, and the subdivision existed mostly as lines on a map. That was because of the collision between history and geology.The geological constraint is the thinness of the soil layer on most of the south end of Bainbridge. That means septic systems don't work. So the only habitable areas were those lots - 68 in number - already hooked into the primitive sewer system that the Navy built. The Fort Ward of that era was stunningly unpretentious, consisting as it did of modest dwellings that had either been built by the military or, in some cases, moved from the Port Blakely mill encampment.When we moved here in 1979, it was only place in the whole Puget Sound area that we could afford, said Eileen Safford, president of the Fort Ward Neighborhood Association. You look at Bainbridge Island today, and it's hard to believe.The agent of change was the sewer system. As installed by the military, the system discharged untreated material into Puget Sound. With the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, though, that was no longer an option.What ensued then was a quarter-century of planning, rejection of plans, enforcement threats and finally litigation. The upshot was that ultimately, Fort Ward built a sewage-treatment facility.Suddenly, with the availability of a sewer system, those lines on a map became real building lots. And that has meant real houses - lots of them.Building in the neighborhood has exploded. In 1997, when the treatment plant opened, the area had roughly 75 homes. Since then, the city planning department estimates that 50 new building permits have been issued. And even that count is probably low, because the sewer district now has roughly 200 connections, Lee said.No neighborhood on the island has changed as much or as fast as Fort Ward, Lee said.An action plan, and inactionIt's not as though the neighborhood didn't see the changes coming. In 1996, the neighbors met with planning officials, the mayor and city council. The group collectively commissioned architect Bill Isley to draft the Fort Ward Action Plan.The principle goal of the plan - drafted after two day-long workshops, and the first implementing ordinances of which are just now before the council for adoption - was to retain Fort Ward's character. This is more of an interesting community because of our history than anyplace else, Lee said.But knowing that the sewer was coming, the plan had to take the pending growth spurt into account.Everybody had land-use rights, Isley said. We recognized that and worked within that context.Given the reality of many small lots, the plan envisioned a neighborhood of smaller homes sprinkled with those former military buildings that could be renovated and salvaged.Our goal was to preserve as much of the history of the place as we could, Isley said.The plan envisioned private efforts to preserve the structures. As an incentive for buying and rehabilitating those structures, the plan calls for density transfers within the area, meaning that density within the historic buildings would increase, while density in the surrounding area would be reduced.The plan also envisioned a system of trails and parks, primarily through existing wetlands. That would also have required density transfers to keep building away from the wetland areas and allow it elsewhere.Finally, the plan called for preservation of the historic parade grounds, a centrally located parcel of open space that would become a community park.But most of those plans never materialized. Funding for some of the neighborhood improvements was to come from a Local Improvement District, which would raise revenue by taxing affected properties. But that idea was dropped for lack of support.Density transfers have not happened. The concept is that an owner gives up the right to build in one spot, but receives in return the right to build elsewhere. But because there is no elsewhere in Fort Ward, there is nothing to offer an owner who gives up a building right.Part of the historic parade grounds - where army and navy troops drilled during the area's years as a base - will likely be preserved. The Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority purchased that property. It plans to build 22 owner-occupied homes on the perimeter, six of them affordable, and turn the interior area into a park.But even that plan has been controversial, and is opposed by several adjacent property owners because of the inclusion of subsidized housing.Then there is the infrastructure problem. Fort Ward Hill Road, the only really feasible way in and out of the area, was built to what Mayor Dwight Sutton calls minimum standards. The slope under the road is unstable, Sutton said, and the road is carrying a traffic volume for which it was never intended.We have plans to upgrade that road, but I don't know when exactly that will occur, Sutton said.It won't be a simple project. Any significant reconstruction would take several months, and there is no obvious detour available to allow ingress and egress to the area during construction.I don't even want to contemplate that one, Sutton said. I'll concede I'm not a traffic engineer, and refer that one to public works.Neighbors also say that speed is an issue, and want to see the city install traffic-calming measures.One consolation Isley sees in the present situation is that the small size of the lots will require smaller and therefore more affordable homes. But even there, the record is mixed.A row of homes along the east side of Fort Ward Hill Road were sold in 1998 and 1999 in the low $200,000 range. In addition to the parade-ground project, the housing authority is building five single-family rental homes on Soundview Drive. But new homes being built on the west side of Fort Ward Hill Road, which feature a water and mountain view, are selling for upwards of $600,000. And even the new non-view homes in the Fort Ward interior carry sticker prices of as much as $425,000.The rapid influx of new and often expensive homes into what has been a much more modest neighborhood has left long-time residents confused and anxious about the future.The new people bring new values, said neighborhood association president Safford. I met a new neighbor the other day and she was just a really nice person. But she's older than I am and said she had never lived anyplace longer than three years. We've been here 21 years. That is a different attitude.What price, preservation?Nowhere is the neighborhood divisiveness more manifest than the argument over historic Building 16.Scott McFarlane, a resident of nearby South Beach Drive, wants to convert the old brick barracks building - constructed in 1910, and vacant for four decades - into eight apartment units. Safford and others in the neighborhood want lower density - perhaps five units.Density is such an issue here that even three additional units is too much, Safford said.A brewing dispute came to a boil at Wednesday's city council meeting, where McFarlane and neighbors squared off over the building's future.McFarlane said restoration of the 15,000-square-foot building would cost about $2.2 million. His plan would see eight units, each two to three bedrooms and renting for about $1,600 per month.It's a great building, it's a great area, McFarlane said Wednesday. Something needs to be done with it.If left abandoned, McFarlane's wife Janet said Wednesday, it's an eyesore and a danger to the neighborhood.But neighbors are concerned about parking and traffic to and from the building, which without an upzone to eight units is zoned for a single home. Some said McFarlane has already compromised the building's historic value by gutting it.Also at issue Wednesday was the validity of an earlier straw-poll of about two dozen neighborhood residents. McFarlane maintained that the vote showed support for his plans; association members said the vote asked whether neighbors preferred eight units or having the building torn down, which may not suggest the range of alternatives available.Demolition of the building does not seem imminent.Jared Vogt, a partner in the project with McFarlane, said that without the eight-unit density, the project wouldn't pencil out financially and would likely be abandoned.We'll probably go just let it sit there again, or put it back on the market and see if somebody else comes along, Vogt said.The council postponed a possible rezone of the property, as several members wanted more information on the building and the immediate area.Councilman Michael Pollock said he didn't want to make a decision that would leave legacy of a divided neighborhood, while Councilwoman Liz Murray said (neighborhood) might not even be a viable description, based on what I've heard here tonight.While acknowledging that there are no easy answers, and that change is painful for those caught in the middle, Isley said he is optimistic about the long term.I'm actually relatively pleased that a majority of the new houses have tried to comply with design in keeping with the historic feel of the area, Isley said. The homes are close together, which means people can get to know each other. The kids can walk to their friends houses. This can actually become a pretty neat neighborhood, he said. "