Shoreline owners seeing red over green

Proposed changes to the Shoreline Master Plan that could include a buffer of native vegetation – including trees – between shoreline properties and the water came under withering fire from a packed house at Thursday night’s Planning Commission meeting.

“I’m astounded at the proposed plan,” said Dave Berry, who lives on Eagle Harbor. “You will be told what you can plant, and how you can walk to the beach. This is more restrictive than anywhere else.”

The occasion was a public hearing on proposed shoreline policies. The goals and policies developed by the Planning Commission will be translated into regulations by the City Council, and the whole program will need to be approved by the State Department of Ecology, a process that won’t end until late 2004, at best.

Planning Commission chair Sean Parker said the reaction was one that the city and the Commission needed to hear.

“I have been surprised all along that there has not been more vocal opposition,” he said. “This plan appears to have been put together with input from only one side. We needed to hear from the other side.

“These comments will profoundly impact the trajectory of this process,” he said.

While the document covers a myriad of potentially controversial issues, including proposed bans on private docks in Blakely Harbor and the outer perimeter of the island, the focus was on the vegetation proposal – more precisely, on the way the planning staff intends to interpret the language.

“What has changed between this proposal and the existing one is the clarity of implementation, specifically with regard to trees,” said planner Peter Best, who said the plan is the result of “best available science” demonstrating an “integral ecological connection between the shoreline and the near-shore environment.”

Not so, said Don Flora of Manzanita Road, a retired Forest Service economist who said he had reviewed some 2,600 references on the issue.

“There is a very weak link between shoreline vegetation and marine habitat,” he said. “But putting on my economist hat, I believe the total value of waterfront

property on Bainbridge Island approaches $2 billion. This plan will drop that value by some $230 million, plus a cost of at least $50 million to implement it.”

Pat Stinson of Hidden Cove Road had another concern.

“The city may want trees, but they’re my liability. Who is going to protect me if a tree I’m not allowed to cut down falls on my neighbor’s house, or if somebody snags on a tree that I’ve had to let fall into the water and drowns?”

Some questioned the city’s motives.

“This is not a scientific affair, it’s political,” said one man. “It’s motivated by jealousy – if we can’t have it, nobody can.”

There was considerable talk of potential litigation.

“Imagine the legal bills represented by $2 billion worth of property,” said Earl Johnson.

Only one islander spoke in favor of the plan.

“Shoreline vegetation regulations are not new,” said Rachel Smith of Seaborn Road.

“People came here because they love the look of woods and beaches, and want the island to look that way. Everybody talks about property values, but If you plant trees, your property will be so beautiful that people will pay any amount for it. Do you love this island? Then act like it,” she said.

Much of the fire was directed at what the audience said was a general lack of notice of a plan that would affect them directly.

“Shouldn’t you be required to inform each shoreline property owner what the impact will be,” said Gary Tripp, who is trying to organize opposition under the name of the Shorelines Action Committee.

Kathy Blossom agreed. “You should notify every affected property owner by mail,” she said.

Commission chair Sean Parker tried to diffuse the perception that the Commission had already agreed to the plan.

“There are many areas in dispute, and we want to hear from you,” he said.

The plan allows existing uses, including existing landscaping, to continue as “grandfathered.” Compliance will be required only when the property owner wants to make a change. The magnitude of change needed to trigger the buffer requirement was an issue that Best said would be resolved at the regulation stage.

Audience members were unhappy with that wait-and-see approach to the “trigger” question.

“If goals and policies are not clear, the regulations won’t be in conformity with community wishes,” Tripp said. “This is the time to deal with the question, not when you get staff recommendations later on regulations.”

City Council chair Michael Pollock was in the audience.

“There were a lot of good point raised about the need to balance property rights with environmental concerns,” he said.

“I think when this gets to council, we may be a little more protective of grandfathered uses. We also need to look for incentives, maybe through taxes. A lot of landowners want to be good environmental stewards, but forcing them to do something isn’t the way to get cooperation.”

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