Proposed shoreline regulations blasted again

Billed as a study session, Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting proved another chance for waterfront property owners to vent outrage at proposals many said would give the city control over the first 50 feet of their land.

“What do we need to do to prevent any of us from having to go to meetings like this again,” said Wing Point resident Howard Kirz, who urged the commission to reject plans that could require buffers of native vegetation, including trees, along the island’s shoreline.

Kirz repeated the litany of complaints that have emerged over the proposals – loss of land values of as much as $200 million; implementation costs of $50 to $100 million; and redistribution of the local tax burden, caused by a drop in waterfront property values.

And the likelihood of lawsuits.

“The litigation costs alone could destroy this island,” Kirz said.

The crowd that packed the city council chambers – and spilled over into the foyer and onto the porch outside – was reacting to provisions in the city’s revised Shoreline Management Master Program.

The proposals would declare a number of common waterfront uses to be “nonconforming,” and could require the nonconformity to be changed.

The process of becoming “conforming” could involve such requirements as moving house back farther on the lot; planting trees between the home and the water; and requiring a “no-touch” band of native vegetation along the shoreline, the attendees said.

Planning staff members Libby Hudson and Peter Best denied that the policies proffered to the commission are intended to do any of those things.

But those present were not convinced.

“A native vegetation zone already exists,” said Gary Tripp, founder of the new Shoreline Action Committee, organized to fight the proposals. “People have been required to plant native vegetation to replace an existing bulkhead, build a stairway to the beach or remodel a home on an existing foundation.”

“Where is this coming from?” Tripp asked. “I don’t remember the city council or the public voting on this.”

Planning Director Stephanie Warren said Friday that for the past several months, the planning staff has been using written guidelines on vegetation restoration.

Those guidelines include a worksheet directing construction applicants for homes to plant seven trees and 16 shrubs per 1,000 feet to be restored, and calls for the trees to be planted on 12-foot centers.

“Those were designed at the staff level to provide greater consistency,” Warren said, “but they are only guidelines. We may not require trees in all circumstances, and we don’t tell people to plant trees in front of picture windows.”

Warren said the guidelines are applied whenever “restoration” requires native vegetation – either when vegetation is destroyed or, on the shoreline, whenever existing plantings need to be replaced.

“In one case, where the area behind a bulkhead was dug out so the bulkhead could be repaired, we required native vegetation to replant that area,” Warren said. “We did not make them take out the rest of their lawn.”

The very existence of those guidelines, and their application in even limited form, disturbed Planning Commission chair Sean Parker.

“What’s going on here?” he asked. “Are we trying to implement the new plan draft without due process?”

Good science?

Some speakers at the meeting charged that the proposals lack a scientific basis.

“Vegetation improves near-shore habitat on lakes and streams, but not in the sea,” Jack Klamm said. “For most of the day, the tide isn’t anywhere near the shore, and what you plant onshore can’t affect the habitat.”

Others questioned the process, which involved the staff, a technical committee of environmental scientists and a steering committee of scientists and citizens.

“The concerns being expressed tonight are the same concerns that the citizens on the steering committee had,” said Leah Applewhite, one of the committee members. “But five citizens couldn’t balance 10 scientists. We also needed experts on economics and law on the committee.”

Some commenters were unhappy with the whole idea of making existing uses non-conforming under the regulations.

“I live in a house on Wing Point built in 1904,” said Bill Marler. “To say that is a non-conforming use is absolutely, unequivocally ludicrous.”

Marler asked the commission to put a halt to the process.

“Can you vote to stop now simply because the citizens of Bainbridge Island want you to?” he asked.

Planning Commissioner Lafe Myers moved to remand the program to the staff for an economic analysis.

Instead, the commission told the staff to make an “overlay” comparing existing policies and their implementing regulations to the proposed policies, to make the changes more apparent.

Warren said that the commission could simply kill the native-vegetation proposal with a vote.

Parker did not want to go that far.

“Speaking for myself only, I would be reluctant to throw the whole program out, because the existing program, as it has been interpreted, has worked pretty well. I am still at a loss to understand what is wrong with it,” he said of the program that has generally given owners broad leeway in designing a vegetation plan, and which has not required trees.

Commissioner Bill Luria defended the general thrust of the proposals.

“You look at the comprehensive plan and the community values survey, and preserving environmentally sensitive areas is number one in both surveys,” Luria said. “The issue the islanders are most concerned about is loss of natural features.

“Our responsibility is to meet those goals, and this is the document to do it.”

The commission will take up the matter again at its next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 10.

Meanwhile, Tripp is preparing to go to war in the courtroom.

“We are interviewing attorneys right now to take a look at this,” he said.

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