Commission split over shoreline policies

While the Planning Commission will unanimously recommend broad new shoreline policies – including a ban on new docks in Blakely Harbor – it remains deeply divided on many issues.

Unable to find consensus on such questions as shoreline vegetation and non-conforming uses, the commission may file two reports, and toss those hot potatoes to the Bainbridge City Council to resolve in the coming year.

“We may decide not to give recommendations, but admit we can’t decide,” commission vice chair Bill Luria said this week.

At their last meeting, commissioners approved by a 3-2 vote a policy stating that non-conforming shoreline uses – uses permitted at the time of construction, but not permitted under present regulations – could continue, but would be phased out over time.

Under that policy, a home that is non-conforming because it was built too close to the water – a common situation on Bainbridge – could remain indefinitely. If accidentally destroyed, it could be rebuilt on its prior footprint.

But in a departure from present policy, a non-conforming home intentionally demolished would have to be rebuilt “to reduce the non-conformity,” likely meaning farther from the water.

“The goal is to phase out the non-conformities over time,” Luria. “This is how we can implement the policies of the shoreline plan.”

The commission unanimously approved five broad policy statements, the most controversial of which may be prohibiting new docks and piers in Blakely Harbor.

Overriding commission recommendations, the city recently approved a dock on the north side of the harbor for applicants who said they bought their lot after being assured that no policies prohibited docks.

The sharpest split on the commission involves the contentious issue of vegetative buffers between the water and shoreline homes. That issue has become a rallying point for a group opposing more stringent regulations.

A sub-group of the commission has recommended rules that appear, if anything, more sweeping than those proposed to date. But because of the composition of that sub-group, the recommendations may not even make it to the full commission.

The draft recommendations, from commissioners Julie Kriegh and Mike Cox, call for bands of native vegetation 25-100 feet deep. The proposal calls for 60 percent of the band to “remain completely unaltered,” while the other 40 percent could be used for view corridors, a path to the beach, a gazebo, boathouse or picnic area, or for non-native vegetation.

The proposal also calls for a 25-foot building setback from the buffer zone, meaning that on most of the island, homes would have to be 75 feet from the water.

The plan would apply to new construction on the shoreline, and would affect the amount of native vegetation that could be removed. For existing homes, the requirement to put in a vegetation band would be triggered if a home or septic system were enlarged.

Neither Cox nor Kriegh could be reached for comment. But Lafe Myers – the third member of the sub-group involved in drafting the vegetation rules – disagreed sharply.

“I think the science is very weak on whether buffer zones are really going to help salmon,” Myers said. “While buffers may be desirable, I don’t think they should be required.”

The recommendations are even more tenuous than the 2-1 vote indicates. The buffer sub-group actually has four members, but because a meeting of all four would constitute a quorum of the commission, triggering notice requirements, they have agreed amongst themselves that one of the four will sit out every meeting.

At the sub-group’s final meeting on Jan. 8, either Cox or Kriegh will sit out, while Donna McKinney, like Myers a shoreline resident and buffer skeptic, will be present, meaning the sub-group’s recommendations may well change.

The planning commission’s final meeting on shorelines, scheduled for Jan. 9, will deal once again with buffers. With Luria indicating that he will likely join Cox and Kriegh in advocating required buffers, a split down the middle is likely.

“The basic disagreement in the sub-group is over how much will be required and enforced versus how much will be encouraged,” Myers said. “I think that disagreement is reflected on the commission as a whole, and probably within the community.”

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