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Whither Rolling Bay Walk?

Rob Smallwood would like to see Rolling Bay Walk become the vibrant, funky beachfront neighborhood of years past. He and former resident Michael Fleck have developed a plan to replace some of the boarded-up properties with a condominium development. - ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo
Rob Smallwood would like to see Rolling Bay Walk become the vibrant, funky beachfront neighborhood of years past. He and former resident Michael Fleck have developed a plan to replace some of the boarded-up properties with a condominium development.
— image credit: ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo

For folks who wanted to live on the water, Rolling Bay Walk was the place to be.

Homes are wedged in chock-a-block, abutting a seawall that’s more sidewalk than one-lane street.

At the edge of the walkway, at low tide, a gravel beach stretches just beyond barnacle-encrusted concrete steps. At high tide, there is nothing but water between “the Walk” and Seattle.

“It was a real beach community,” said Rob Smallwood, a contractor who built or remodeled a number of homes along the beachfront neighborhood. “Everybody knew each other, and the kids had the beach and the water.”

Behind the Walk, though, is a steep hillside – a cliff, really.

And six years ago, during the near-record rains of 1997, some 2,000 cubic yards of mud dislodged early on a Sunday morning, crashing onto the home of Bainbridge High School teacher Dwight Herren, his wife and their two children, claiming them all.

It wasn’t the first slide onto the Walk, nor would it be the last. To prevent further tragedy, the city forced a number of families to evacuate, some permanently, some during rainy weather.

But to demonstrate that nature remains firmly in control, a slide two weeks ago knocked another of the empty homes off its foundation, almost into Puget Sound – the fourth home to be destroyed there in six years.

A small but viable community persists at the southern end of Rolling Bay Walk, where the cliff is farther from the homes and less steep. But the northern portion is deserted today, a collection of vacant houses boarded up to prevent intrusions and vandalism.

“It’s dangerous,” said five-year resident Lois Boubong. “I was walking in that area where the latest slide hit, with my grandchild, and if I’d been right in front of that house at the time, we could have been killed.”

The abandoned homes constitute an “attractive nuisance,” she said, a problem made worse by damage from recent slides.

“There are always gawkers, and kids have broken into those houses,” she said. “I’d like to see those homes demolished.”

The remaining half-dozen homes can be reoccupied only if residents can demonstrate that the cliff is sufficiently stable, city Administrator Lynn Nordby said.

“We have told them that they need to show us a geotech report showing that it’s safe, but so far, that hasn’t been done,” Nordby said.

Nor is that likely to happen anytime soon, Smallwood said. While it is technically possible to design retaining walls that would stabilize the slope, the cost is prohibitive – an estimated $125,000 per resident in 1997, Smallwood said, and probably higher today.

Smallwood and former Rolling Bay Walk resident Michael Fleck, who now lives in the San Francisco area, have put together a plan to resurrect the north end.

The affected owners would pool their property, the homes would be demolished, and condos would be built instead.

Profits from the sales would be distributed to the owners, giving them either a portion of the money needed to buy a condo themselves or money to partially defray their losses.

The key to their plan is that if the homes are tightly clustered, only a portion of the hillside would need heavy-duty stabilizing. The remainder would be open space and parking, and the slope could be stabilized for those purposes at a much lower cost.

“It seemed like a win-win situation,” said city building inspector Larry Skinner, who has had to post the no-occupancy orders.

In an unfortunate irony, Smallwood said the prime spot for the condos would be on the former site of the Herren home.

“What wanted to slide there has already slid,” he said, adding that slope-stabilization and construction work can be done more easily where there are no structures.

But despite what Smallwood said were expressions of support from the mayor’s office and city planning department, the concept encountered a host of obstacles at a January pre-hearing conference.

To begin with, the north-end properties only total some 2.5 acres. Under current zoning, that means only five units could be built.

“It can’t be made economical at that size,” Smallwood said. Adding more condos would require a zoning change – something the Bainbridge Island City Council would have to approve – and a Comprehensive Plan amendment.

Another problem is access.

Current residents reach their homes via Manitou Park Boulevard. At one point, Gertie Johnson Road connected to the north end of the Walk, but another slide has covered most of that road, reducing it to little more than a trail.

Obstacles don’t end there. Parking is a problem. Sewage is a big issue – the Smallwood plan calls for a group septic system, but city codes require separate systems for each home. Police and fire departments are concerned about one-way access.

And there is the problem of required setbacks, particularly if the city requires a 50-foot buffer of vegetation along the shore.

To make the project feasible, the city has to change its mind-set, Smallwood said.

“Rather than look at what is non-conforming, they need to look at how this can be made to work,” he said.

The list of obstacles raised at the January pre-hearing conference left Smallwood somewhat discouraged, though.

“It would be a long and expensive road, and we’re really not sure we want to pursue it,” he said.

Smallwood said Fleck, who now owns several of the lots, would investigate building an adequate retaining wall behind his own property.

Nordby said that ideally, the various permitting issues could be dealt with as a package, rather than requiring separate proceedings for the different elements.

“I don’t know if our code has a mechanism to do it, but this certainly cries out for a solution like that,” he said.

The neighbors are conflicted.

“This is a close-knit neighborhood, and people are concerned that a project of that size would change the character,” Boubong said.

“But I welcome anything that could improve the situation we have now.”

SIDEBAR: The eight red-tagged homes along Rolling Bay Walk were proposed for acquisition with city open-space funds, but the Open Space Commission declined.

Chair Andy Maron said the commission had already recommended purchase of two waterfront properties, both on the east side of the island.

Placing a value on the properties would be “exceptionally difficult,” he said, because of their uncertain and problematic potential for redevelopment. If the city itself stepped in to buy the parcels, he said, “things could get really sticky. We didn’t want to venture into that.”

Stewardship and use of the properties also posed problems, Maron said, citing the cost to the public to tear down the red-tagged homes and to stabilize the slope.

“All very uncertain answers,” he said.

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