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Subdivision plan gets latest airing

Before it lifts a year-long moratorium on subdivision applications, the Bainbridge Island City Council plans to make major changes to the process that it hopes will both allow for future growth and preserve open space in a legal fashion.

While the public will get its first chance to comment at tonight’s council meeting, it likely won’t be the last chance.

“The council’s land-use committee will probably want to make additional changes after hearing public comment, and I would anticipate another public hearing after that,” said city long-range planner Libby Hudson.

The ordinance makes a number of significant changes to the way land would be divided for development on Bainbridge, among them:

l The short-plat process, previously available for dividing land into as many as nine parcels, would in most cases be limited to subdivisions of four parcels or fewer;

l All development outside of the downtown Winslow core would still be required to set aside a portion of land as private open space, but the amount of required open-space would be a uniform 30 percent in all areas – down from the present sliding scale of 80 percent open space in large-lot rural areas down to 40 percent in more urbanized areas;

l Except to protect existing views, subdivisions would have to either retain or install vegetation buffers of varying thicknesses;

l Homesites would generally have to be clustered together, to preserve land for future development at higher densities, and;

l Rules would be eased for developers that voluntarily provide more open space, including allowing as many as nine lots to be created under the short-plat process, which is somewhat simpler and faster than a long-plat application.

The principal provisions all drew early criticism.

Developer Dick Allen said that required buffers can significantly cramp the land available for building, particularly in higher-density areas closer to Winslow.

“It’s not just the ten-foot buffer, but the 15-foot setback on top of that,” he said. “That pushes the homes closer together. Then you add the open-space provision which gives the neighbors a piece of land to fight over. It would be better to give that land to individual lots.”

Large-lot developer Kelly Samson still questions whether the open-space requirements can pass legal muster.

“A 30 percent requirement is exactly what the court found wasn’t legal in the Camas case, so how can we require it,” he said.

He said clustering developments to create a land bank for future development could backfire on the city.

“This is a developer’s dream, because they may be able to develop the land twice,” he said.

The ordinance, almost a year in the drafting, is a confluence of three forces. First, the city looked at revising its so-called “flexible lot” process, which encouraged but did not require builders to cluster homes, preserving more unbuilt land and supposedly reducing the strain on physical infrastructure.

But the clustering practice came under fire from neighbors close to the homesite clusters, who were confronted with what appeared to be much higher density than the area zoning permitted.

While that modification was in process, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the city of Camas could not legally require a developer to set aside 30 percent of the land in a subdivision as open space.

Believing that its sliding-scale open-space requirement was also legally vulnerable, the city wanted to either find ways to defend its requirement, or abandon it.

To deal with the Camas requirement, a city consultant ascertained that some 35 percent of the island’s currently developed land would qualify as open space. Believing that it could require similar dedications from future development, the land-use committee fixed on a 30 percent requirement.

The last parameter came from the state’s Office of Community Development, which reviews city land-use rules for compliance with the state’s Growth Management Act. It said that because Bainbridge is a city, it must be prepared at some future point to accommodate so-called “urban density,” which it defines as zoning of four or more homes per acre.

To allow that degree of “up-zoning” in the future, OCD encouraged the island to require “cluster” development, preserving land outside those “clusters” for future building.

To deal with the latter issue, the ordinance requires subdividers to designate a “homesite” no larger than 11,000 square feet – a size equal to four units per acre – and confine all building to that area. That way, the reasoning goes, land will be available when higher-density zoning is needed to accommodate Bainbridge’s future population.

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