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Speaker touches off debate on growth

Attendees at a city forum say tourism, development are harming the island.

Glenna Teti fled a sunny Pacific Coast town that thousands flock to every year. Choked by too much “charm,” Teti says her once-quaint artist community is now more theme park than small town.

“I am a refugee from Carmel, California,” she confessed to a crowd of residents attending a Winslow Tomorrow event Tuesday. “I left because I watched the town destroy itself by people who wanted tourism and by an invasion of too much money. I don’t want to see Bainbridge go that way.”

Teti was one of 35 residents who turned out for a lecture by urban planner Bill Grimes, sponsored by the city as part of the Envision Tomorrow series. As project manager for the Spokane-based Studio Cascade, Grimes recently worked with the City of Bellingham to prepare for a 40 percent population increase expected in less than 20 years.

Grimes advised Bellingham to “build up rather than out,” condensing 14,000 households in the downtown core over the next few years. His advice was the same for Bainbridge, urging the city to absorb expected growth within the Winslow core.

But most who attended the event said they’d prefer not to absorb anything.

Larry Koss said he’d like the island to “focus on nurturing” what it has rather than “building for more.”

His suggestion that the island scale back on appealing to tourists and transplants was met with a round of applause.

“We don’t need the Chamber of Commerce driving more tourists into Winslow,” Koss said.

Increased development based on tourism could endanger the diversity of Winslow’s downtown businesses, Charles Schmid said, replacing hardware and grocery stores with high-end boutiques.

That’s one major reason why Teti left Carmel, she said. A resident of the small California town for 35 years, she watched T-shirt shops and art galleries overrun the businesses that supported residents’ daily needs. With property values skyrocketing, the town’s food market was revamped into a more profitable souvenir shop.

Almost 45 T-shirt shops and 68 art galleries are now crammed into one square mile of Carmel’s downtown, said Kathy Kraft, an old Carmel pal of Teti’s who is considering a move to Bainbridge.

Teti pointed to Sanibel Island in Florida, which she said had managed to maintain its small-town character through low-growth protections.

“What’s their magic?” she asked Grimes.

“Money,” the speaker responded. “They control growth through ownership and property coalitions. If they want it, they can buy it.”

While Bainbridge Island has made forays into purchase-powered growth management through such measures as the open space bond levy, not everyone was willing to put all their stock in the power of local money to stem the rising tide of growth.

Some suggested bucking the state Growth Management Act, which mandates that communities plan for population increases.

“We think this is being driven by the GMA and that we have to absorb density,” Koss said. “But I don’t know that we have to participate in that.”

Another attendee suggested the island find a way to bar new residents. But Grimes doubted the effectiveness of that strategy.

“The Constitution guarantees the right to travel,” he said. “There’s not much you can do about that.”

Instead, Grimes offered up the notion of “form-based zoning,” which regulates new development based on the existing structures surrounding a zone.

Grimes contrasts this approach with conventional zoning, which focuses on controlling land use and density but largely ignores building height, floor areas and setbacks.

Form-based zoning requires significant public participation to craft rules that mirror a community’s most enduring characteristics, Grimes said.

Petaluma, Calif., was the first in the nation to adopt this new approach to zoning in 2003, while Syracuse, N.Y., Woodford County, Ky., and Providence, R.I., have incorporated some form-based values.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill last summer that places form-based zoning into statutes that regulate how the state develops. Advocates in the California Legislature considered form-based approach less restrictive for communities trying to mix offices, stores and residences into development patterns prevalent before the 1950s.

“It’s a zoning type that cares less about uses and more about how (a development) relates to everything around it,” Grimes said.

While some attendees warmed to the idea of form-based zoning, Bjorn Lunde was skeptical about its effectiveness in preserving the downtown’s character for future generations amid the broader trend of vigorous population growth.

“It might be a technique that buys us some time, and maybe we can hope it works until we die – but then it’s ‘good luck kids,’” he said. “Is there any alternative to growing like the cancer that we are?”

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