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Buffer proposal divides citizens

The council mulls an update to the city’s ordinance protecting ‘critical areas.’

Residents were crowded tight in City Hall Wednesday but were sharply divided on proposed new rules to protect the island’s wetlands, streams and other at-risk natural areas.

“This ordinance will make land valueless, and that’s very hard to swallow,” said Fletcher Bay resident Rich Schmidt, echoing other landowner concerns that expanded buffers will restrict development and diminish property values.

But others praised the ordinance as a means to protect salmon habitat and water quality.

“We are a part of the larger picture and need to think of the common good,” said Crystal Springs resident Jon Quitslund. “I don’t regard this as a threat to my freedom, but as a description of my duties as a property owner.”

Liz Taylor, a Ferncliff resident and specialist on aging and long-term care, argued that the ordinance will keep the island’s groundwater supply clean while also maintaining land values.

“Bainbridge has a large proportion of older people (who) depend on the values of their homes,” she said. “But nothing turns land values to dust more than water shortages and pollution.”

Nearing its final draft, the city hopes to update the ordinance before May 9. The city already missed the state’s December 2004 deadline, and further delays could cost the city in state funding.

A council workshop on the ordinance will be from 6-9 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.

The City Council and planning staff have expressed support for adopting state Department of Ecology recommendations that set buffer widths based on a threatened area’s category, the intensity of surrounding development and its function in the ecosystem.

In the DOE plan, some buffers might shrink below the city’s previously recommended limits, if plants or other factors preserve the buffer’s function.

However, if a buffer geared toward water quality lacks the necessary vegetation to prevent runoff, the city could recommend a buffer larger than previously recommended. Both Pierce and King counties have adopted the DOE option in their critical areas ordinances.

Councilwoman Deborah Vann said the city’s ordinance update offers landowners more flexibility than previously allowed.

“I’m not sure why there’s this concern that it’s less flexible, because it really and truly is not,” she said.

But some attendees still feel the proposed rules put an unnecessary burden on landowners.

Nancy Lowery of Madison Avenue said much of her property is in danger of becoming unusable by the ordinance.

“I’ll not be able to do anything with it but pay property taxes on it,” she said.

Point White resident Gale Cool called the ordinance “a clumsy attempt at a land-grab.” He advocates giving landowners incentives for wetland and stream protections.

“Preservation will not happen by command and control,” he said.

But not everyone is willing to put trust in individual property owners to always do the right thing for the environment.

Janet Herren said unchecked development caused the 1997 mudslide near Rolling Bay Walk that killed her son, Dwight Herren, and his family.

“They were wiped out by that mudslide from the development above,” she said, expressing support for the ordinance. “It’s my urgent hope that we learn to control our appetite for development before it’s too late.”

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