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Ravine still has some friends

An aerial view of the Winslow ravine, a swath of green snaking through the edge of town from the Winslow Way/305 intersection (lower left) and crossing under the highway before ending near McDonald’s on High School Road. The parking area immediately west of the highway could be redeveloped into a condominium project next to the greenway, under plans now on file with the city. - Courtesy of Washington State Department of Transportation
An aerial view of the Winslow ravine, a swath of green snaking through the edge of town from the Winslow Way/305 intersection (lower left) and crossing under the highway before ending near McDonald’s on High School Road. The parking area immediately west of the highway could be redeveloped into a condominium project next to the greenway, under plans now on file with the city.
— image credit: Courtesy of Washington State Department of Transportation

A proposal to ease setback requirements has some concerned for Winslow’s greenbelt.

Many long-time residents know the deep and wide swath of greenspace downtown as “the wash” or “Winslow Creek.” Scientists refer to it as “Stream No. 0324.” Most islanders today simply call it “the Ravine.”

But for conservationist Mike Bonoff, it’s Bainbridge’s “Grand Canyon.”

Standing at the edge of the ravine’s steep slope, Bonoff, a biologist for the city of Seattle, points down at the stream peaking from behind sword ferns. His finger moves up to old alder snags that bear the marks of piliated woodpeckers.

More than 50 species of birds live in the ravine, he said, and sometimes deer are spotted. Unseen are cutthroat trout and a variety of amphibians that are drawn upstream through the heart of downtown.

“As Winslow grows, we’re going to increasingly value this place,” Bonoff said. “The ravine has both an ecological function and a societal function that gives Winslow a wonderful green space.

“We need to protect that.”

The ravine is believed to have been formed 10,000 years ago by receding glaciers, and has served as a drainage basin for much of the Eagle Harbor watershed. It’s narrow stream originates from wetlands about a mile north of its mouth at Waterfront Park.

The ravine was spanned in 1900, uniting the communities of Madrone in the west and Hawley to the east. The wood bridge was replaced by a culvert and mounds of fill in 1930, as heavier traffic rattled through the growing town of Winslow.

Salmon started to disappear from the creek as pollution and other runoff clogged the stream. Invasive plants began to march down the ravine’s slopes, with English ivy enveloping trees and blackberry edging out native shrubs.

As parking lots, shops and homes grew along the ravine’s edges, a group of concerned residents, including Bonoff, joined forces to try and purchase and preserve nearby property.

Taking the name “Friends of the Ravine” in the 1980s, the group wasn’t successful in raising enough funds to buy land, but their volunteer efforts helped the ravine in other ways.

In 1989, the group introduced 6,000 chum and 500 coho salmon into the stream.

The ravine found added relief when the city established 50-foot buffers and 15-foot building setbacks that restrict development at the ravine’s edges.

But the Friends of the Ravine are concerned those protections could soon be cut by more than half under proposed changes to the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance, which establishes policies protecting wetlands, streams and other sensitive environments. The current draft would cut the 50-foot buffers down to 25 feet along the ravine in the downtown core, and would eliminate building setbacks.

The changes proposed for the ravine are an exception to the general rule, said city planner Steve Morse, because the area is at ground zero for much of the island’s expected growth.

“We’re trying to get more growth in Winslow” rather than other parts of the island, he said. The proposed policy change came, in part, after nearby property owners urged the city to ease development restrictions around the ravine.

The area has long been prime real estate, and significant developments are already in the works near the buffer.

Developers have begun work on 45 residential units on the former Bentryn Winery property that borders the ravine on the east side of State Route 305. Another 42 units are planned for 6.5 acres presently occupied by a parking lot bordering the ravine’s northeast side off Winslow Way.

Dennis Reynolds, a lawyer representing Lavon Enterprises – which owns the parking lot parcel, and part of the ravine floor – said the new development won’t impact the ravine any more than the already existing paved area.

He also said 50 foot buffers are largely unnecessary to preserve the stream’s water quality thanks to a berm that sits between the lot and the ravine.

“There is no point to the 50-foot buffer or construction setback, since water does not run uphill, and is collected and safely taken off-site throughout the existing municipal storm water system,” he said.

Reynolds said much of the opposition toward buffer reductions is misguided.

“In my experience, some Bainbridge citizens urge regulation without considering local circumstances,” he said. “At times, it seems, some citizens use critical areas regulation as a pretext to stop urban growth and in-filling.”

Concern

But new developments sprouting up just 25 feet from the ravine could seriously impact a rare piece of habitat in the downtown core, Bonoff contends, especially after a precedence for small buffers is set.

“Twenty-five feet has not nearly the ecological function,” he said. “It cuts down on shade the plants and animals need. It also allows invasive weeds, like ivy and holly, to get in.”

Smaller buffers tend to shrink quicker from nearby human activity – especially in population-dense areas, Bonoff said.

“History has shown that buffers below 50 feet tend to go away over time,” he said. “It can be as innocent as dumping lawn clippings or parking cars or it could be people cutting down buffer plants that block views or touch their buildings.”

Nearby developments also cast light and sound into habitat, scaring away wildlife.

Bonoff believes some buffers around the ravine are already not measuring up to their proper use. A buffer bordering the ravine on the east side of the Winslow building contains native vegetation that is too sparsely planted and has non-natives interspersed, he said.

“Think of those three trees in there as queens on a chessboard and the shrubs as pawns,” he said, pointing to the buffer’s three or four young trees that will one day provide shade for nearby Oregon grape. “I see two cedars, and that’s good. But I also see two of these odd maples. They aren’t native. So you have two queens here who are imposters.”

Not all conservationists believe 25-foot buffers will cripple the ravine’s ecosystem.

Fisheries biologist Wayne Daley, who has monitored the ravine for over 20 years, said he’d prefer 50-foot buffers, but believes the population of cutthroat trout won’t be significantly impacted if the buffers are reduced as the ordinance proposes.

Daley is more concerned with making sure the ravine’s fragile slopes and stream banks are not spoiled by trails and bushwhackers.

“Trails would be detrimental and there might have to be fences to minimize access” as the downtown grows, he said.

Friends of the Ravine founding member Sheila Crofut shares Daley’s concern for the ravine’s sensitive habitat, but hopes residents will one day be able to feel a closer connection to the area.

She’d like to see the thick blackberry brambles and ivy removed and a trail built to bring residents down among the ravine’s greenery.

“Right now, from the street, it looks like something to spit in,” she said. “But once you get down there you can see the beauty. It’s a natural museum, as far as I’m concerned.”

Crofut, who has worked to protect the ravine for over 25 years, would like to see school children visiting the ravine to learn the value of conservation.

“The ravine is an open textbook,” she said. “You want to teach kids about the environment? Then take them down to the ravine.”

Crofut spent many afternoons in the late 1980s at a table outside Town & Country Market asking kids to draw what they thought might be in the ravine.

This week, she pulled out a colorful drawing from one of the many folders she keeps about the ravine.

The illustration features a creature with striped fins, blue and yellow polka-dots, and red, bloody teeth.

“They thought there were sharks in the ravine,” she said with a laugh. “These kids really need to go down there and see what our island’s about. It we lose it, it’d be such a tragedy.”

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