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Appleton backs bill on island growth

The Democrat hopes to let island cities set their own growth boundaries.

Imagine Bainbridge Island swelled to the seams with 130,000 people.

It’s not the vision most residents have for the bucolic isle. And it’s not a vision held by Rep. Sherry Appleton, who introduced a bill in Olympia this month aimed at putting the island’s growth in the hands of islanders.

“The island, because it’s incorporated (as a city), is in a unique position of being one big urban growth area” said the Poulsbo Democrat, who represents North Kitsap and Bainbridge. “But nobody wants the island to develop shore to shore.”

Appleton’s House Bill 2334 would allow Bainbridge Island to set its own urban growth areas and avoid the potential for sprawl and high-density development set for cities under the state Growth Management Act.

“This (bill) would give residents and the City Council permission to take growth where they want it,” Appleton said Monday. “They could fully develop, which would break my heart, or they could do three or two (residences) per acre. It gives options.”

Much of the island’s residential density, outside Winslow and neighborhood centers, has been set by the city at one residence per 2.5 acres. However, GMA guidelines set urban areas, which includes the entire island, at four residences per acre.

“That means if you’ve got a big chunk of land, like 62 acres, you could divide it up and have over 240 houses,” said Councilman Chris Snow, who supports Appleton’s bill.

Compare that to the city’s present rules, Snow said, which would allow just 25 homes on the same property.

“The city would have a difficult time preventing” the type of growth allowed under the GMA if a developer challenged city regulations, Snow said.

In a “worst case scenario,” the island’s growth capacity under state rules could fill Bainbridge with 127,000 people, according to island activist Charles Schmid, who testified in support of Appleton’s bill during a hearing in Olympia earlier this month.

“Even if our population were to double from what it is now, there’s a concern we might not meet (GMA guidelines),” he said.

Schmid is particularly concerned about the island’s water supply, which he believes is showing strains under the island’s present population of 22,000.

Unlike some other urbanized islands in the state, Bainbridge has “limited water resources and no water rights off-island,” he said. “We should be able to plan by what our water supply is.”

Schmid said HB 2334 would also correct an oversight rooted in the island’s incorporation. Bainbridge voters decided in 1990 to allow the City of Winslow to annex the entire island, stripping it from the county’s direct jurisdiction and creating what amounts to an island-city.

“When we voted for self-rule, we wanted to concentrate growth in Winslow and keep the rest of the area’s rural atmosphere,” said Schmid, who helped lead Home Rule for Bainbridge, a group that championed incorporation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “But the GMA was happening simultaneously.”

Residents got their island, but found themselves with a slate of new density rules they had hoped to avoid through incorporation.

HB 2334 would fix this oversight and give the city the power to “decide where growth should be,” Schmid said.

Appleton said this is a major aim of her bill.

“Had (island voters) known at the time they’d take all this growth, they may not have annexed,” she said.

Appleton expects her bill to pass out of the House Rules Committee after it undergoes a possible amendment process.

Should the bill fail to gain traction, Schmid said the island can always declare itself a county. Such an idea isn’t out of the question and could help the city reach goals of rural preservation, he added.

“Some counties in eastern Washington have less people than Bainbridge does,” he said. “It would give us more ability to plan, but also seems like a lot of paperwork and would have to be put through the Legislature.”

For Snow, failure of HB 2334 may mean the island would refocus efforts in other areas to curb growth and preserve rural character.

“It’s quite an important (bill) for us,” he said. “The world won’t end if it doesn’t pass, but the world would be a whole lot better if it does.”

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