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Roots run shallow, deep -- Benton

Megan Benton (above) and her husband. Paul. moved to Bainbridge Island two years ago, attracted to what the island offers in the way of arts, business, and geographic location.  - JULIE BUSCH photo
Megan Benton (above) and her husband. Paul. moved to Bainbridge Island two years ago, attracted to what the island offers in the way of arts, business, and geographic location.
— image credit: JULIE BUSCH photo

Megan Benton doesn’t mind her status as an island newcomer.

Island newcomers, once they settle in, quickly catch wind that their presence isn’t always appreciated by some longtime – or even not-so-longtime – residents.

In Megan Benton’s case, the contempt was a little more overt.

“Someone wrote a letter in the Review pointing at my house,” she said, sitting in the livingroom of her Wood Avenue home. “They called it a ‘Mediterranean box.’”

The letter, published last June, troubled Benton, who had moved to the island with her husband, Paul Benton, just a year earlier. It was a refrain she kept hearing in the paper, “that newcomers were part of the problem.”

The letter mourned the loss of the old houses and stands of trees in the southwest corner of Winslow. Based on some unfriendly encounters with “Botoxed” and “Porsche-driving” newcomers, the writer wondered if recent transplants were disappointed in the small town folk populating the island and were, perhaps, frustrated that their lives were not much improved after fleeing other high-class enclaves.

For Benton, nothing could be further than the truth.

“Bainbridge has such marvelous qualities,” she said. “Many newcomers want to preserve these qualities, not destroy them. There are a lot more houses than there used to be, and beautiful woods have been lost. But it’s wonderful to still go by all the farms and forests and parks that are still here.

“These are the things that brought us here and we also want, strongly, to keep it and protect it.”

Benton was born in Massachusetts, grew up in southern Illinois and studied history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. She started that school’s literary magazine as a student, came back later as a professor and found herself spearheading a new “publishing and printing arts” program.

After her husband, also a PLU professor, retired, the couple decided to pull up stakes and move to a place that better fit their values.

“We were living in Parkland, in south Tacoma, which was pretty bleak,” she said. “It was classic, unregulated sprawl with apartment complexes and Jiffy Lubes. It was not a posh place that we came from.”

The Bentons crafted a list to guide their search for an ideal community. Topping the page was access to transportation without having to depend on cars.

“We wanted to be able to walk places and not live in a grid of freeways,” she said. “That ruled out Seattle.”

While unwilling to live in the heart of the city, the couple still wanted to feel its pulse.

“We didn’t want to live in a backwater,” Benton said. “We wanted a community that was enlightened, that paid attention to current events, that talked about interesting things. We didn’t find that readily in remote areas, places that were more self-contained.”

Yet, the Bentons wanted to live in a “small scale” place that had the “comfortable community feel of a small town with the sensibility of a city.”

Bainbridge fit the bill.

“It perfectly met our criteria,” she said. “We had such an affinity for what we saw. We marveled at the fact that there’s an arts and humanities council, a film fest and a lecture series here. It’s like a really good university community where people value education and live by their values.”

It is those values that Benton believes will help the island retain what makes it distinct and highly sought after.

“This place could look like south Tacoma, Kent or Renton, where hills are covered in cheap apartments or town houses,” she said. “But they’re not clear-cutting here. At least a decent effort is being made not to do that. We’re keeping as many trees as we can, creating buffers and park settings.”

Growth is churning up trees, farmland and open space almost everywhere in Western Washington. But Bainbridge is taking hold of the reigns and steering the stampede according to a set of home-grown values, Benton said.

“(Growth) is universal – it’s not just Bainbridge,” she said. “The important thing is that we’re in control.”

Benton hopes what she considers local lapses in controlled growth can serve as lessons for future development.

“The part of the island that I’m the most unhappy (with) is the High School Road area,” she said. “It’s exactly like everywhere else. That Safeway complex could be a thousand other places. It’s just so banal, and I don’t see any character there.”

Benton is hopeful that community-sponsored initiatives, such as the city’s Winslow Tomorrow project, have created momentum to keep development concentrated downtown while the rest of the island remains green and unpaved.

“This kind of belief and effort is widely held on the island. People want to support our downtown, want to live and walk downtown (and) want places like New Sweden to stay the same. That’s part of what drew me to Bainbridge Island,” she said.

“We want to participate in that and make sure those qualities that brought us here are preserved.”

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Islandwise

These profiles are part of an ongoing series on Bainbridge families and individuals, coinciding with a new project called Islandwise that’s looking for shared community values. To get involved in fireside chats on community values and vision, call Dwight Sutton at 842-3011, Rod Stevens at 780-1444 or Connie Waddington at 842-9483.

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