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The Sound, the fury, and the confusion: Bainbridge SMP has shoreliners worried

A line has been drawn in the sand on Bainbridge Island, between rights and regulations.

Some say that line is drawn along the waterfront, while others say that the brewing battle over the city’s Shoreline Master Program is merely the result of misunderstandings and misleading.

At the heart of the argument is Bainbridge Island’s update to the plan, more commonly referred to as simply the “SMP.”

Refinements to the program have taken nearly a decade to get to this point, traveling through a state agency, city committees and the Planning Commission while drawing considerable community criticism along the way.

Coming in at more than 300 pages, the Shoreline Master Program update is a considerable read, seeped in regulations and planning department jargon. As such, it has been difficult to decipher for Joe Public.

Take the issue of docks, for example.

“It’s a prohibition on docks on the outside of the island,” said Bainbridge Island activist Gary Tripp, who has championed the opposition to the updated program.

Looking through new rules for the answer can prove difficult. The short answer is that, no, docks will not be banned, city officials said. The long answer is more along the lines of limitations.

“We don’t outright prohibit docks on the outside of the island,” said city shoreline planner Ryan Ericson.

“We limit locations due to physical limitations. We have areas of high winds, waves and currents, and areas of shallow bottoms where you have to have to build a long dock to get out to deep water,” he said.

Critics of Shoreline Master Program raise alarm on potential impacts of new regulations

Such debates have inspired a pushback from shoreline homeowners concerned their properties will take a hit. They have also raised concerns that water views will also be harmed due to requirements that preserve vegetation on the shoreline.

Tripp said the program would mean the eventual loss of the island’s coastal homes.

“It deprives citizens of normal water dependent uses and eventually forces them off the waterfront,” Tripp said.

Not all agree with that assessment, however.

“I know there are some fears — because the seedsof fear have been sewn — that this will have some kind of impact in terms of residential values and so on,” said Michael Lewars, chairman of the city’s Planning Commission.

“Believe me, I’m a shoreline homeowner. I’m cautious of that and I have no such concern,” Lewars said.

Despite ample chances for community participation and a lengthy public process, Bainbridge Island’s update to its Shoreline Master Program continues to be a controversial topic filled with accusations that the city council, or the planning department or some other element, is pursuing steep regulations that will harm waterfront property owners.

The sentiment has grown much so that an ire-filled crowd of more than 150 protestors — led by Tripp — marched through Winslow last week to show their disapproval of the update.

Between the clutter of arguments, many are left scratching their heads as to what exactly is going on with the Shoreline Master Program.

The Shoreline Management Act

In 1972, Washington voters approved a referendum that established the Shoreline Management Act. It is a series of state guidelines and regulations meant to manage development in order to protect and preserve Washington’s shorelines, from mountain rivers to Puget Sound.

“There was piecemeal development of our shorelines,” said Curt Hart of the state Department of Ecology.

“People used to put dumps and landfills right on the shoreline,” he said.

Hart noted that regulations differed from county to county, and city to city, and that caused a lack of consistency along the shoreline.

The act comes under Ecology’s purview. Shoreline Management Programs are how local jurisdictions comply with the state regulations.

Bainbridge Island had a Shoreline Management Program approved by Ecology in 1996. But the state updated the rules for the programs in 2003 and that caused multiple cities to, in turn, update their programs.

“There is actually a law that says cities have to update their master programs by 2014,” Hart said.

Ecology gave the city of Bainbridge Island $200,000 in 2009 to help complete the work.

The update process so far on Bainbridge

Since then, the city embarked on a process starting with community workgroups.

“The first stop was the citizen groups,” Lewars said. “Part of the makeup of those groups was there were four organizations on the island, two working on protecting the environment, and two protecting shoreline homeowners.”

Island citizens, including Tripp and other shoreline homeowners, worked through the program before it went on to the next step with the city’s Planning Commission.

The commission took over the program in June 2011. It worked on it for nine months, making further modifications.

The commission was so engrossed in the task that it stepped up its meeting schedule from two meetings a month to three. It also increased its meetings from two to four hours.

Finally, in April 2012, the draft update was presented to the city council.

The council continues to go through the changes to the program. Once it is finished, the program will be sent to the Department of Ecology for final approval.

“The city council will make a resolution, that will come to Ecology for our review. We will make sure it meets the intent of the Shoreline Management Act,” Hart said.

“It comes to Ecology and we can accept it, reject it, or most likely what I’ve seen happen is, there is a give-and-take,” he said.

Once Ecology does give the final approval to the program, it becomes aligned with other state programs, which ultimately means any further legal challenges land on Ecology’s doorstep.

“If someone challenges it, Ecology has to defend it,” Hart said.

Controversy grows amid many claims

A handful of hot topics have arisen to stir the shoreline homeowner community.

A chief concern is the use of the term “nonconforming” to describe many of the houses along the waterfront.

When a home, on the shoreline or not, is built to code in the era it was erected, but no longer meets modern codes, it commonly is referred to as a “nonconforming” structure.

That has coastal property owners worried. Shoreliners also raise issue with new buffer requirements that regulate how far back from the water structures can be built and the amount of vegetation between homes and the water.

“The sole purpose of ‘nonconforming,’ is to eliminate the nonconformity overtime,” Tripp said. “So they are saying we want to eliminate your home, your yard and any structures in your yard over time because they don’t conform to the buffers and setbacks.”

A common critique of Tripp’s assessment is that he confuses the terms “nonconforming structure” such as the shoreline homes, with “nonconforming use” which would be associated with phasing out certain types of development.

Whether Tripp’s allegation is correct or not, he’s spread the word enough to make shoreliners uneasy. The issue prompted the council to make a preliminary decision to change the designation of shoreline homes referred to as “nonconforming” to “existing structures.”

But the issue is a moot point, others say.

“Nonconforming is a legal term that has been around for a century, as well as here on the island,” Lewars said.

Lewars further noted that the term simply refers to a structure that was once built to code, but no longer meets current standards.

“What people apparently don’t want to understand, or just don’t understand, is that if you call it ‘nonconforming’ or ‘existing structure,’ the exact same restrictions are going to be put in place when you go through a permitting process. This has become the overriding hot button issue and it’s a phantom issue.”

Lewars also countered claims that rebuilt homes will have to be pushed back off the waterfront.

He noted that Bainbridge Island’s update allows for a nonconforming home to be rebuilt in the exact same footprint if it is destroyed.

Even if Tripp’s nonconforming allegations are true,  it is unlikely that the matter will pass Ecology’s standards.

“Homes are grandfathered in,” Hart said. “The Shoreline Master Program is not going to affect your current home. What the Shoreline Master Program really does is set, this point forward, the areas we need to develop.”

“It’s not backward-looking. It’s not going to go back to make things look pristine,” he said.

Shoreline homeowners have also argued that the program will constitute a “land grab” by the city. But again, Ecology has a different take on the matter.

“Part of our review team is the Attorney General’s Office because one of the things we can’t do is take property,” Hart said. “No one is going to have to tear down a home or modify a home. There is a legal check-in.”

The main point Hart presses is that Shoreline Master Programs look ahead to future development, with no aims of meddling with what is already built.

What’s next

April 10:  The city council will further discuss issues related to the Shoreline Master Program update.

April 24:  The council will hold a public hearing on the update.

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