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UPDATE | Proposed retail center gets rejected, unanimous 'no' vote
The Bainbridge Island Planning Commission has unanimously rejected a proposed shopping center near High School Road and Highway 305.
Commissioners said the new commercial center, which would include a Bartells drug store and a health services building, had design flaws that raised safety issues for drivers and pedestrians who would visit the shopping center and those who live and work nearby.
Commissioners also questioned whether the new businesses were needed, and noted the project would “sacrifice” more than 800 trees and put children in the nearby Stonecress neighborhood at risk due to more traffic.
The development has been in the works for more than a year. Visconsi Companies, based in Pepper Pike, Ohio, builds community shopping centers and approached city officials in 2012 with a plan for a 61,890-square-foot shopping center on a little more than 8 acres of land directly across from the McDonald’s on High School Road.
The proposed project has been intensely opposed by some on Bainbridge.
Opponents cheered the planning commission’s rejection of the project this week.
“I can’t imagine a better outcome then what we got at last night’s meeting,” said Ron Peltier of Islanders for Responsible Development, a group that formed to fight the development after it was proposed.
“This is a signal of a change in the way we do things on the island. It’s really about the Comprehensive Plan,” he said.
“I think that was the question, are we going to take the Comprehensive Plan seriously or are we going to, as I think it has been the case for quite a while, ignore it and say it’s too vague? It’s all about the citizens saying this is the law, and we want you to follow it. It’s important. It’s not just a feel-good document,” Peltier said.
The planning commission issued its recommendation for denial of the project on Nov. 14, at the close of its third consecutive meeting on the shopping center before a packed house at city hall.
The audience broke into applause after the commission voted to reject the project.
The proposal will now go to the city’s hearing examiner for a final decision.
City planning staff had earlier asked the planning commission to approve the project, and staff said the proposal fit with the zoning for the property and the city’s development regulations.
In its findings that form the basis of the commission’s rejection, commissioners said the proposed development was not a good fit for the property and the land “presents several obstacles to the kind of development that is proposed.”
“We talked about a lot of things over the course of the four meetings we had on the subject,” said Michael Lewars, chairman for the planning commission.
“In the minds of the commissioners as they looked at the applicable portions of the Comprehensive Plan, they felt that this application didn’t match up and therefore our recommendation was to deny the application,” he said.
Commissioners asked that the proposed 62,000-square-foot shopping center be rejected.
“We believe that the architect has faced an impossible task. We find that the project, if carried forward, would be in violation of several provisions in the Comprehensive Plan and implementing regulations,” the planning commission said in its decision, which was written by Planning Commissioner Maradel Gale.
Safety is primary issue
Commissioners said there were “hindrances” within the property and the “commercial development” zoning for the land.
“Other constraints arise from its location, adjacent to residential development and a Class I wetland, and on the northeast corner of a crucial crossroad where vehicular traffic of all kinds is often congested,” the findings state. “Part of the property is forested, and the trees perform valuable ecological functions.”
Commissioners raised concerns about traffic impacts from the development, and noted that Pollys Lane — which runs through the property to be developed — is near single-family homes in the Stonecress neighborhood.
“This street currently serves the families that live in this neighborhood. The proposed plan will turn the street into an access road for the Visconsi development, with nothing buffering the traffic passing in front of the homes,” the commission said in its findings.
Commissioners said the design of the internal, three-lane roadway system was flawed. A one-lane street was separated by a narrow planting strip from the two-way street.
“In no other place in our community do we have a situation where one must cross three lanes of traffic to get from one part of the shopping center to the other. Imagine doing this as a parent with a stroller and a toddler alongside,” the commission said in its findings. “This is a very unsafe situation.”
Traffic study faulted
Commissioners criticized the consultant report that studied potential traffic impacts for the project, and said it did not consider internal traffic circulation in the new development.
Commissioners also said the two-way street serving ProBuild, a building supply store, was very busy with “an unpredictable stream of large trucks, including semis with trailers hauling heavy loads of bricks, concrete blocks, lumber and other building supplies.”
The commission said pedestrians and others going to the shopping center would face conflicts from contractors who were in a hurry.
“Moving slowly through a busy shopping center is not part of their usual experience,” commissioners said of the contractors going to ProBuild, and officials noted that putting in speed bumps or raised crosswalks “will likely exacerbate the irritation of drivers headed to the building supply company, rather than increase the pedestrian and shopping center safety.”
The commission noted that approximately 250 customers visit ProBuild each day, and “contractor vehicles are generally not driven in a safety conscious manner.”
The planning commission said safety was the main reason for the project to be turned down.
“Pedestrians will be at peril,” commissioners added, both inside the development and outside, because some will jaywalk across High School Road from the Ace Hardware shopping center instead of walking down to the crosswalk near Highway 305.
The proposed plan for a second access road into the shopping center would also be “a major safety hazard for the residents of Stonecress and their families,” commissioners said, because children in the neighborhood would be exposed to an increase in traffic near their neighborhood.
Officials said the development would also be “disrupting the quiet enjoyment of these properties.”
Commissioners also were critical that an economic impact analysis of the proposed development was not conducted to determine if the new shopping center would hurt other businesses along High School Road or in downtown Winslow.
“The potential uses which have been floated in the ongoing discussion of the shopping center have not been demonstrated to complement downtown Winslow,” commissioners noted.
Conflicts with city plan
Commissioners also said the shopping center does not mesh with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, the document that guides growth and development on the island, and the proposed development “is inappropriate, considering the characteristics of the site and the existing development on neighboring properties.”
Commissioners also noted the “sacrifice” of 832 trees that would be cut down as the property is developed.
“The proposed shopping center does not add anything to the community in terms of shopping experiences that our community does not already have, and in fact, does not complement downtown Winslow,” commissioners said of the new development, and commissioners also claimed the new project also had the “distinct possibility of destroying” the nearby ProBuild center.
“The attempt to route heavy traffic to this ... business through a busy shopping center seems a recipe for driving away the business that currently patronizes ProBuild, and has the very real potential of leaving the island with less diverse commercial opportunities than it currently enjoys,” commissioners said.
Commissioners also cited strong public opinion against the proposed project as a reason for rejecting the shopping center and said the commercial development would endanger the special character of the island.
Not dead yet
Planning Director Kathy Cook explained that since the commission’s recommendation the proposed development will go through a couple more steps before it is determined whether or not it will receive the final stamp of approval.
The developers will submit a review under the state’s Environmental Policy Act.
This will likely extend the timeline until January, Cook said.
Following the review, a 14-day public comment and appeal period will take place before the project is scheduled to go before the city’s hearing examiner for a final decision.
The city will present the project and the reasons behind staff and commission recommendations, Cook explained.
The hearing examiner will make a decision based entirely on the law as it is spelled out by city code and on the records compiled by the city, Visconsi developers and planning commission.
Review writer Brian Kelly contributed to this story.