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UPDATE | Critics, proponents weigh in on proposed shopping center

Robert Thorpe of R. W. Thorpe & Associates was brought forward by Visconsi attorneys as an expert in planning regulations. Thorpe has more than 40 years of experience in the planning field. - Cecilia Garza | Bainbridge Island Review
Robert Thorpe of R. W. Thorpe & Associates was brought forward by Visconsi attorneys as an expert in planning regulations. Thorpe has more than 40 years of experience in the planning field.
— image credit: Cecilia Garza | Bainbridge Island Review

Critics to a proposed shopping center near the Highway 305-High School Road intersection struck familiar chords at the start of the hearing for the project Thursday at Bainbridge Island City Hall.

But proponents of the project also got a chance to offer their views to the city's hearing examiner — and to critics of the proposal — and countered that the development fits with existing zoning and regulations and should move forward.

Opponents to the nearly 62,000-square-foot shopping center — which would include a Bartell Drugs store, restaurants and offices for professional services — told Hearing Examiner Stafford Smith the development would bring redundant and unwanted businesses to the island.

Some also questioned whether the proposed project fit with the city's comprehensive plan, the expansive document that guides growth and development in the city.

"I believe that most of us here tonight are here because we not only want to make Bainbridge liveable, we want to fulfill the vision of the Bainbridge comprehensive plan and make Bainbridge even more liveable," said David Korten, a book author and island resident.

Korten drew a distinction between the views of islanders and those who want to develop the approximately 8-acre property that sits directly across from the McDonald’s on High School Road.

"To make it a vision of what an American community can be, people like us step in to exercise our democratic rights as citizens and build a community built around community interests and community values. Not the interests of outside financial interests," Korten said.

"They are in the business of creating car-oriented shopping malls and strip malls for corporate chain clients that draw people away from local Main Street businesses. We face a defining question, will our future be determined by 'We the People' who live in, love and work for the liveability of our Bainbridge community, or will it be determined by outside financial interests that seek only a quick profit?"

"This development serves no identified need. Most of us on Bainbridge don't want it," he said.

Though Smith did not crack a smile the entire hearing, Korten's comments were met with a resounding applause throughout the room.

He was followed by a long line of other voices, the majority of which sung opposition.

Suzanne Kelly, the owner of the property where the commercial center is planned, was one of the few voices who spoke in support of the development. She told the hearing examiner that she has paid property taxes and other fees for the land since her mother passed away in 1999.

"The property was always intended to be developed by my mother, she died prematurely and she didn't get to see her dream come true," Kelly said.

"When I put the parcels on the market, I was approached by Visconsi on behalf of Key Bank. They only wanted the southwest corner, but I insisted that they develop the entire five parcels to create a cohesive and attractive shopping area," she said. "I wanted the property to be developed thoughtfully as one shopping area rather than piecemeal, with a jumble of different architectural styles."

Kelly also noted that she has property rights to develop the land under the city's existing regulations.

"I do not believe that rights bestowed by zoning are subject to public opinion," Kelly said.

Korten, Kelly and the rest of the commenters received a variety of reactions from the crowd Thursday night. City hall's council chambers resounded with applause at times and soft chuckles at other times. It also emitted the occasional cat call of disapproval.

The meeting marked the start of an extended hearing on the project and stretched for more than three hours before it was called for the night. The hearing continued Friday at city hall before a smaller crowd that numbered approximately 40 strong.

Representatives of the group opposed to the project, Islanders for Responsible Development spoke at the start of the hearing and asked the proponents of the development to take careful consideration of the community's values.

Heather Andrus said that should the development go forward, Islanders for Responsible Development would like the city to include a list of building conditions that support sustainable and environmentally conscious growth.

The conditions, Andrus said, could include preserving as much green space as possible and guarantee that 30 percent of the development is preserved as open space.

The potential uses could include a sheltered and landscaped place where people can sit, eat and generally congregate, or, Andrus explained, it could be a rain garden, fountain or park.

The group also asked the architect to utilize the latest in green building techniques. It should include solar energy, sustainable water management techniques and strive for a zero waste facility.

Andrus added that the Visconsi website claims the company challenges the status quo and looks at future potential, but she said the claim was not enough.

"Bainbridge Island is extraordinary, and anyone wishing to develop here has been given a unique opportunity to do exactly those things," Andrus said. "We have an opportunity here, to create something exceptional. Please, do not squander our resources and gamble with our island's future when we have the chance to create a masterpiece of thoughtful and sustainable development."

Before the hearing broke for lunch, Visconsi's attorneys brought forward Robert Thorpe as an expert on planning regulations. Thorpe has more than 40 years of experience in the planning field and manages his own planning firm, R. W. Thorpe & Associates, Inc.

In his testimony, Thorpe explained that the comprehensive plan has been referenced by citizens and planning commissioners as a key component of decision-making for the project.

The comprehensive plan, however, Thorpe said is an overarching guide while actual development is regulated under the city's zoning and development regulations. Zoning and development regulations are crafted to comply with the comp plan.

Opponents are using the wrong tool in their attempt to get the project rejected, he said.

"It's like cutting a board with a hammer rather than a saw," Thorpe said. "They want to use the comprehensive plan to be the final word on a project, where the process says that you use all the codes and implementation devices."

"(The comprehensive plan) doesn't supplant those other regulations," he added.

Summing up, Thorpe questioned the proceedings of Bainbridge's planning commission when it rejected the proposal.

"I think the planning commission here had the idea that they were listening to people but they forgot about what the code says about using the zoning code and the design guidelines and all this implementation regulation," Thorpe said.

"I think what happened here, is that there was so much outcry that the planning commission tried to put on the hat of the legislative body, stick their finger up to see which way the wind is blowing and not look at the regulations," Thorpe added.

Thorpe further explained that since the parcel has been zoned for commercial use, it is a matter of "when," not "if" the land will be developed.

The property, however, could be designed to fit the needs, aesthetic and spirit of the community, he said. It is a process of mediation on the community and architect's part to make sure that happens.

If the community does not want the land developed for commercial use, Thorpe said, the zoning should be changed.

Accordingly, that would mean the comprehensive plan also needs to be changed, Thorpe said.

The hearing is expected to continue through next week. Later Friday, an official with the city's planning commission is expected to detail why that advisory body rejected the development plan.

The city's planning department is also expected to explain why the department recommended approval of the proposed shopping center.

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