UPDATE | Hearings continue on controversial shopping center proposal

In a hearing last week, Ron Peltier of Islanders for Responsible Development and Bainbridge-based attorney, Ryan Vancil, challenge the proposal of a shopping center on High School Road and Highway 305. - Cecilia Garza | Bainbridge Island Review
In a hearing last week, Ron Peltier of Islanders for Responsible Development and Bainbridge-based attorney, Ryan Vancil, challenge the proposal of a shopping center on High School Road and Highway 305.
— 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 a three-day public hearing for the project.

Opponents to the nearly 62,000-square-foot shopping center — which would include a Bartell Drugs store, restaurants and offices for professional services — packed Bainbridge Island City Hall Thursday, Jan. 16 to tell 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.

“This development serves no identified need. Most of us on Bainbridge don’t want it,” he added.

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; most of them, critical of the proposed project.

Owner has her say

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.

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.

Green buildings wanted

Representatives of Islanders for Responsible Development began the second day of the hearing by asking the developers 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 requirements in the site’s conditions for approval that would 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 would be preserved as open space.

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

“We have an opportunity here, to create something exceptional,” Andrus said. “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.”

Visconsi offers different view

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.

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

But the comprehensive plan, Thorpe said, is an overarching guide while actual development is regulated under the city’s zoning and development regulations. Furthermore, 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.

Thorpe questioned the proceedings of Bainbridge’s planning commission when it rejected the proposal.

“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,” he added.

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

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, he said.

The hearing extended into Tuesday, Jan. 21 with discussion of traffic mitigation — a safety concern that has become a major argument by those opposed to the development.

The current site design includes a main road for through-way traffic in the development which is divided by a landscaped median and a series of crosswalks.

The median, Wenzlau explained, would provide a pausing point for pedestrians and provide a safe roadway for trucks heading to ProBuild nearby. It would be designed much like the median islands on the downtown end of Madison Avenue, with the idea that shoppers could park and walk from shop to shop.

In addition, the design would also include traffic signage outside the development in the neighboring Stonecress neighborhood. At the neighborhood entry and development exit, signs will read “No trucks” and “Local traffic only.”

Crosswalks criticized

Despite the measures the design takes to lessen conflicts between vehicles and pedestrians, an expert brought forward by those opposing the development said the project just misses the mark.

Ross Tilghman of the Seattle-based Tilghman Group has 20 years of experience in urban and transportation planning design.

Tilghman’s assessment concluded that the development was predominately designed with automobiles in mind.

“I don’t think the median has anything to do with separating pedestrians and trucks,” Tilghman said.

“The median has to do with providing a refuge to a person crossing the width of the traffic ways … It shortens the crossing distance. It doesn’t prevent a truck from interfering with pedestrians.”

In Tilghman’s study, anywhere between 108 to 131 single unit trucks and between 10 and two double-unit trucks would pass through the main roadway of the shopping center in a two-day period.

He concluded that since most streets typically see 2 to 4 percent truck traffic, and this road would see 15 to 20 percent truck traffic, the center’s design presents a safety concern. He recommended the design be revised to include peripheral access for truck-only traffic.

A decision on the proposal is expected in the coming weeks.

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