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SMP opponents rally for lawsuit

Opponents of the long-debated but recently-approved updated Shoreline Master Program packed the Waterfront Community Center Tuesday to discuss their next plan of attack: sue the city.

Led by Gary Tripp and Linda Young of the Bainbridge-based nonprofit property rights group Bainbridge Defense Fund, the discussion centered on what the potential consequences of the SMP could be for shoreline property owners.

Young warned the crowd that although some doubt the city will be as aggressive as feared on enforcing the new regulations that cover shoreline development, the potential still exists for abuse.

“Whenever the government has the power to do something, it always ends up doing it,” she said.

Young said shoreline property owners may face hassles when trying to get permits for bulkheads and docks, and also claimed that no scientific work was done by the city or the state Department of Ecology to prove that the current 50-foot buffers on shoreline properties were inadequate to protect the environment.

She also said that the SMP will phase out existing homes that don’t meet the new standards, and warned the state may take the house keys away from property owners.

“The way they do it (phase out), is if you leave your house unoccupied for 12 months, they take away your right to use that house again,” Young said.

Critics of the city’s updated SMP said a legal challenge to the new rules was the only way to get them changed.

“We’ve tried everything else. Now is the time for litigation,” Young said.

With Young’s words still in the air, Tripp introduced Richard Stephens, the lawyer hired on a retainer by the Bainbridge Defense Fund to fight against the SMP in court.

But several residents asked Stephens the likelihood of success for more aggressive strategies, including targeting council members who voted for the SMP or having property owners secede from the city of Bainbridge Island.

“How about having a recall election?” one citizen asked.

“Do we have to have wrongdoing? Do we have to allege that? Or do we just have to get a number of signatures?”

Stephens said that if the residents are looking to take some members of the council off the dais, they would have to allege wrongdoing on an official’s part before a recall effort would be heard in court.

Others noted that city government itself was the problem.

“Those of us that have lived here long enough to remember what it was like before it was a city realize it was a lot better place,” chimed in another resident.

“We have a contiguous, discrete group of people here that really don’t want to belong to this city. Is there any possibility…”

Before he finished his sentence asking if shoreline property owners could separate from the city, the crowd responded with chuckles and applause.

“That’s a great point,” more than one person said in agreement.

Tripp responded that it was a question he’s been asked several times.

“Many people have suggested it because we used to live in kind of benign neglect, and we got to do what we wanted,” Tripp said.

But, he said, to unravel the city and all of its functions would be a far stretch.

“I’m not talking about that,” said the resident who raised the issue. “I’m talking about a contiguous group of people in a geographic location ...”

“Seceding?” another resident interrupted.

Stephens told the group that such a breakaway move was harder done than said, and clarified that many groups of people in similar property rights disputes in other parts of the U.S. have not been able to secede.

Stephens explained he will work with the Bainbridge Defense Fund and its supporters through at least two levels of a legal battle.

The first step will be to take their challenge to the SMP to the Growth Management Hearing Board. There, the board would evaluate issues solely on the Shoreline Management Act, but not claims that the updated regulations are unconstitutional.

The group could then take their case to court.

In a forthright explanation of the process, though, Stephens told the group the hearing board will most likely not greet their challenge of the Bainbridge SMP positively.

Secondly, he said, the court will defer to the board on shoreline issues.

It’s going to be a difficult process, Stephens said.

Unless the group can prove constitutional rights are violated or that an immediate harm will result from the SMP, the lawsuit may rely on public participation violations — a path the group wants to avoid since it could start the SMP rewrite process over again at square one.

As for costs, the lawsuit won’t be cheap.

Stephens estimated it would cost $40,000 to get the group through the hearing board portion of the process, and another $60,000 to get through the court process.

At Tuesday’s meeting, a basket of contribution envelopes greeted attendees at the door.

“We can’t count on someone else fighting this battle for us,” Tripp said.

“The people that are here and your neighbors are the only people that are going to contribute to this,” he said.

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