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Planning commission, city move to end height and density increases in downtown

One of the most controversial aspects of the Winslow Tomorrow planning process is nearing its end.

The city's Planning Department and the citizen Planning Commission have formally recommended an end to proposed increases in density and height allowances in downtown Bainbridge Island.

"I'm just glad that it's done... we struggled with that for many meetings," said commission member Maradel Gale. "The recommendation (of the commission is) that increasing the density and raising the height of buildings be put to rest and not be discussed any further."

Planning for height and density increases began as part of the Winslow Tomorrow project.

Many opponents of Winslow Tomorrow were critical of the plans, which would have allowed buildings to be built as high as 55 feet in some instances and would have increased floor area ratio (FAR) to 2.5 in some downtown areas.

"When people started hearing there was a proposal to increase height and density that's when they pushed back and understandably so," Gale said.

The recommendation to shelve the ordinance comes on the heels of staff layoffs that downsized the city's planning department. Long-range planning has been winnowed down to three employees, who are now focusing on comprehensive plan, shoreline and critical areas ordinance updates.

"We cant really take on discretionary ordinances," Planning Director Kathy Cook said. "We have a freeze on most discretionary long-range projects."

Raising the height limits were meant to decrease building footprints and be conducive to larger courtyards and open space. The planning commission has recommended no changes to current downtown building codes be made. Currently, the downtown core area has a maximum FAR of 1.5 and a maximum building height of 45 feet.

"The whole density and height was a contentious issue," Cook said "I think, it's appropriate (it's over). But there is one part of me that says there was so much effort and work put into this and some good policy direction came out of the process."

Since October 2006, numerous public meetings and 12 study sessions on the changes saw overflow crowds and public frustration at the proposed density and height increases. Some developers and property have spoken in favor of the changes.

However, none of those supporters were at last Thursday's planning commission meeting when the formal recommendation to drop the changes was made, Gale said.

"I know there are some people who have contacted me who really believe we are making a mistake not to increase the density and height," Gale said. "But I think they are a small minority on this island."

The city and planning commission recommendation will go to the Land Use Committee and then to the full council for approval within the next two months.

It is unlikely that the council will reverse the decision.

"Now the public can focus on other issues rather than worrying about whether they are going to sneak in additional height or density downtown, Gale said. "Because it's not going to happen, unless the council goes against the planning commission's recommendation, which is unlikely in this case."

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