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Divided crowd makes voices heard at Island Gateway forum

Last week’s Island Gateway forum drew a large and passionate crowd eager to talk about what went right and wrong with the process, but the purpose of the meeting wasn’t to debate the merits of the project, it was to look ahead.

Several citizens have complained of issues with the project since its inception, and as the process finalized, some individuals felt all views weren’t included. Others questioned the public process.

The city plans to examine these issues surrounding the development process, said interim Deputy City Manager Stan McNutt.

The city is in the midst of updating its code, and with the ongoing efforts associated with completing a change in the structure of government, review of internal matters such as the nature of the public process for such large-scale developments is under way.

“I think there’s improvements to be made on every front there is,” McNutt said.

McNutt said that on this project, some of the early meetings were conducted without much turnout from the public. McNutt said greater emphasis of meetings online and in announcements earlier in the process would help quell some concerns.

Meeting records show that aside from staff, the developers and board members, an average of two people attended each of the five Design Review Board meetings on the project, held between April 20 and June 29 of last year

McNutt said it’s too early to tell if any specific changes to the city code or any internal policies will be affected as a result of the Gateway project.

At the meeting, City Councilor Bill Knobloch said he was interested in getting the council involved with development inspection. Having the council involved would erase some of the perception that people have no say in the developments that happen on their island.

“We have to address the process to avoid this kind of consternation in the future,” he said.

McNutt said it would be counterproductive for the council to become involved in every development, but the body can shape the size and scope of development through policy.

“I think their role is going to be more focused on making sure that the ordinances and development regulations meet the community’s needs and the culture of the community,” he said.

On another level, the council used this meeting as a test case for future town hall style gatherings. As the implementation of the soon-to-be-finished Governance Manual continues, councilors hope to replicate the meeting structure at a neighborhood level.

At Thursday’s meeting peeches from citizens on both sides of the issue received loud applause, while others drew hissing from the crowd following their statements.

Following brief presentations from the staff, dozens of citizens lined up behind the podium waiting for their turn to talk about the project.

At the meeting, those speaking in favor of the project praised the efforts of the city staff to move the project through efficiently, while still giving the public a chance to become involved.

John Ellis, owner of the San Juan building on Winslow Way, said the way this process has dragged on could scare away other developers.

“It doesn’t make sense why this process is continuing,” he said. “I just hope in the future if other projects come forward, they know when they’re done, they’re done.”

Some citizens spoke out against the process, but not the project itself.

“I am in favor of the Island Gateway project,” said Annette Skinner, who along with Charles Schmid formed Friends of Bainbridge Island, the group that sued Gateway developers and the city over a City Council decision to vacate a nearby right-of-way.

“A tremendous amount of distrust was built under the past administration,” Skinner said. “People didn’t trust that decisions were made independently.”

But that was the past, said current Design Review Board member John Green. Things went wrong in the past, he said, but the new administration and new council are implementing change.

“We’re a small community and we should be pulling together in this difficult time, not continually beating up on people or the city,” he said.

Though the council and administration have begun to move forward from the last administration, some residents still feel the scars from the council under the old form of government.

Rod Stevens said it has been up to the citizens to make sure the processes are followed. Staff has not policed itself on past projects, he said. Stevens cited the Gateway project, Strawberry Plant and upcoming Nelson Park development, as examples of how the city has boxed out the citizenry in recent years.

“I’m tired of having to be vigilant to protect the public interest,” he said.

Stevens later said he would like the staff to be more effective, which would keep him, and other citizens, from having to learn so much about planning. This comment drew a chorus of hisses from some of the crowd.

Thursday’s meeting was called by city staff to look at the process that put the gateway project in its current situation. The most touched upon points brought forth by those speaking out against the project, concerned the speed at which the project was approved, and a perceived lack of planning which led to instances such as staff not classifying the project as within a 200-foot proximity to the shoreline, and subsequently needing a Substantial Shoreline Development permit.

“From a perception standpoint, this does not appear like a typical shoreline property,” said Deputy Planning Director Chris Wierzbicki.

Bill Carruthers, a principal on the project, said meetings like this help to get the community together to talk about projects. He said there will always be a difference of opinion on a project of this scope.

“People in this community have a range of interests,” he said. “Some want growth, others don’t. Some are OK with change, while others are absolutely opposed to change, as people are in any community.”

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