An expensive argument for faster process

Four justices said the city was in the right, while four

said it wasn’t. The ninth justice seemed to side with the city on the points of law, but side with the litigants on the facts of the case.

In the end, Bainbridge Island is left with a state Supreme Court decision that implies more than it declares, but that should caution both council and citizens alike in how we conduct our land use affairs in the future.

As reported in this issue, the City of Bainbridge Island this week came out at the wrong end of a decision on the validity of a now-expired moratorium on shoreline development. In upholding a lower court’s 2003 decision, a divided high court found that the city overstepped its authority by refusing permits during a years-long – and arguably fruitless – attempt to update local shoreline regulations.

Local property rights activists will surely hail the scalding majority opinion for its rebuke of an overreaching local government. (Others may note that that opinion was penned by Justice Jim Johnson, a land use attorney who used to represent Tim Eyman, and whose Supreme Court campaign was bankrolled by the state building industry, and take it for what it’s worth.) More telling are the words of Tom Chambers, considered one of the high court’s moderate voices. Wrote he: “It is arrogant, high handed, and beyond the pale of any constitutional authority for a stagnant government to deny its citizens the enjoyment of their land by refusing to accept building permits year after year based on a rolling moratorium.”

Note the term “stagnant government,” the perception that apparently drove Chambers to side against the city. While a building moratorium might be defensible as an emergency measure for a city needing to make quick amendments to its land use code, the justice clearly found that extending that moratorium – not once, not twice, but five times, as the Bainbridge Island City Council did through a three-year period – was unfair to those hoping to do something with their waterfront land. Somewhere along the way, “emergency” turned into “complacency.” It’s hard not to agree.

This newspaper opposed the moratorium back in 2001; we also opposed Johnson’s election to the court, so don’t blame us for that either. Do, though, recall that the moratorium was first declared to give the city time to bring Bainbridge shoreline regulations in line with new state mandates; those mandates were soon withdrawn after a legal settlement elsewhere, but Bainbridge officials chugged ahead anyway until the moratorium was struck down by the court and the effort was abandoned by the council. New regulations for Blakely Harbor docks were ultimately adopted, but the broader, island-wide shoreline regulations that were the goal in 2001 now won’t be completed until perhaps 2011 – ironically, without the protection of a moratorium.

Our city now stands to pay out hefty legal damages for accomplishing...what?

We’re not really sure.

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