Open space: Let's talk first, fight later

It’s too predictable.

The Washington Supreme Court invalidates an open-space requirement similar to Bainbridge Island’s ordinance. The city passes a quick moratorium, then digs in for defense. City calls its lawyers. Developers call their lawyers. All express hope for peace, and gird for war.

Before we continue further down this road, let’s take a collective deep breath and examine what’s really at stake in the battle over the city’s “open space” ordinance.

Despite the nomenclature, the issue is not really the amount of space that will remain unpaved and unbuilt-upon as part of a subdivision. Other ordinances already restrict the percentage of a lot that can be covered by homes and impervious surfaces, and the overall island density; those ordinances are not under a cloud.

What really seems to be at issue is the much narrower question of who controls what is done on that open space (which, under the present city code, generally remains in private ownership).

Under the code, the subdivision applicant not only must delineate where the open space will be, but must also submit a management plan for approval. If the plan is not carried out, the city can take over and manage the land according to the plan.

The eventual owner, then, can’t decide what to do with that percentage of land designated as open space, but must adhere to the plan worked out between the developer and the planning department. Because there are different planners and different developers, every plan is going to look a little different, and may or may not suit a particular buyer.

The city’s ordinance won’t be easy to defend. It imposes different open-space requirements depending on zoning – 80 percent in large-lot subdivisions down to 40 percent where the lots are smaller. But the Supreme Court said setasides are justifiable only to offset the specific needs brought about by a specific project, ruling against standards that apply “collectively” – which is where the city seems headed.

(If the amount of open space must be proportional to the impact of a specific project, it’s curious that the lowest-density projects are required to have the greatest proportion of open space, while high-density projects are required to have little or none. But we suppose there’s a reason.)

Before we go to war over what really seems to be an issue of control – not necessarily an issue of open space, as we commonly use the term – let’s give peace a chance. There may be middle ground – easing setaside requirements, and at the same time

tailoring them to achieve specific public ends like trails or the wildlife corridor.

And we could start with a “refresher course” in how the requirements were developed in the first place, to remind us all of precisely what we’ve been trying to achieve.

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