Moratoriums need a much harder look

Are we making progress by standing still?

The chief topic before the city council this month will be moratoriums of different sorts.

Tonight, the council will consider extending its halt to applications for new docks, piers and bulkheads; on deck in two weeks is the public hearing required to support the recently imposed moratorium on new subdivision applications. City planners sought the moratoriums for breathing room while regulations are being developed (in the case of shorelines) or defended (with subdivisions). Both were adopted with relatively little discussion.

We think it’s time for a much more detailed – perhaps even a skeptical – discussion. While there may be persuasive cases for these moratoriums, we don’t think planners have yet made them.

The shoreline moratorium was passed a year ago, ostensibly to give time for a broad, science-based review of near-shore conditions, and make any regulatory changes that might be required. That job isn’t done yet – in fact, the estimated time for completion isn’t until late 2003 or early 2004. So the extension request on Wednesday’s agenda is the first of several likely to be filed.

The stated purpose of the moratorium is to avoid environmental damage prior to the new regulations taking effect – a straightforward enough proposition on the surface. Yet in our reports about the shoreline review process, we have been taken to task by both planners and activists for referring to the proposals as “new.”

Thus our puzzlement. If substantial regulations are already on the books, why have a moratorium? If, on the other hand, the proposals justify putting projects on hold, then we would hope someone could explain just what is new about them.

The justification we have heard so far is that studies are under way that might result in new regulations – an outright ban on new docks, for example. That’s an awfully broad justification. Studies are always being done, and as knowledge increases, new regulations may arise. If the possibility of future regulations is enough to justify a moratorium on shoreline permits, what is to prevent a moratorium on any other kind of permitting?

We find a similar lack of clarity in the open-space moratorium, which was imposed to examine the effect on Bainbridge of a Washington Supreme Court decision striking down another city’s requirement that a certain percentage of land be set aside as so-called “open space.”

This seems easy – if we don’t have an “open space” requirement, the whole island will surely be paved over in a trice. Yet that’s simply not so. The city still has zoning limitations to govern density, lot-coverage rules to limit the amount of building and paving that can occur, a vegetation-management ordinance to protect trees and a critical-areas ordinance to protect wetlands and slopes.

While planners talk generally about having “greater control” with the open-space ordinance, they have not pointed us to any specific example of what an open-space ordinance might prevent, or anything untoward that might happen in its absence.

Building moratoriums may be politically popular. But the public deserves a frank explanation of why they’re necessary, and how long they’re likely to last.

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