Opinion

‘Open space’ harder to define than protect

Ask any islander how they feel about open space, and they’ll tell you they’re for it. Really, really for it.

Correspondingly, any island politician worth his or her salt will not only tell you they’re for open space, but will work to preserve it. Saying anything else would be politically ill-advised, at best.

So it’s easy to understand the council’s alarm when the Washington Supreme Court struck down an ordinance from another city requiring developers to set aside a specific proportion of their land as “open space.”

Our council alerted the lawyers, hired a consultant and set out to defend the local requirement, which calls for land set-asides in amounts significantly greater than those the Supreme Court proscribed. And with visions of revving bulldozers dancing in their heads, the council imposed a moratorium on subdivision applications until they had a chance to sort the whole thing out, a process just now getting under way.

The assumption underlying all of this activity seems to be that, unless we want the whole island paved over, we need our open-space ordinance or something similar to replace it. Yet that assumption is dubious at best, perilous at worst.

Our city code contains any number of provisions that limit the quantum of concrete in any project. We limit the number of homes per acre in each zone; ordinances protect wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas. Other provisions limit impervious surfaces and require buffers.

There is also a code provision that limits the amount of each lot that can be covered by buildings – 25 percent in high-density zones, 15 percent on one-acre lots and 10 percent on 2.5-acre lots. If the owner of a 2.5-acre lot builds to the maximum, 90 percent of the lot will remain unbuilt.

Which prompts us to wonder: What is the difference between what the ordinances call “open space,” and land that is merely left untouched by hammer, saw or spade?

When we have posed this question to members of the council’s land-use committee, we have gotten a variety of answers.

Debbie Vancil said she wasn’t sure.

Michael Pollock said in December that he didn’t think the island would look any different if we simply did away with open-space requirements, trusting other ordinances to keep the island green. After what he called “constituent feedback,” he later amended that answer and said specifically designated open space is better-protected for the future.

Christine Nasser Rolfes said the ordinance provides a tool for the planning department to use up front, and that it accomplishes indirectly what a grading ordinance and tree-preservation ordinance could accomplish directly.

Well, why not do everything we can to keep the island green? For one thing, it’s not certain that a revised open-space requirement will pass legal muster. Or look at it this way:

The open-space provision is relatively new. The vast majority of the island – the low-density, “old” Bainbridge for which so many pine – developed without any specific open-space requirements. All that greenery is not what the code calls “open space,” but is indeed unbuilt, and most folks seem to like it fine.

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