An island of character, and characters

On paper, the task with which this community has charged its officials is simple – preserve the special character of the island. That is one of the overriding principles that animates our Comprehensive Plan, which, in turn, guides our land-use planning.

Yet as this week’s workshop on a new subdivision ordinance pointed out, defining “the special character of the island” is a little like defining the perfect mate – it’s different for everyone. To some, island character is the forests, to others, the fields. Some want vistas of mountain or sea, others want lawns and neatly tended gardens.

The notion of “preserving” is equally elusive. Preserve as of when? The island was at one time an unbroken forest. Later it was clear-cut, and was a bald little head poking out of Puget Sound. Plainly, we don’t really want to “preserve” either of those extremes.

We suspect that what most of us mean when we say “preserve” the island is to keep it the way it was when we were kids here, or when we moved here. But those were different times for each of us.

We empathize with those city officials, elected and appointed, charged with developing land-use regulations that will “preserve the special character of the island.” With roughly 21,000 separate visions of what our island should look like, it’s no surprise that whatever is proposed, a number of folks will say, “that’s not the look that makes this island special.”

Even more daunting is the fact that “preserving,” in the strict sense of the word, is simply not possible. The population of the country is growing, and so long as Bainbridge Island continues to be one of its fairer locales, our population will grow as well.

Those who define “preserving” the island as “keeping the land next door undeveloped” are doomed to disappointment, unless they buy the land or live next door to a park.

The whole notion of trying to preserve any particular appearance is a recipe for dissension and frustration. We can’t agree on what we want the island to look like, and we are powerless to prevent changes.

Yet we believe that it is possible to “preserve the special character of the island,” and we can do that by recognizing that what makes this island special, as much as physical appearance, is the spirit of the community as manifest in mutual respect and tolerance – what might, for lack of a better word, be called simple neighborliness.

Given the mix of creative, neighborly and mutually tolerant folks with which the island continues to be blessed, physical appearance should pretty much take care of itself. Most of us accept ordinances to protect critical areas and to prevent pollution, visual blights, excess noise, light and other nuisances.

Beyond that, look what the chance interactions of islanders and island have shaped: We get trees from tree people, flowers from garden people, air and sunshine from lawn people and vistas from view people. Farms. Pastures. Orchards. Fields. That character of the island has been defined by the characters who live here.

There may be no better way to “preserve” this island than to allow those characters – all of us – to flourish.

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