How can we keep island's unique look?

Two-term Councilman Norm Wooldridge said recently that before he leaves office at the end of the year, he wants to tackle the problem of preserving the island from the corporate branding – perhaps best exemplified by the garish signage of fast-food restaurants – that makes so many communities indistinguishable from one another.

While endorsing the sentiments that motivated the city’s fast-food ordinance, Wooldridge fears it would not stand up to a legal challenge. Moreover, he argues, we need to worry not only about fast-food dispensaries, but about the other national brands and franchises on Bainbridge.

Wooldridge’s concerns about our present ordinance are well-taken. If we were building the world from scratch, we might argue seriously over whether a town should be able to build economic barriers to protect local businesses by keeping outsiders out. But we’re stuck with the world as it is, and the question is well-settled legally – we have a national economy, and states and cities are not allowed to treat outsiders differently than home-grown businesses. Because the island’s fast-food ordinance does so, it is, to put it mildly, extremely vulnerable to a well-aimed lawsuit.

While we can’t keep off-island corporations at bay, we can control, to a considerable extent, their appearance – sign sizes, colors, placement, you name it. We can control the size and appearance of buildings, the amount of parking and lighting. So, as reported elsewhere in this issue, Wooldridge and a nine-member citizen committee will try to come up with workable rules on appearance.

As was pointed out at an organizational meeting this past week, whatever rules are adopted have to apply to everyone – we can’t have one set of land-use rules for the locals and another set for franchises.

And the rules have to be reasonably specific – enough so that a professional architect or designer can read them and design a project that conforms. Washington courts have routinely struck down requirements couched in terms of “appropriate,” “harmonious,” “interesting” or “compatible” – terms that leave a decision-maker with little more than subjective feelings to guide a determination of whether a project is compatible with a city’s image or character.

Furthermore – and this is an area where Bainbridge Island has gotten itself into the soup (or rather, the pizza sauce) in the past – the courts stress that rules once made must be followed, even in the face of complaints from neighbors, or the applicants themselves.

While we support the design commission’s goals, we should acknowledge up front that their work represents a waving of the legal white flag against formula fast-food. So given a choice in the future, will islanders continue to vote with their pocketbooks for local cafes and vendors over generic national fare? Or does anyone still care about the fast-food ordinance, so long symbolic of the desire to keep our Bainbridge community “unique”?

The committee might ask for a show of hands from everyone who’s jetted over to Poulsbo lately for a Whopper or a Dilly Bar. The numbers might surprise us all.

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