Rezones: ask the right questions

If we presume to coin a new phrase – “rezone creep” – please don’t think we’re talking about a specific applicant.

Rather, we refer to the cumulative (perhaps even stimulative) changes in local land-use patterns that could follow even minor fiddling with Winslow-area zoning.

Our thoughts are occasioned by several applications now before the Bainbridge Island Planning Commission; three applicants seek amendments to the island’s Comprehensive Plan, to allow higher-intensity uses than what is allowed under current zoning. One, a south-end sewer service extension, isn’t likely to raise many eyebrows provided the sewer plant has sufficient capacity. But two others – a land-use change in the endlessly contentious Ericksen Avenue district, and an upzone on the five-acre Government Way property, to allow significant redevelopment there – raise issues about the community’s commitment to its own Comprehensive Plan.

Certainly, we do not mean to prejudge any of the applications. The Ericksen rezone could facilitate future expansion of the Winslow Clinic, a valued and essential facility. And American Eagle Communities, the Texas concern now working with the Navy to redevelop Government Way, promises to boost the stock of affordable, multi-family housing in close proximity to downtown, a worthy goal.

But firm zoning -- and the predictability it promises to landowners and neighbor alike -- is something a community should guard jealously. Indeed, Bainbridge Island’s multi-step rezone process is cumbersome, with many layers of hearings and review, precisely because each such change alters, by degrees, the very vision of the Comprehensive Plan itself. We trust planning commissioners and others will stay focused on the proper issues, which have less to do with what might be built after a rezone, and more to do with why parcels were zoned as they were in the first place.

We might all start with a review of “the record,” in this case, the transcripts of discussions and hearings during the comprehensive planning process of a decade ago. As memory serves, considerable discussion was given to the proper boundaries of Winslow’s urban core, and where appropriate “transition zones” between high- and low-density uses might properly be. It’s a question of no small import for the folks in single-family-oriented neighborhoods – like Grow Avennue – trying to live quiet lives at the edge of Winslow’s increasingly tall and bustling center.

Other key questions: Is Winslow really running out of (re)developable land, to the point that rezones are necessary to focus more growth in the town core? How much development potential is left, and where is it?

The American Eagle Communities project may be perfectly suited to Winslow; we don’t know. But don’t start out by asking what their project would look like if a rezone is granted; ask instead how Government Way fits into the larger and desired patterns of island growth around it.

We should note that, even before planning commissioners had a chance to take up the Government Way question this week, an adjacent landowner submitted a letter saying, in effect, “well, if you’re going to rezone those guys, you really should rezone me, too.”

So it begins -- “rezone creep.” And again, we’re not talking about the applicant.

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