Decisions, decisions

“A peacefulness,” a writer once observed, “follows

any decision, even the wrong one.”

The author presumably never lived on Bainbridge Island, where a decision tends to be made only after anguished and protracted public process, from there to be subjected to endless appeals and second-guessing, and sometimes even reconsideration by the same group that made it in the first place. No matter the outcome, somebody usually goes away aggrieved, feeling that they have been betrayed by the system.

The nuances of decision-making in the land use sphere have come under scrutiny of late, with the city hearing examiner reversing several contentious determinations handed down earlier by the planning director. Two weeks ago, the examiner found on appeal that the director erred in requiring that Kallgren Road be opened to thru traffic as new homes are built there. Last week, the examiner reversed the director again and clouted Washington State Ferries, which hoped to drop pedestrian and shoreline access from its expansion plans at the Winslow terminal.

Both rulings loosed a round of the nyah-nyahs among those unhappy with the city planning and public works departments. “Why should the reputation of many quality employees suffer because of the actions, inaction or mistakes of a few?” one Kallgren neighbor asked. “Where was the leadership?”

The question betrays a certain misunderstanding of the land use review process. The Bainbridge code (properly, we believe) vests in the planning director authority to make decisions on most types of projects, from site plans to conditional use permits to variances – pretty much everything except subdivisions, which go to the council. Far from proving the maxim that “a decision is what a man makes when he can’t find anybody to serve on a committee,” the arrangement recognizes that at the point of application, a land use action is less a matter of public preference – if it were, would anything be approved? – than of what’s allowed under zoning and law.

On Kallgren Road, neighbors sought relief through the council, which in a rare moment of self-restraint declined to take up the issue. Where was the leadership? Right there -- with the council wisely allowing the process to run its proper course free of political scale-tipping, to be decided in the more objective realm of the hearing officer. And there, the neighbors prevailed.

The planning director believed traffic circulation around Kallgren was an overriding concern; the examiner disagreed, saying better vehicle access, while important, did not trump neighborhood character on a quiet lane dead-ending at a pedestrian pathway. With the ferry holding area, the examiner found that the permitting process itself was so long and convoluted -- as applicant, Washington State Ferries had strung the city along for more than 10 years and changed course throughout – that a rational outcome was no longer possible. The examiner commended the planning director as “admirable” for his willingness to seek a practical resolution, then suggested that WSF’s application would best be (re)considered in the larger context of terminal master planning.

In both cases, the examiner’s findings have earned general plaudits in the community, and rightly so. But what if, with the examiner’s particular reading of the law, it had gone the other way? That question suggests a particular quirk of humanity: our conviction that, no matter how well-reasoned or grounded in legal precedent, a decision with which we don’t agree must

necessarily be wrong.

That won’t change, no matter who makes it.

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