Why did the city let that development be built? Land Use 101 on Bainbridge | GUEST COLUMN


Lately the news has been filled with encouraging reports of a recovering economy. The unemployment rate is slowly declining, the housing market is improving, the stock market has reached new highs and consumer confidence is increasing.

At the Bainbridge Island Department of Planning and Community Development we are certainly seeing similar indications. Our planning counter is increasingly busy, with a related increase in planning and building permits. It is obvious that “development” is once again coming to Bainbridge Island.

With any new development come questions and concerns. Questions such as, will it affect the special character that makes Bainbridge Island different from any other place? Will existing trees be preserved and will new vegetation be provided? Will building designs fit in with the surrounding community? Will wetlands, streams and steep slopes be protected?  What amenities will be provided for bicyclists and pedestrians? And perhaps most importantly, how are decisions made, when is the public involved in the review process, and who makes the decisions?

Development is often proposed by neighbors who want to remodel or build a new home, or by property owners interested in providing new commercial venues or new and different housing opportunities on the island, or expanding an existing business. The right to build on one’s parcel is a private property right and the city respects that right, as well as the importance of community input on each proposed development when it is processed for a permit. Often, the most controversial projects are those that are the most visible — large commercial, multi-family and mixed-used development.

The city’s Comprehensive Plan is the guiding document for absorbing the allocated population growth expected on the island within the next twenty years. Comprehensive Plan policies protect the pastoral nature of the majority of the island by targeting 50 percent of future growth to the downtown Mixed-Use Town Center and High School Road Districts, where transit, sewer, water and existing infrastructure can most easily accommodate growth.

Sometimes statements are made that suggest new development is not in line with the goals and policies of the city’s adopted comprehensive plan.

Under the Growth Management Act (GMA), cities and counties must develop and regularly update their comprehensive plans, which lay out the values a community wishes to protect and the vision of how a community will grow.

The GMA also states that development regulations and zoning are intended to implement the goals, policies and vision of the comprehensive plan, and therefore the policy documents and regulatory documents must be consistent. If a community determines that new development isn’t implementing the vision in the comprehensive plan, then the appropriate avenue is to revisit the zoning regulations and determine if they need to be revised.

Zoning regulations are established in the Bainbridge Island Municipal Code and direct the parameters and constraints for development. In addition to bulk and dimensional standards, the city’s regulations establish what “uses” are allowed in the various zoning districts.

For example, one zone might allow office development, retail sales and multi-family development, but not single-family homes. The review process includes ensuring that the proposed uses are allowed in a particular zone; however, by law the city cannot choose what types of offices or retail sales will be allowed in a proposed development.

In general, commercial, multi-family and mixed-use development permits are required to be processed with public input. Public participation meetings are conducted to inform residents about upcoming development projects in their neighborhoods, and to allow community members to provide public input early on in the process. Signage of these meetings is posted on the property, and notices of public participation meetings are published in the newspaper and mailed to neighbors within a 500-foot radius of the proposed project. During the permit review period, a public comment period is advertised. All comments then become part of the official record and are considered during the environmental review and decision-making process for a development project.

Design guidelines for the visual aesthetic of a development are applicable for some zoning districts, but not all.

Design guidelines address building design, site design, and public open spaces and amenities to ensure that new development is compatible. The city’s volunteer Design Review Board (DRB) reviews development projects for consistency with the adopted design guidelines.

The DRB makes recommendations which are advisory in nature and forwarded to the final decision-maker in the development permit process.

The volunteer Bainbridge Island Planning Commission is another important recommending body in the development review process and provides a recommendation on certain types of permits to the final decision maker.

The final decision-maker for the city depends on the type of land-use permit.

For many permits, the city contracts with a hearing examiner to conduct public hearings, evaluate recommendations from staff, the DRB and Planning Commission, and consider public comments prior to making final decisions on land use applications. Most of the hearing examiner’s decisions include extensive conditions to offset proposed impacts from the development or to address specific issues raised by staff, the volunteer committees or the public.

For smaller projects, the planning director serves in the similar role for certain land-use approvals.

All decisions by either the city’s hearing examiner or planning director are required to be based upon compliance with adopted standards and regulations in the city’s zoning code, along with any applicable state or federal regulations. These rules must be applied equally to every permit, because every applicant is entitled to develop their own property, provided they are consistent with the rules in place at the time of permit application.

When there is community desire to change the rules for development, those changes are only applicable to projects that apply in the future and not to a current project. The concept is known as “vesting.”

What’s the role of the city council in all this?

With the exception of final subdivisions, the council does not review or make decisions on current land-use applications. Rather, the role of the city council is to set the policies that guide the future of the island, and then to develop the regulations that implement those policies.

Land use raises lots of complicated issues, far too many to cover in a single article. The staff at the Department of Planning and Community Development is here to answer your questions and hear your concerns. Just drop by the planning department at City Hall, check the city website, or give us a call at 206-780-3756.

Kathy Cook is the director of the Bainbridge Island Department of Planning and Community Development.


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