Understanding land-use code update process | Guest Column | March 19

An “overhaul” of the Bainbridge Island Land Use Code to provide clarity by “reducing inconsistencies and excessive complexity” was unveiled in draft form on Feb. 25 at a cost of $230,000 – plus staff time.

In 2007, the update was initiated as “an effort to implement the Comprehensive Plan by making sure the codes accurately reflect the intent of the community in a clear and coherent manner.” The process would “resist the temptation to have the code update be an attractive receptacle for a host of new issues,” former Planning Director Greg Byrne wrote in a memo dated Feb. 12, 2007.

Byrne’s explanation at the initial Code Users Group meeting (Feb. 26, 2008) reinforced the intent to make the “code internally consistent and more user-friendly. It is not to modify the policies underlying the code.”

So assured on multiple occasions, the City Council unanimously approved expenditures of $30,000 and $200,000 to begin and then execute the plan.

Unfort-unately, a review reveals that the proffered February draft doesn’t comply with City Council’s directive.

In addition to edits and reorganization that significantly reframe the code, the draft includes significant policy changes never requested by council. The greatest shift in focus has been the dramatic expansion of categories that fall within the planning director’s “discretionary authority” through a three-step process.

For example, the current “Administrative” and “Regular”, “Conditional Use” and “Variance” sections were renamed “Minor” and “Major” conditional uses and variances (draft footnote 80). “Regular” is not “Minor.”

The planning director was thereby given significantly enhanced discretionary authority to approve land use development in problematic areas previously considered off-limits without the more rigid quasi-judicial process.

What has been taken from the community is a broad range of rigorous protections for neighborhoods, our community and its natural resources.

Conditional uses and variances are by definition a narrow means to allow property owners to do unique things on challenging land.

The bulk of our current zoning code (Title 18) conditional use and variance provisions was moved into Draft Title 2 under the “Minor” conditional use and variance procedural sections, away from current code’s rigorous process and quasi-judicial review and under the umbrella of the planning director’s discretionary authority.

The draft code’s focus appears to be on easing the path for applicants, at least some applicants, rather than retaining our current code’s more rigorous protections.

Also, it’s going to be impossible for anyone adversely affected by a planning director determination to obtain redress since under the proposed new code that determination could not be overturned absent a showing of “clear error.”

Current code requires only that the hearing examiner give the director’s decision “substantial weight.” The draft then goes one step further, requiring such an elusive concept as the “reasoning” of the director, whatever that means, to be given substantial weight.

The February draft transfers significantly enhanced discretionary authority in problematic areas to the planning director.

Most problematic land use challenges have been recast as “minor.” And impacted property owners’ options for recourse have been all but eliminated.

This is clearly a policy change and not what our City Council originally approved. What will the City Council do? Citizens, now is the time to get involved.

Sally Adams is chair of Bainbridge Island Keepers and a board member of the Association of Bainbridge Communities.

Lengthy process will continue through August

The Bainbridge Island Planning Commission review and deliberations concerning the Bainbridge Island Draft Land Use Code Update are scheduled to last through July 22. Review of Title 2 (administration) was scheduled to be completed by March 18, Title 17 (subdivisions) by April 22 and Title 18 zoning) by July 22.

The commission has tentatively scheduled a public hearing on the 323-page document on Aug. 12, after which it will submit to City Council its formal recommendation approving or disapproving the document, as revised during the review process. Then it will be the council’s turn to tackle the document.

During the entire process, citizens may submit comments related to the sections being reviewed through the city Planning Department at PCD@ci.bainbridge-isl.wa.us. To date, staff has been providing the commission with written responses to the points made and comments for their consideration and discussion.

In addition, a ad hoc committee of two council members, two planning commission members and two or more staff members has been meeting to discuss and resolve some of the more complex and/or controversial draft code changes.

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