Attorney Hayes Gori is obviously frustrated with the many years of lip service Bainbridge Island has given to affordable housing and done nothing about it.
Gori pleaded with the BI Planning Commission last week to allow some compromises so that housing for low-income people can finally be built on the island. “I’m not a big rah-rah person,” he said. “But in one fell swoop” we can match what’s been done here in the last 20 years.
The commission didn’t have time to talk about it, so it set another meeting for Thursday.
Gori was talking about the Wintergreen Townhomes proposal. He said it’s important to get some low-income people on the island. He mentioned that even the school district is pushing for it because families with children are being priced out of the market, which hurts the school budget.
“How life-changing it could be for low-income” people, he said, referring to the exceptional amenities available here. “We have to speak up for those who can’t afford to speak up for themselves.”
Gori said too often BI has gotten bogged down in the minutiae of projects rather than looking at the big picture. “That’s the hill we have to climb here,” he said. “That’s why it’s so hard to do affordable housing.”
As to residents in a neighboring community who complained that Wintergreen would add to traffic woes, Gori said that’s just the “Not in my backyard” syndrome. “I’m not going to pull any punches,” he said. “That’s nimbyism.”
A contentious debate took place over how far the townhouses need to be from Highway 305. It seems like different publications say different things.
Planning director Heather Wright said it should be 25 to 50 feet. Former Planning Commissioner Jon Quitslund said another code says it’s 50 feet.
The distance actually is 75 feet. But the concern is what if 305 is widened? Gori said if and when that happens a large concrete wall would be built. In the meantime, the developer plans a smaller wall to reduce noise from the highway.
Joe Dunstan, Design Review Board chairman, said they recommended 50 feet to improve the quality of life for Wintergreen residents.
He said in 2013 when a version of this project first came forward as more of a commercial development, the hearing examiner ruled it needed a 50-foot buffer. He asked now that it is a residential development with people living there 24 hours a day seven days a week does that mean it should require less of a buffer?
Gori said a wider buffer would not improve the quality of life for residents. A noise study shows there would be no benefit. Plus, community space for residents in-between the houses “would be a sliver of what it is now.”
What’s the project?
In opening comments Wright explained it consists of 73 units, 31 of which are affordable, making it the second-largest such project in the community after Fircrest Village with 48. It is close to transit, shopping, medical and restaurants. Housing Resources Bainbridge and Housing Kitsap would own the low-income units.
The project made a number of changes based on DRB recommendations, but that group still denied the plan because they weren’t cheap enough and the buffer not wide enough, Wright said.
To clarify some misinformation in the community, senior planner Kelly Tayara said the townhomes are being constructed on individual lots – making it a single-family, not multi-family, subdivision.
Developer David Smith said cost of the two-story homes are $350,000. “It’s mind-blowing what these are going for,” Gori said, adding the median price of a BI home is $1 million.
They would be 12 1/2 feet wide and 40 feet long and have 842 square feet of space. They plan to pay partners Housing Resource Bainbridge and Housing Kitsap $10,000 for each of the 31 homes. And they plan to pay them $15,000 for all 71 homes. The market houses are three stories with a garage on the first floor.
Legally, the developer only has to provide 10% of the affordable housing units to extremely low-income qualifiers. 60% would go to moderate income and 30% to middle income. But Central Highlands wants to sell all 31 units to low-income people. HRB would keep the units affordable in perpetuity, again discounting some public misinformation.
Quitslund said the DRB wanted the project to include more community space, but Tayara explained it contained more than what’s legally required.
Tayara said in previous public comments people talked of the need for affordable housing, Wintergreen’s appealing design, and that the project meets or exceeds regulations. Concerns included traffic, parking and health impacts from noise, along with congested, chaotic living conditions.
The majority of the comments on this night supported the project.
One of the few detractors was Barry Andrews, who lives in the Stonecrest development next door. He said while he “welcomes the passion of Mr. Gori and others for affordable housing,” he says the traffic study is flawed. He said safety needs to be taken more seriously. But as to affordable housing, he said, “We’ve achieved a breakthrough on the island, and we’ll be better for it.”
Michael Sydor said, “We need more affordable housing” and with the HRB land trust there will be long-term affordability.
Dave Shorett said he has watched the affordability of living on the island diminish to the point it doesn’t exist. He said a task force report says it’s needed, but every time a project comes up, “People actually resent the idea of affordable housing. There has to be some leeway to it.” He encouraged the Planning Commission not to “blow this chance. I’m ashamed of the city’s failture to do what ought to be done about affordable housing.”
Karen Bazar, a local real estate broker, said it’s about impossible to find anything on BI for less than $500,000. “It gets the Realtor stamp of approval,” she said of Wintergreen, adding they are modern, great looking with great outdoor space. “They are going to sell, sell, sell. There is a pent up demand for affordable housing.”
Also showing support were HRB and Housing Kitsap.
Phedra Elliott of HRB said they have partnered with Central Highland before, in 2013 with 24 homes at Franklin Village. She said they have 40 households on a waiting list. She said they will help them find financing with the land trust sharing homeownership. There will be shared equity to preserve affordability for the next buyer.
Dean Nail of Housing Kitsap said they also have worked with Central Highland. Nail said they like to get 40 homes a year for affordable housing but they are down to about 20 a year now because it’s so hard to find developers as land is so expensive.
Regarding parking, Gori said the 2014 site plan had 191 parking spaces, and that’s been increased to 220. They are working with nearby businesses to share other parking spots.
Dunstan said the DRB ruled that two-thirds of the 23 design standards were not met by the project. But Gori said no city staff report said anything about being noncompliant with code.
Gori said the DRB was close to approving the project, but then changed its mind.
“I don’t agree,” Quitslund said, adding if they were, “It was with profound reservations.”
But even Dunstan admitted they were trying to get a “yes” with conditions.
Gori went off on the DRB, saying they are an advisory board that tried to exceed their authority. “The DRB can’t operate in a vaccuum,” he said.
Both Smith and Gori praised the DRB for some of their recommendations, including the color scheme, angle parking, artwork in the community area and more. “We made a lot of changes per their suggestions,” Gori said.
As for traffic, Smith said four-way stops in the development will help. He said this project will have 40% less peak-hour traffic than if the previous more-commercial plan had been built.
Gori reached out to climate change supporters in his plea for affordable housing. He said because workers can’t afford to live here, they have to drive from other communities. That adds to congestion on the roads, which lead to accidents. And it makes it hard for employers to find workers.
He made some other statements that often resonate with islanders. “It creates a foundation for a more-diverse community,” he said. “We miss out.” Gori also mentioned that the housing task force urges “inclusion and equity.”
He said if Wintergreen is denied it would further hurt affordable housing on BI. “What’s the incentive to step up to the plate and build?” he asked.
Finally, Gori said the community might not like what would replace Wintergreen. “What might happen instead of us?” he asked. “Most likely it’s commercial. We’re as good as it’s going to get.”
In the video of the June 21 meeting, the DRB was ready to approve with these conditions: 50-foot buffer, trees planted on all sides, e-bike storage and charging, location and design of recycle bins.
Member Vicki Clayton said if the buffer decision wasn’t met, she would recommend denial. Gori said that’s a legal decision that ultimately would be decided by the hearing examiner. Tayara said if the DRB took a hard stand on that it would conflict with Wright’s interpretation that it could be 25 feet. But she admitted later there is conflict in the code.
“I’m going to stand up for that,” Dunstan said of the 50-foot buffer.
DRB member Michael Loverich said he would have a hard time approving the project when it could change drastically depending on the width of the buffer. Since they couldn’t ensure that buffer width, Dunstan said he was leaning toward denial. He then went off on the entire project, saying this development was getting away with a lot of things others do not. It lacked details they normally get.
DRB member Todd Thiel added the documents are incomplete. “You’re asking us to take a leap of faith,” he said as the board took the vote for denial.