God help us with affordable housing

“Do you have to believe in God?”

One of the biggest questions of all time was asked at the Bainbridge Island City Council meeting Tuesday night.

Public commenter Sal DeRosalia asked that about a proposed affordable housing project by Bethany Lutheran Church. He wanted to make sure the housing would be available to all poor people.

After a number of other public comments and council debate, the city leaders agreed to have the planning commission study the issue.

“We’re not committing to anything other than moving it forward with a little bit of guidance,” Councilmember Michael Pollock said. “We don’t have to determine the outcome.” He said the planning commission will have hearings and the public can weigh in, and then it will return to the council. “These issues will be addressed,” he said of the concerns raised.

The council, and now the planning commission, will be looking into a state law that allows increased density bonus for affordable housing located on property owned or controlled by religious organizations.

In starting the council discussion, Pollock predicted the problem in defining religion. So he suggested this first effort focus on Bethany’s proposal as a pilot project. “Let’s focus on this property, not every single one,” he said regarding an islandwide approach.

Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos recommended giving the planning commission some leeway regarding density.

Mayor Rasham Nassar showed concern in that the Bethany property is not in Winslow, where growth is supposed to occur. She said this change would amount to an upzone in a conservation area. Nassar said she supports affordable housing, but only when it matches BI’s climate goals.

“What does it take to become a religious organization? Considering how hot our real estate market is, they could sweep up property in our conservation areas,” she said, adding scattered areas of population would then be possible around the island.

Councilmember Brenda Fantroy-Johnson said the council has to be careful it doesn’t “try to solve problems it doesn’t have yet.”

Councilmember Leslie Schneider suggested that’s all hypothetical, and Bethany’s proposal is authentic. She said while she would prefer an islandwide ordinance, maybe a pilot project would work.

Councilmember Joe Deets agreed. “This project is in the works, and it needs our help,” he said, adding let’s not worry about problems that could occur.

“If that’s the only way to get across the finish line,” Hytopoulos said of looking at only the Bethany proposal. She said an islandwide ordinance would work, as long as 100% of it went to low-income housing. “If that was a moneymaker we would not have an affordable housing problem.”

Hytopoulos said a bunch of religious organizations are not going to come forward and try to make a bunch of money. “They’re constrained by the realities of the properties they have.”

Pollock replied, “We could debate this to death again if it was islandwide.”

Councilmember Christy Carr liked the idea of a focused ordinance. “It does take us a long time to do things,” she said, adding Bethany’s is a specific request to a new state statute. “They’re pretty far along in their thinking on this.”

If it’s that focused, Hytopoulos asked what about the next one? “It sets us up for a lot of work to do every single time” there is a request.

City attorney Joe Levan said directions to the planning commission could ask them to come up with a process and also address the council’s concerns. “It doesn’t have to be that complicated,” he said.

During public comments, Phaedre Elliott of Housing Resources Bainbridge said they support Bethany’s plan. It’s located near downtown with schools and transit nearby.

David Swartling called it a “win, win, win” for the church, city and community.

Bethany pastor Paul Stumme-Diers said their mission matches BI as a whole, “serving neighbor and stranger.” He said they probably could sell the land for a lot of money but they want a “healthy, diverse community.”

Jonathan Davis said the new state law is a “godsend” that would allow Bethany to use the site to its fullest. He said the community village around the church would connect to the ferry and have a small footprint on the island.

Lisa Neal was the only public commenter against the plan. She said the island already is reaching its population goals, and a study is being done on affordable housing. BI should wait on that report before sending this to the planning commission. A coordinated approach is better than “hit and miss. Lots of questions need to be answered,” she said.

Ferry letter

City manager Blair King took the initiative to draft up a letter asking for the state to restore its ferry service to 2019 levels.

The council decided not to support that letter.

Due to staff shortages caused by resignations and firings due in part to Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state employees, service between BI and Seattle is down to one boat most of the time.

“This is the most-used ferry route in Washington, transporting nearly 2.6 million total riders in 2020 and over 6.2 million total riders in 2019,” the letter says.

It continues saying the service is essential because:

• It is a vital connection to medical services for BI residents

• Essential workers on both sides of Puget Sound rely on it

• Transit-dependent users such as the elderly, disabled, low-income and youth need it

• Economic vitality depends upon the system

• And it is the most direct connection to Sea-Tac Airport.

The letter also asked that the state work toward its hybrid-electric ferry fleet. That project has been underway for years and will provide greenhouse gas emissions savings in addition to providing a quieter environment for marine life.

Deets said he wanted the letter as “something we should do to support constituents who rely on the ferry system.”

It was voted down because it did not go through the proper process, and, “The ferry service knows more about running it than we do,” Carr said.

Pollock said he wanted the part about climate change strengthened. State leaders “are not realizing the gravity of the climate change issue.”

A caller during public comments asked that the council support reservations and priority boarding like what is done on other ferries. He said fewer ferry trips mean longer commutes and less family time.

Tax increase

City Council candidate Ron Peltier asked that group not to raise taxes. “Show some solidarity. Keep it at what it was last year,” he said during public comments. Peltier admitted only a small portion of property taxes goes to local government, but, “The state is overtaxing” Bainbridge Island, “creating a lot of stress.”

Later, Carr – Peltier is running for her spot as she’s not seeking re-election – asked how unusual would it be not to raise taxes, and how significant would it be to the budget?

City Finance director DeWayne Pitts said it would be very unusual and that the budget plan includes the increase.

So the council passed the increase.

It’s a very small one – just .4845%, or $38,937 more than last year for an overall budget of almost $8.12 million. That’s much less than the 1% allowed by the state before a public vote would be needed. The amount makes up about 40% of the general fund.

Also, no one spoke during a public hearing on adding $1.8 million to the budget for 4.65 new employees.

And no one from the public spoke during a hearing on extending small wireless facilities design standards. But Levan said it was needed to help control where telecom puts facilities. Without it, the city would have no ability to “stiff arm or push back.”

Hytopoulos said the issue is important to the community and is one it has little control over. The council agreed and approved the extension.

Tree ordinance

The council decided not to extend planning for the Landmark Tree Ordinance. Carr said the draft plan does not have to go back to the Planning Commission. “In my opinion, they’re going backwards,” she said. “They are exhausted. To extend it would be a waste of time.”

Deets added: “We need to get something done. We need to own it.”

Hytopoulos asked what’s the emergency? “I’m worried about the planning commission” not having a final say, she said. “I miss their full recommendation. I want to be very informed about trees.”

Carr argued the planning commission already adopted an ordinance and had a public hearing last spring.

The council decided to have staff bring back a proposed ordinance after looking over the planning commission’s last draft, along with information from the public hearing and subsequent comments from the City Council.

Tax exemption

It has been discussed extensively previously, so there was little discussion on a proposed city law on a Multi-Family Tax Exemption Program.

To be eligible for a tax break for 12 years, rental projects would require 20% of housing units to be rented to low-income households or below. For home-ownership projects, 100% of housing units would be required to be sold to low-income households or below.

To get the tax break for 20 years, state law provisions require nonprofits have 25% of units be permanently affordable housing.

Groundwater plan

Part of the consent agenda that was approved was the Groundwater Management Plan Goals and Objectives.

The goals are: 1. Ensure clean and sufficient groundwater. 2. Reduce and adapt to climate change impacts. 3. Develop community-wide understanding.

Under goal 1: Minimize and mitigate threats to water qualilty, develop and implement water-conservation and recharge strategies, and produce groundwater models that inform decisions on land use and population.

Under goal 2: Identify climate change impacts and improve indicator monitoring.

Under goal 3: Establish advisory subcommittee, stakeholder engagement and online platform.