BI’s historic commission resigns all at once

The Bainbridge Island Historic Preservation Committee is supposed to guide city government in making decisions honoring the past.

But April 4 it did something historic on its own. It walked out en masse. The reason: Disrespect. The last four members of the committee quit. The panel is supposed to have seven members, but hasn’t had that many in two years. In general, members feel unsupported and believe BI is no longer adhering to city code managing the program.

Two of the commissioners met with city manager Blair King March 15. “That meeting was astonishing to me especially since I am a volunteer giving precious time to serve on the HPC,” committee chair Susan S. Hughes says in an email. ”I felt very unappreciated, and now wonder if other volunteers on the city’s advisory commissions feel the same way. It is hard to imagine that the HPC is the only advisory commission that is being belittled and ignored.”

In a summary of that meeting, Hughes says King and deputy mayor Jon Quitslund, the liaison to the HPC, kept talking about the old police station. “Blair has no interest in any mitigation for the demolition of the police station, a register-eligible historic property,” the summary says, adding Quitslund had supported mitigation previously. “Blair said the city had done everything right in the process, and they were done.” The summary says King wants more diversity on the commission. He was unaware that the Certified Local Government program requires three professionals and four non-professionals. “He selectively feeds information to the council to push his agenda,” the summary says. “The most important thing to him is getting things done…Whatever means were required, they justified the end.”

Quitslund says in an email that King doesn’t feed information to push his agenda. “There is very little difference between the city manager’s and the council’s agenda. All of us want to get things done, and the city manager knows better than the rest of us how to do things right.”

King says in an email that the committee’s biggest frustration is the police station. That land is going to be turned into affordable housing once the station is demolished. “I am sure the City Council would have appreciated input from the Historical Preservation Commission at any time over the past decade when the council was discussing the costs and opportunities associated with the old police station,” King says.

He added that city code explains the steps for demolition of register-eligible properties, and the council voted to demolish the station. A permit was issued, steps were followed, and no appeal was received. “The building clock has been preserved and is available to be incorporated into future development,” he adds. King says he is sure the council looks forward to hearing from the commission about how it plans to maintain the city’s historic and cultural resources in the future.

At the end of the commission meeting April 4, Quitslund pointed out that the city’s former forestry commission walked out in 1998, and there hasn’t been one since. Hughes said if they aren’t replaced, “There’ll be no watchdog on BI for historic preservation.”

Quitslund said he understands their frustration as some city leaders lack historical perspective, but it’s a complicated situation. “The built environment is equally as important as the natural environment,” he said. “Just like you can’t preserve a tree forever you can’t preserve a building forever either.”

In announcing his resignation, Eric Kortum said they used to feel supported, but in the past few years, 10 commissioners have come and gone. He said their efforts have been restricted, they have been lied to and vacant positions have not been filled. “I’m not going to waste another second on the historic commission,” he said. Kortum said “the last straw for me” was when they were allowed to visit the police station for its “last rites,” but were limited by the number of people that could go in at one time. “That was a slap in the face.” He does have one last wish, however. That somewhere there is the “financial backing to halt the demolition” of the former police station.

Zachery Allen said regarding his resignation that they all have passion, but their voices are not being heard. He said the relationship has eroded beyond prepare, and the committee needs a fresh start. The final member, Rick Chandler, resigned also, but was unable to attend the meeting.

The committee’s summary goes on to say King spent considerable time talking about how historic buildings need maintenance and repair, which cost money. “He accused us of only wanting to protect buildings without considering the costs of maintenance, upkeep, etc.,” the summary says.

In her separate resignation letter, Hughes says the last four years the city has moved away from being an active supporter of BI’s cultural resources to a more transactional relationship. She says that is against the No. 1 Guiding Principle in the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which says, in part: “Preserve the special character of the island, which includes downtown Winslow’s small-town atmosphere and function, historic buildings…”

She says they were discouraged from applying for grants that would have cost the city nothing. They were rejected from nominating the Suyematsu Farm to the National Register of Historic Places. And the city stopped its review of demolition and change permits. Their numbers dwindled in that area from 19 in 2021 to 1 in 2022, five in 2023 and one this year.

She points out three goals in the Comp Plan that are being ignored: Identification and Evaluation of Historic Resources, Preservation and Enhancement of Historic Resources and Public Participation.

In 2004, BI joined the Certified Local Government program, which is authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act. As a result, the city passed a law to designate and protect historic properties. The purpose is to safeguard heritage, foster pride, conserve materials and energy resources by using existing buildings, and preserve history rather than allowing alternative land uses. It created the HPC and allowed registration of properties older than 50 years that meet at least one of 12 criteria. Among the criteria are: associated with events significant to history; distinctive architectural characteristics; special elements to the city’s history; and associated with people significant to local history.

The Comp Plan originally passed in 1994 was amended to include the Historic Preservation Program. It says, in part, that all members of the commission must have a demonstrated interest and competence in historic preservation and possess qualities of impartiality and broad judgment. Some of the duties include: have a local historic inventory; have a local register of historic places; and review proposals to demolish properties on the local register.

Earlier in the Sept. 4 meeting, Quitslund said the list the committee came up with for the local historic register is huge. “It needs to be more specific and less ambitious,” he said. Quitslund said while there has been dysfunction on the commission the past year city government did not prevent it from accomplishing anything. It was open to cooperative engagement. He added that the city is trying to be more deliberate and is asking its committees to be more deliberate, too, and become “more effective in the process.” Quitslund also said the committee wanting to be more involved in going after grants is “a big ask,” and he wondered if they were ready to take on such a task, even if it was allowed.

Allen said the city won’t give them any money, so getting grants is the only way they could get established.

At the end, commission members did thank Quitslund for stepping in as liaison in February, and that he had been an improvement.