Community, council still conflicted on Bethany

The community is divided and so is the Bainbridge Island City Council.

So the discussion will continue on whether Bethany Lutheran Church can build affordable housing units or if such an ordinance should be islandwide for others. A state law in 2019 allows for the bonus density for affordable housing on religious property.

Earlier, the city’s Planning Commission also was deadlocked, and asked the council to answer some questions.

City staff tried to do that by recommending a “sunset date” for the pilot project at Dec. 31, 2027, after which the provisions would apply city-wide to all applicable properties owned by religious organizations.

Staff also recommended a combined bonus density multiplier linked to center proximity to best meet the intent of providing for higher densities while still respecting the underlying conditions and prior planning work to encourage growth in centers.

Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos said she would prefer an islandwide ordinance. She said most citizen objections are over the law being just for Bethany. Their “intentions are good,” she said, but the focus on them “muddies the waters.”

Councilmember Leslie Schneider liked the density bonus linked to nearby zoning, but also would prefer an islandwide law.

Mayor Joe Deets said he would like a law available for all, not just religious organizations. He also voiced displeasure with people saying that development is bad. “Some are bad for the climate, some aren’t,” he said, adding that projects that lead to people driving less benefit the environment.

Councilmember Brenda Fantroy-Johnson said Bethany has sought this project for a long time, and the city’s said it supports affordable housing for a long time, so “I support it. The law was made for a reason. We should not stand in their way.”

Councilmember Michael Pollock said a lot of people are working hard on the affordable housing crisis, not just on BI but countrywide. He said he likes the law as it’s clear and simple. But he doesn’t like that it grants favoritism to a group of people. “This is ripe for a challenge,” he said as it goes against the Constitution’s separation of church and state.

He said he also is against this law because development in a conservation area goes against the Comp Plan. He said if the council wants the development there needs to be a rezone that is site-specific. “Think of other options to get us there and not tie us up in court.”

Councilmember Jon Quitslund said the city isn’t ready for an islandwide law because others aren’t ready — just Bethany. He said this ordinance should pass to set a foundation for future planning.

The ordinance

Regarding the multiplier, the recommended text establishes three tiers of bonus density—the highest being in or near the Winslow Subarea Plan Study Area, the middle being in or near Neighborhood Centers, and the lowest being all other properties. Within each tier, there is also a numeric maximum alternative so low-density sites in close proximity to centers have an alternate path to somewhat denser development.

That approach builds on previous plans while ensuring that the bonus density is meaningful on a site-by-site basis, and provides options for development while retaining some predictability for the community.

Other changes to the ordinance include removal of provisions deemed overly burdensome to a future affordable housing project or duplicative to the existing underlying land use regulations.

Public comments

Joe McMillan said the project would “disrupt the rural character of the neighborhood.” He said while current zoning allows four structures, the church wants 20 — a 500 percent increase.

But Wayne Daley said this is an “incredible opportunity to provide that resource” of affordable housing. He said he’s watched the disaster unfold of only wealthy people being allowed to live on BI.

Jason Wilkinson countered that a law should address all affordable housing. He said there has been a failure in city leadership in addressing the crisis, calling the last nine months “haphazard. What’s lost in all of this wrangling is the public trust.”

Marsha Cutting supports the project. She said more affordable housing will help schools, health care and businesses. “Delay will only increase the cost of construction.”

Ron Peltier said the city doesn’t seem to care about what the neighbors want or what the Comp Plan says, calling the Bethany project an “illegal spot zone.”

Lisa Macchio encouraged the council to “listen to the public.”

Jonathan Davis asked the council to approve the project so Bethany can realize its passion of helping solve the lack of affordable housing on BI. He said there has been a lot of public participation, and the law can be tweaked in the future if there are problems that need fixing.

Jim Halbert said the council is more concerned with contracts than public welfare. Proof of that is the civil lawsuit against the city over the former Harrison Medical Center. He said Clark Construction was a major donor to Deets’ campaign and then got the contract to build the police-court facility at the former Harrison site.

He said neighbors of the Bethany project concerned about overdevelopment were called “obstructionists” and “NIMBYs” (Not In My Back Yard). He called the city “corrupt,” which struck a nerve with city manager Blair King.

King said while the city encourages people to speak their truth during public participation, a word like “corrupt is uncalled for.” If you think something is corrupt you need to come to me in person, he said.