Compromise made on affordable housing density

The Bainbridge Island Planning Commission voted 3-2 last week to allow Bethany Lutheran Church to build 21 homes on its property for low-income people.

Their recommendations will go to the City Council.

Sarah Blossom, commission chair, came up with that number as a compromise between the 18 units built right across the street and the at least 24 the church had requested.

“Twenty-one is a compromise, and we should move forward,” Commissioner Ashley Mathews said.

Commissioner Yesh Subramanian wanted more time to look at complaints from neighbors. “These objections are not unreasonable,” he said. They seem to be saying, “We live there. You need to think about us.”

He also wanted to check out more information. “Another round would inform us better” to make sure “this is really an optimum outcome.” Subramanian said they all want to see progress on affordable housing. “It’s the chicken and the egg problem. The clock is ticking.”

Commissioner Bill Chester disagreed with Subramanian that they were moving too fast. “We’ve been wrestling with affordable housing for years. This gives us a path forward that is actually fair and can be applied to other church properties.”

Mathews said they are not just talking about numbers. “We’re talking about people, too. Families that are going to have homes.” And by cutting the number from 24 to 21, that’s “half the families we would” have helped.

While Blossom’s plan was not specific to this project, and looked at the issue more islandwide, Commissioner Lisa Macchio said: “We are not being careful enough right now. I need to be careful with an islandwide ordinance.”

This ordinance is being made in response to the need for affordable housing on BI and state law that allows entities to work with churches to accomplish that goal.

This law is for the pilot project at Bethany, but Macchio is concerned, “It still does not solve our affordable housing problem.” She said the law should be crafted to include green building requirements and incentives for people to build.

Responding to complaints that the commission should be more conservative, Blossom pointed out this law applies only to churches. She said it’s rare for someone to have land and want to build affordable housing on it. Private developers need incentives such as increased density to do that. “It’s our only viable option at this moment,” she said of Bethany. “I don’t think we’re rushing it.”

Blossom said they are small footprint homes that are 100% affordable. “We should be thankful and grateful that Bethany came forward.” She said 21 is in keeping with the character of the neighborhood, and “We’re talking about putting a roof over your head.”

Macchio also presented a plan that required density to be determined by a percentage, but that was not approved. She said she didn’t even like it; it was more like a start of the discussion. She said density should be earned by developers.

Subramanian encouraged commissioners to think outside the box and require tradeoffs. “I don’t want to overconstrain,” but it is a pilot and should include green building, he said.

More amendments

Macchio and Blossom had other amendments to be considered.

Macchio recommended limiting the size of homes to 1,400 square feet. Blossom’s recommendation was 1,250 square feet. But the commission went with Macchio’s plan since for family-friendly homes bedrooms would be small.

Macchio also recommended a “green building” standard. “What a wonderful gift to give them,” Macchio said of the homeowners. “Make it energy efficient to reduce their bills to maintain their homes. We should reach for the highest stars here.” Chester showed concern, wanting to make sure the homes remain affordable.

City senior planner Jennifer Sutton said the commission’s ordinance already has green elements to it, limiting the size of homes and having mass transit on-site. She also said the city is moving toward green building certification due to its climate action goals.

Macchio had an extensive amendment related to many aspects, but Chester shot down a part that would ban new churches to town from building affordable homes. He said it’s “far fetched” that a church would buy some of the most-expensive property in the country and “give it away” for affordable housing.

The commission also agreed the project should be evaluated a year after occupancy, and on Mathews’ idea to make sure homeowners can profit from home equity while also keeping the houses affordable when resold.

In general comments, Chester said issues such as wells, septics and buffers will determine density of projects, not just this law. Mathews said because this is a pilot program they can make changes when applying to other applications “depending on what we learn from the pilot.”

Public comments

After meeting for more than two hours, the commission finally asked for public comment.

Jim Halbrook was the only one to talk. He said the “mad rush” on this project in a rural area was based on greed and guilt over the lack of affordable housing on BI. He said the same people have been involved in various parts of BI government for years and are the same people who profit from development. The working class is not represented.

“My neighborhood once was affordable,” he said. “The money-making system we created devours raw land.”


The commission agreed to add four “whereases” to the law. In part, they said:

• Whereas the city created a task force on affordable housing…

• Whereas the comp plan encourages working with nonprofits on affordable housing…

• Whereas the goal is to foster diversity in the comp plan …

• Whereas one of our guiding principles is to provide a variety of housing …

Macchio said there are a lot of “whereases” in the comp plan that should be in there. “It’s not appropriate to cherry-pick,” she said, adding she would support it for now and sort it out later. “This is not the last opportunity to add whereases.”