Planning panel split on Wintergreen

The Bainbridge Island Planning Commission looks to be split regarding the Wintergreen Townhomes affordable housing project.

After 11 months, they finally got to share their views last week.

Kim McCormick Osmond, the commission chair, said the two “big picture” issues for the project are the buffer next to Highway 305 and the 31 affordable homes.

The second of the big issues was satisfied very quickly.

Commissioner Joe Paar said he would approve the project if the developers would sign a covenant assuring that the 31 affordable housing units would remain that way in perpetuity.

Developer David Smith said they already announced they would do that with partners Housing Resources Bainbridge and Housing Kitsap, but they could do that with the city, too.

Paar said the project falls short in some areas, exceeds requirements in others, and there are a lot of gray areas, but it’s worth the tradeoffs. “I really do believe we need affordable housing on Bainbridge Island,” he said.

Commissioner Ashley Mathews had an even stronger opinion. She can’t believe the project is being held up over having a 25-foot or 50-foot buffer from Highway 305 when affordable housing is needed so desperately. “What is the reason we are stuck on a number here?” she asked. Later she questioned is it really the buffer opponents don’t like or affordable housing?

Mathews said it had been explained that if a 50-foot buffer was used the townhomes would be too closer together, without room in-between to have comfortable open space. “We have urgency here,” she said of the need for affordable housing.

She also said even though only 31 units are said to be affordable housing at $350,000 each, the other 42 at $500,000 each are more affordable than anything else on the island. She looked and found only one home for sale at that price.

Commissioner Yesh Subramanian wondered if there could be a compromise on the buffer, to meet in the middle. He said like it or not code gives a range of 25 feet to 50 feet. “This is an opportunity for Bainbridge Island. There’s a way to make this work.”

Commissioner Sarah Blossom said it’s their job to follow code, not to compromise. She came down hard on city staff for being so flexible with the rules. “It’s not staff’s job to change the rules,” she said. “I find it quite shocking staff interpreted it differently.”

Blossom said there are many other problems, too, like parking. As for a 50-foot buffer, “I don’t think it would hurt the project at all.”

Commissioner Lisa Macchio said, “I don’t think they’ve explored” enough options on how the development could be built.

“It’s not an effective use of space,” Blossom said, adding the developer planned it only in a way to build the most units, so they could make the most money.

Paar said, “They have to make money to stay in business.”

Smith said banks won’t lend money without a 10% to 12% profit. He added if they were only trying to make money they would sell them at market rate, and, “We’d be able to sell it all, and quickly.” Providing affordable housing leads to a lower return on investment.

Commissioner Bill Chester said even though there is a need for affordable housing, and he’d like to make it happen, they have to “think of who will be living there. We have to think of quality, too.” The project was first approved in 2013 with a 50-foot buffer. That plan involved a number of commercial spaces. Since this newer version is all residential, Chester said a wider setback really is needed because there will be noise from Highway 305 for 24 hours seven days a week.

McCormick Osmond agreed, adding the buffer is 50 feet at other places along the highway, and Chester feared if this project is approved others would only want a 25-foot buffer.

Planning director Heather Wright said: “There’s a lot more to consider now. The subdivision has changed.”

There also was a major discussion about whether the subdivision is multi- or single-family. That affects the buffer requirement. Wright said even though it may look like multifamily, according to code it is single-family. “We’re going to see more of these projects,” she predicted, because there is less space on which to build.

Smith said from the “get-go” they were told by city staff at least 25 feet of a buffer was required.

Hayes Gori, attorney for the developer, said the opposition is falling back on all the old “anti-development” rhetoric. “We’re trying to do good,” he said, adding they don’t want the “rug pulled out” from under them 11 months after they started on something so fundamental to the project.

McCormick-Osmond said it’s also frustrating for the Planning Commission because no other development options were made. “This should have been discussed back in January,” she said.

Sarah Blossom