Gift of land a test case for island values

Are the environment and affordable housing an either/or proposition? We received a letter the other day that gave us pause. It read:

“What a shame Ms. Curtis could not leave things be in the ravine and meadow for the increasingly pressured wildlife that currently lives in these habitats. Diversity extends to more than the human population and such wildlife as Bainbridge Island has after all the development only enriches the experience of living here. I do not believe her offer, although conceived in generosity and good intent, will really do much to improve the instances of affordable housing on Bainbridge Island. Bainbridge Island has its own dollar amount on the term ‘affordable’ anyway.’”

The writer was referring to the recent donation by former councilwoman Lois Curtis of six acres off Ferncliff Avenue, a million-dollar parcel given for the express purpose of developing affordable housing. The land could accommodate a dozen units at base zoning, perhaps as many as 29 with various incentives, housing advocates say.

Our correspondent suggests that putting homes there would unfairly displace wildlife. While perhaps true in a localized sense, we might better consider this in the broader scheme of island growth. Since 2001, islanders have spent more than $8 million preserving nearly 300 acres of open space – forest, field and farmland, most of it accommodating wildlife of some sort. How many units of lower-cost housing have been created in that time?

Back in 2003, the Housing Resources Board pieced together $1.6 million in grants and loans to develop the nine-unit Westhome project on Knechtel Way; each offers about 500 square feet of living space, with a single two-bedroom unit of 700 square feet. Private investment brought some apartments to the High School Road area, although neighbors cudgeled the developer into scaling back one of the projects, an opportunity for more rental units lost. Three owner-occupied condos were included at Vineyard Lane. And…that’s about it.

Clearly, open space and affordable housing aren’t an “either/or” proposition, but islanders have spent their money on one and spent a lot of time talking about the other.

The obstacles are financial, but too often they’re rhetorical.

A few years ago, when a local housing agency proposed a small multi-home project in Fort Ward – to save a historic ground as a park, no less – a neighbor raised the specter of Cabrini-Green, a notoriously shoddy public housing project in Chicago. This was, to some minds, what would come with subsidized homes offered at $250,000-$300,000 on Bainbridge.

Other favored objections: the impacts on neighboring property values (as if values on this island ever go down), or the effect of taking a few acres off the tax rolls (an objection curiously absent whenever new open space is purchased). And there’s always “the environment,” the all-purpose talisman used to ward off pretty much any proposal, no matter how useful or well-intentioned, that smacks of change.

We should note that since 2001, the average home price on Bainbridge Island has climbed from $434,535 to $752,154. Even as we do well by woodland critters – and the success of the open space program suggest that we’re doing quite well by them – the island keeps getting more out of reach for low and moderate wage earners. We’re getting more exclusive by the year.

So those six acres on Ferncliff might be a test case for our values: free land for needed housing, on an island ever richer in open space, on a street already heavily urbanized with big homes and cul-de-sacs.

What the community does with that gift – or rather, allows to be done with it – will say a lot about our commitment to economic diversity.