Shredding the Comp Plan will not promote social justice

Bainbridge Island City Council appears poised to adopt an ordinance that would alter zoning regulations to allow for a high-density affordable housing development on a few acres owned by Bethany Lutheran Church at the intersection of Finch and Sportsman Club roads.

That parcel — beautiful open space and wildlife habitat — is part of the island’s “Conservation Area” under our Comprehensive Plan.

But a coalition of interests is pushing for rapid development. They include the usual actors with economic interests — builders, land-use consultants, realtors, etc., who often have little regard for environmental protection — but also a surprising roster of new players: race “equity” activists and liberal church congregations, both of whom have uncritically embraced growth as part of their respective “social justice” agendas.

The race equity lobby wants affordable housing to promote “diversity” and to dismantle what Councilmember Jon Quitslund lamented at their April 26 meeting as the “exclusive and monochromatic” character of our current island population.

He called for “intervention” to arrest that trend: “We need a vision for a different future,” he said, not planning “only for the immediate interests of current residents.”

Church leadership at Bethany, meanwhile, sees development as the way to “respond … [to] God’s call for us to truly be neighbors,” despite the deep misgivings of the actual Finch Road neighbors about the disproportionate plan for 21 residential units on about 4 acres in an R-0.4 zone, which normally would allow one residence per 2.5 acres.

There are multiple problems with the Bethany proposal and the drafts of the ordinance so far.

First, to reach the desired density, the ordinance would confer a “density bonus” exclusively on property owned or controlled by religious organizations. But that likely runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment o the U.S. Constitution.

As explained to the council in an April 28 letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “the provision of a special benefit to religious organizations that is unavailable to other groups violates the Establishment Clause.” That position is supported by Supreme Court decisions holding that to pass constitutional muster, governmental incentives (such as greater land-use rights) must be “allocated on the basis of neutral, secular criteria that neither favor nor disfavor religion, and [be] available to both religious and secular beneficiaries on a nondiscriminatory basis.” Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U.S. 793, 813 (2000).

But even if that constitutional problem is cured by a revised ordinance that is neutral with respect to religion, the proposed upzoning should be rejected because it is inconsistent with, and would thoroughly undermine, the Comprehensive Plan that this community has worked so hard to develop. The Comp Plan repeatedly emphasizes, as a matter of the highest priority, that open, natural areas are highly valued by this community and should be protected. They confer a special character and quality of life benefitting everyone, while promoting sustainability, respect for the land, and environmental protection.

To be fair, the Comp Plan also contains aspirational goals for affordable housing, but it expressly instructs that high-density development — such as that under consideration at Bethany — should be in the “Designated Centers” with adequate infrastructure, such as Winslow. Those developments should not intrude into Conservation Areas.

For example, Comprehensive Plan Land Use Policy 1.2 states: “Outside of Winslow and the Designated Centers, the Island has a rural appearance with forested areas, meadows, farms and winding, narrow, heavily vegetated roadways. These characteristics represent an important part of the Island’s special character that is so highly valued by its residents.”

Land Use Policy 4.1 instructs planners to “[f]ocus development and redevelopment on the Island over the next fifty years in designated centers that have or will have urban levels of services and infrastructure while increasing conservation, protection and restoration on the Island.” Land Use Goal LU-6 directs that development efforts should avoid “the conversion of undeveloped land into sprawling development” and thereby “[e]nsure a development pattern that is true to the Vision for Bainbridge Island.”

While affordable housing is an important goal, it can and should be provided within the parameters of the Comp Plan, without degrading Conservation Areas like the Bethany property. The Comprehensive Plan embodies years of work and community input, and its overarching theme of respect for nature and open space reflects the priorities of Island residents.

It should not be lightly discarded, especially where affordable housing can be developed within Designated Centers like Winslow without irrevocably damaging the natural environment. Once the trees are cut down and the land scraped bare by earth-moving equipment, it will be too late to realize that Open Space vs. Affordable Housing is a false choice. Both can be achieved, without rushing toward an ugly future of asphalt and concrete. There’s no social justice in that.

Joe McMillan, a longtime Bainbridge Island resident, practiced law in Seattle for over 20 years before retiring in 2020.