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COMMUNITY PLANNING MONTH on Bainbridge Island

October 3, 2022

In the City Council meeting last week, I had the pleasure of reading a Proclamation, which I then presented to Patty Charnas, the Director of Planning and Community Development.  Nationally, October is recognized as Community Planning Month, and the Council took action to celebrate this designation locally.

I am writing this essay to summarize the Proclamation’s content, and to offer some reflections based on my experience working with the Planning department over the last twenty years.  In the middle, you’ll find a digression into some fun facts from 19th- and 20th-century census reports.

The WHEREAS clauses of the Proclamation employ a mixture of lofty and plain language to describe community planning as a choice, not an obligation.  It’s a natural and creative response to the inevitability of change.  The choice isn’t available only to public officials; “community planning provides an opportunity for all residents to be meaningfully involved in making choices that determine the future.”

Community planning can be done well, or badly.  “The full benefits of planning require public officials and residents who understand, support, and demand excellence in planning and plan implementation.”  The Proclamation’s last WHEREAS recital offers recognition and heartfelt thanks to all “members of planning commissions, members of volunteer advisory committees and boards, and the professional community and planners who have contributed their time and expertise to the improvement of the City of Bainbridge Island.”

Citizens of Bainbridge Island have understood the need for community planning for many years, beginning long before the incorporation of the City and the creation of our first Comprehensive Plan.  I believe that planning for the future should always be grounded in an awareness of where we came from.  Character traits that defined our local culture many decades ago – both strengths and weaknesses – remain influential today.  We ought to honor the best in our past, and also recognize mistakes and failures.

II

The first non-native settlers established small and separate communities in different parts of the island, and for at least the first fifty years, little could be done to pull those settlements together into a cohesive whole.  Eventually, however, the town of Winslow emerged as the most prosperous and populous part of the Island, and a transportation network was developed, improving on logging roads and local pathways.

I recently came across a page copied from a Historical Society publication that provided information from U. S. Census records on the Island’s population growth.  The settlement in Port Madison appears for the first time in 1860, with a total of 188 residents.  (At that time there were 544 residents in all of Kitsap County.)  Those 188 pioneers were “168 men, 19 women, 1 free colored.”

A decade later, there were 249 people in Port Madison and 61 in another census tract, Port Blakely.  Eagle Harbor appears for the first time in 1900, with 330 residents, and by 1910 Eagle Harbor had grown to 1,055.  (I don’t know the boundaries of that census tract, but I’m guessing that it included areas on both sides of the harbor.)  

In 1950, Winslow appears for the first time, but there were only 637 residents within the incorporated town limits.  By that time, unincorporated Bainbridge Island had grown to include 3,495 people.  The population grew steadily, Island-wide, from that point on.  Forty years later, the 1990 census counted 3,081 residents in Winslow and 15,846 in the unincorporated areas.

During the 1980s, the “home rule” movement arose from a felt need to plan, locally and democratically, for the future of a growing community.  In 1990, by a narrow margin, voters approved the annexation of unincorporated Bainbridge Island by the town of Winslow.  The first Comprehensive Plan was completed in 1994, responsive to requirements of the recently passed Growth Management Act.

The contending forces that were apparent in the 1980s weren’t resolved by the formation of an all-Island government and completion of the first Comprehensive Plan in 1994.  From the beginning, the City of Bainbridge Island had an elected Mayor, a seven-person City Council, a Planning Commission, and a small police force.  Engaged citizens without official status contributed energy and intelligence to the foundation of the new City, and citizen engagement has been a feature of our government, not a bug, ever since. 

Apparently, people on both sides in the contest over incorporation agreed that the main objective was to “keep Bainbridge rural” – i. e., to preserve low-density development and maintain as much open space as possible.   The Growth Management Hearings Board didn’t accept the paradox of a city that was mostly rural, so the Comprehensive Plan’s first guiding principle was revised: “Preserve the special character of the Island . . .”  We continue to quarrel over how best to manage that duty of preservation.

III

I didn’t return to the Island for good until 2000, so I missed the first decade of all-Island government.  When I began following political discussions and the work of the City Council’s Land Use committee, I often saw the Department of Planning and Community Development caught in the middle between rival factions and interest groups.  Environmental activists (myself included) were on one side, and on the other were advocates for property rights and development.  The City Council was similarly divided, and many conflicts remained unresolved.

Nobody argued explicitly in favor of population growth, but it continued.  The 11.8% increase between 2000 and 2010 was a lower rate than in the previous two decades, but still significant.  Some (myself included) thought we should plan for growth and take steps to accommodate it, providing incentives and seeking subsidies for housing that the real estate market wasn’t producing.  Others resisted development on principle, and thought that land use regulations were too lax: it was said that residential development “never pays for itself,” and it inevitably harms our environment.

From the beginning, our Comprehensive Plan has promoted environmental conservation and the protection of our natural amenities and resources.  Those goals and policies have been carefully implemented in our Municipal Code, especially in Title 16 (Environment) but also in development regulations and Title 18 (Zoning).  The Comprehensive Plan does not, at the same time, promote population growth, and what should we make of that?  

Well, the Plan also doesn’t promote the growth of trees, proliferation of the deer population, or more rainy days.  The main premise of the Growth Management Act is that in our region the population has been growing and will continue to grow.  Other circumstances will change as well, and much of that change is beyond our control.  That’s why community planning is important.

I said at the beginning of this essay that planning is a choice, and an opportunity.  I also said that community planning can be done well, or badly.  It’s complicated, and consensus around policies affecting the built environment is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.  Our Comprehensive Plan contains many forward-looking policies pertaining to land use and housing, but too little has been done to implement those policies in the Municipal Code.

IV

Who is in charge of planning for our future?  I think it’s generally understood that the City Council is the ultimate policy-making body, answerable to Washington state law and responsive to the goals and policies of the Comprehensive Plan.   While the Council is ultimately responsible for policy-making, the City Manager is in charge, through the City’s administrative Departments (e. g., Planning and Public Works), of implementing those policies.  And as I see it, the relationship between policy-making and implementation is dynamic – necessarily slow-moving, but action-oriented, not meant to be stalled.

The whole process of community planning involves several distinct entities, each enjoying some autonomy and authority, all working together in a collaborative enterprise.  Sometimes the collaboration encounters conflicts, and there’s some need for check-and-balance course correction.  Individual citizens and organized groups have roles to play, sometimes ad hoc and sometimes within the formal structures of governance.  Given this complexity, I don’t see our local government as a hierarchy with the Council at the top.  It is true, however, that if the Council isn’t disciplined and working well together, the whole system suffers.

What kind of City government do the citizens of Bainbridge Island want?  There may never be a consensus with a single answer to this question.  I just hope that the community will evolve in the direction of stability and confidence in their elected and appointed public servants and the professional workforce of COBI.

I am troubled, but not entirely surprised, to find that in the minds of some people here, the whole enterprise of community planning is suspect and those in charge of it can’t be trusted.  This resistance is understandable, given the ambitious scope of several long-range planning efforts that have been undertaken, with the completion of most of that work expected by the end of 2024.  

We may be in a political moment now that resembles the contentious and creative time when the City of Bainbridge Island was incorporated and the first Comprehensive Plan was created.  The rationality and resilience of our whole community is being tested now, as it was then.