Planning Commission Rejects Visconsi Development, but Outcome Is Still Uncertain

Posted by on November 16, 2013 at 5:30 pm

rejected

Thursday night, November 14, the seven-member Bainbridge Island Planning Commission voted unanimously against the proposed shopping center by Ohio developer Visconsi Companies. The commercial development would consist of nearly 62,000 square feet, seven commercial buildings, and 261 parking spaces on five parcels totaling 8.16 acres. In a packed Council chamber with people streaming out the door, the Commission concluded that the development is not aligned with the City’s Comprehensive Plan and would present numerous problems to the community.

In a detailed analysis, Commission member Maradel Gale explained the group’s reasoning, citing extensive safety, traffic, and environmental issues that either violate the Comp plan or undermine its intent.

The vote, which drew applause throughout the chamber, was a significant validation for those who oppose the development. However, the final decision falls to the City’s Hearing Examiner, Stafford Smith. It is up to Smith to evaluate the Visconsi plan and the Commission’s recommendation against it. City Planning Director Kathy Cook explained that Stafford will consider all aspects of the project and determine if it will go forward, be rejected, or move ahead with modifications. He will make his decision and reasoning known in a public hearing as of yet unscheduled. Cook said she was certain the hearing would not occur before December if not after that.

About the Commission’s vote, Environmental Bainbridge organizer Ron Peltier told me, “What the Planning Commission did was a huge rebuke to the development. To my knowledge they have never before rejected a commercial project like this. A precedent was set.” Peltier continued: “This is still up for grabs, but this decision puts a lot of weight on our side.”

Peltier credited a huge citizen outcry against the development, including public protests, letters and presentations to the Commission, a citizen petition, and traffic counts. On November 5, for example, volunteers stood from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. counting and identifying vehicle traffic coming in and out of the road to lumber company ProBuild which sits behind the Visconsi site. The commercial center would put pedestrian traffic in the path of the large trucks and semis that regularly enter and exit ProBuild.

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Photo courtesy of Sean MacEntee.

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6 Responses to “Planning Commission Rejects Visconsi Development, but Outcome Is Still Uncertain”

  1. Karen Ahern says:

    Kudos to those who had the Wisdom work to raise awareness to expose a too large and flawed development. Kudos to the Planning Commission who saw this plan simply does not align with our City’s Comprehensive Plan…nor Nature, nor our community. I will be hoping Stafford Smith is as wise and will make a decision based on what is best for our lovely, vulnerable Island. We are at a precipice in keeping what we most value, safe: The environment, safety and ambience of the neighborhood, keeping traffic sane all need protecting, once flawed and polluted, it is too late. Many thanks for protecting our Island.

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  2. David Korten says:

    Three cheers for the Planning Commission and its decision in favor of the Comprehensive Plan and the people of Bainbridge over the interests of an outside developer. Let us hope that the Hearings Examiner makes a similar choice..

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  3. Rod Stevens says:

    In an October 16 memo the planning commission, planning manager Joshua Machen recommended approval of this application with minor modifications. How did the staff and the planning commission come to such different conclusions?

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    • Ron Peltier says:

      Rod,
      You pose a very good question. Having watched much of the process unfold, I believe there is a definite pro development bias on the part of Planning Department staff. Is this because to some extent the existence of their jobs is based up continuing development? Or is it also due, to some extent, with a land use process that has built in conflicts of interest?

      At any rate, during the development of Visconsi’s proposal they seem to have received NO encouragement by Planning Staff to consider the Comprehensive Plan. This seems to be typical, and if not for Bainbridge Islanders stepping in front of the Visconsi juggernaut they would have arrived at the approved destination by now.

      In addition to ignoring the Comp Plan, City Staff intentionally worked with their traffic expert, TranspoGroup, to underestimate the projected impact of Visconsi. For one thing, they seem to have instructed Transpo not to analyze internal traffic circulation, including the lumber yard access. The interaction between Transpo and city staff also resulted in a traffic report that completely ignored safety and convenience for pedestrians. The latter was central to the Commission’s decision last Thursday.

      When this goes to the Hearing Examiner, Islanders for Responsible Development will have our own traffic expert pointing out how the TranspoGroup study paints more than a best case scenario for Visconsi’s impact. His testimony will include a discussion of pedestrian safety. I have a hard time imagining how the Hearing Examiner will want to take ownership of a decision to approve Visconsi given all the reasons not to.

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      • Houston Wade says:

        Don't forget that the "peak traffic" measurements were intentionally stopped at 6:00pm, before the 5:30 ferry unloaded (i.e. peak traffic), to skew the results in favor of Visconi.

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      • Rod Stevens says:

        Having worked on both "sides" of development, I can see where it would be unfair for the planning staff not to give more of a heads-up to a developer on community expectations and what would be necessary for approval, not only at the staff level, but from the planning commission, a city council and even a local hearings examiner.

        There are places like Berkeley and Palo Alto where it is famously hard to develop, not just because of what the zoning code says but because of very high community expectations about the quality of development and what will fit in. Astute developers in these places do their homework. It's not a question of getting an inside deal, as seems to have happened here from time to time, but of taking the time to look at past efforts, judge what is important to the community, and make a project fit in. The impact on the view shed was obviously a big deal on the Visconsi development. How the Island Gateway got rid of this requirement is beyond me, but I suspect it has something to do with green-washing that development with an art and a children's museum. At any rate, there are obvious conflicts built into the zoning for the Visconsi site, such as the idea of making "pedestrian friendly" when it is located at the busiest intersection on the island, one dominated not only by island traffic but through traffic to the ferry, with little intensive residential development nearby. That kind of "pedestrian friendliness" would require really far-sighted non-motorized trail development, something the city itself has not been good at. (But John Grinter has!). At any rate, it does appear that the developer severely over-reached in asking for several significant conditional use permits, something that in most jurisdictions is ultimately decided not by a hearings examiner but by the city council itself, on recommendation of the city council. It may be time to amend our local land use codes so that that is true here. That is effectively how Berkeley and Palo Alto work. Funny how the supposedly "no growth" places have been among the best at keeping their character and also have among the highest land values in the country. "Sense of place" plays. The ultimate question on this development should be "Does it add to the sense of place on Bainbridge, or take away from it".

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