Affordable Housing on Bainbridge? City to Weigh in on Bethany Project

Bethany Lutheran propertySolving the affordable housing challenge on Bainbridge Island – and many other similarly affluent communities in Washington State and around the country – is a major hurdle in a world of escalating real estate prices, higher building costs and diminishing land.

The Bainbridge Island City Council will weigh into this hot button issue next Tuesday October 11 when it holds a public meeting to discuss a proposed draft Ordinance 2022-02, which, if passed, would grant all property owned or controlled by religious organizations a density bonus for building affordable housing.

The City is considering a pilot project that would allow the construction of some 23 or 24 affordable housing units on property owned by Bethany Lutheran Church, located at the southwest intersection of NE High School Road and Sportsman Club Road NE. The 8.4-acre property is currently zoned for one house per 2.5 acres.

Simply put, an existing Washington law allows religious organizations – such as Bethany and perhaps others on the island, if they wished to do so – to increase their allowable building density to accommodate affordable housing.

“The state is saying you have to allow them (religious organizations) to build more (housing) than they are currently building,” says Jonathan Davis, a consulting architect working with Bethany Lutheran on its plans. The density bonus option has “support from the Governor, who is saying ‘this is exactly what the law is supposed to do.’” (Gov. Jay Inslee lives on Bainbridge Island).

Not everyone is happy with the City’s decision to consider the religious organization exemption for building below market rate housing. A group calling itself, Bainbridge Island for Balanced Planning (BIBP), led in part by Kent Scott, a long-time Bainbridge Islander and one-time City Council candidate, is circulating a petition against the ordinance saying it’s in violation of the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Petition access:

Bainbridge Island For Balanced Planning petition imageBIBP says in its petition literature that, “Under the proposed ordinance, such developments could be built on any property owned or controlled by religious organizations across the Island. This would dramatically undermine the Island’s zoning that was designed to preserve the Island’s character, promote sustainability, and protect its natural environment.

“We support affordable housing, which has been needed since (the island’s) incorporation,” BIBP adds. The “council has tools to promote the development of affordable housing in alignment with the Comp Plan. The proposed ordinance disregards basic planning tenets, and climate change goals, as well as the reasons we chose to raise our families and live on Bainbridge. The proposed ordinance allows suburban sprawl into low-density neighborhoods.”

In a recent commentary in a local newspaper, City Councilor Kirsten Hytopoulos essentially backed BIBP’s position.

But Davis points out that there’s been “a lot of noise (against the project) and a lot of support” for it. He says opponents fear that the City’s adoption of a density bonus for Bethany Lutheran “is going to open the floodgates that will have high density projects (built) all over the island.” There are 12 church properties on Bainbridge, Davis notes, but only four – Bethany, Port Madison Lutheran, Seabold United Methodist, and Grace Episcopal Church – could potentially be used for affordable housing. He quickly adds, “100 percent affordable housing projects are hard to fund.”

Meanwhile, City Councilor Jon Quitslund, who appears in favor of moving forward, says in his own published commentary, the “pilot project phase” of the ordinance applies only to the to Bethany project, “and is in effect until the end of 2027… Thereafter, if no changes are made in BIMC (Bainbridge Island Municipal Code) 18.21.050, its provisions will apply to any other eligible church owned property. This long waiting period imposes an abundance of caution.”

The City has been working on affordable housing for decades, realizing that there is a need to support housing for the island’s so-called “human infrastructure” – teachers, retail clerks, police officers, firefighters and many others who simply can’t always afford to purchase a home on Bainbridge, due to the island’s soaring real estate prices.

Jim HalbrookOver the years, a number of City administrations, along with non-profits devoted to finding equitable housing solutions, have been tackling this issue head on. There have been a few successes, with some designated affordable houses on Curtis Loop, just off of Ferncliff Ave., and the North Town Woods subdivision, across from Woodward and Sakai schools on Sportsman Club Road. Initially, many of those homes were sold as affordable housing stock, but once re-sold, many of those units have apparently reverted back to current market-rate levels.

And more recently, the City Council spent a number of years debating the feasibility of putting affordable housing on the city-owned Suzuki property off of New Brooklyn and Sportsman Club, but that debate has been tabled.

Meantime, Davis says if the Bethany project is approved, the new homes will be priced under current market rate. A mix of four-bedroom, three-bedroom and two-bedroom homes will be built and those who qualify can spend “up to 30 percent of their (annual) income on the home,” Davis says. “We don’t know if they are going to be (structured as) rentals, (homes) for sale, a cooperative, or 99 year leases.” All those factors will be determined down the road.

Davis, who is one of the chief architects of the Grow Community in Downtown Winslow, says siting affordable housing is complicated and never easy to accomplish. Ignoring it, he adds, is not a solution. “We can do something about it, and this (the religious organization approach) is one way to do so.”

Next Tuesday’s City Council public meeting begins at 6 p.m. at City Hall. You can also attend via Zoom, Attend Zoom Meeting

To learn more about the City’s Comp Plan, visit: Comprehensive Plan.

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