Church’s affordable housing project progressing

Protesters at Bethany Lutheran Church on Bainbridge Island have it all wrong, its pastor says.

They have signs that say things like “Bethany + COBI = greed.” They should say “Bethany + COBI = compassion,” Pastor Paul Stumme-Diers said Oct. 11 at a BI City Council public hearing.

He said the city keeps saying it wants diversity, equity and inclusion. It keeps saying housing is its No. 1 concern. It keeps saying it wants to improve the health and vitality of people who live and work here. And it keeps saying it wants to reduce congestion on Highway 305 to cut down pollution.

Their proposed affordable housing project does all that, he added.

The large majority who spoke during the hours-long hearing favored the project. Despite that, the council did not make a final decision. It hopes to do that at its next meeting Oct. 25.

The proposed law would increase density for affordable housing located on property owned or controlled by religious organizations. State law encourages such developments. Bethany has come forward with a proposal. But neighbors and conservationists object to too much density on the rural property, even though there are large developments nearby.

Council discussion

Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos tried to amend the proposed ordinance twice.

Her first effort was to get the law to apply only to Bethany, instead of islandwide. She recalled that that was the council’s initial goal. She said the bonus density decided by city staff is arbitrary. She also doesn’t like that the law only is for Bethany for five years.

Councilmember Michael Pollock agreed. He called the law “half-baked,” adding others don’t seem to be worried because they have five years to fix it if it doesn’t work. He also objects that there is no mechanism to evaluate if the development is successful. “It makes sense to limit it. It’s the site we’ve been debating.”

That motion was shot down 5-2.

Hytopoulos also made a motion to have the law end after five years, rather than let it become law without vetting. That motion failed for lack of a second.

For the others, it was full-speed ahead.

“It’s been a pretty messy process,” deputy mayor Clarence Moriwaki said, adding Bethany hasn’t even submitted a permit yet, so the public has a “lot of time to look at is as a community.” He also said he is following through on his campaign commitment to “avoid analysis paralysis.”

Councilmember Leslie Schneider said there isn’t much land on BI to have higher-density housing, and she was impressed with what staff came up with. So, it’s logical that it apply islandwide, and not just to Bethany.

Mayor Joe Deets agreed. “We have an islandwide problem” with a lack of affordable housing.

Councilmember Jon Quitslund called the law a “placeholder” because more can be done in the future. He said opponents who call it “illegal spot zoning” are wrong because it benefits the public, not just the developers. He added that the council is “making up for lost time,” so it is a good middle ground.

Hytopoulos reflected that her record shows she favors affordable housing. “The state statute is a wonderful thing.” And at the start, she supported Bethany as a pilot project. “Unfortunately several things happened in the evolution of the ordinance,” she said. There’s been no analysis of the impact of the density in the law. And since they did not require any of the homes to be rentals, “We did not make it so service workers can live here.”

Planning manager HB Harper opened the hearing by saying the law would only apply to Bethany until 2027. Homes would be available to those at 80% of the area median income. Charts show several tiers of allowed density. The charts were developed for projects within one-quarter mile of Winslow and also elsewhere. Basically, those within Winslow allow for much-greater density.

The maximum dwelling size is still 1,400 square feet. Parking will be determined by a transportation study. Units must remain affordable for 99 years. And accessory dwelling units are prohibited.

Those opposed

Many of those who spoke in opposition during the public hearing said they support affordable housing, but …

“This blows the lid off zoning in a conservation zone,” Lisa Neal said, adding it also flies in the face of the Comprehensive Plan.

Mary Clare Kersten said density needs to stay in Winslow, and there are other places there that could be repurposed. “Once the environment is ruined, it is ruined forever.”

Joe McMillan said the law is unconstitutional, violating the First Amendment because it’s only for religious organizations. He said he doesn’t want to “watch a place of great natural beauty be destroyed unnecessarily.”

Lisa Macchio, a former Planning Commission member, said she doesn’t like that it’s being done for one church. “We as a city have failed in getting this done. I hope we can do better,” she said.

Stephanie Farwell said the city isn’t responding to legal questions. She wants to make sure the city is doing its due diligence legally because of the possibility of multiple lawsuits.

Those in favor

Bob Russell said he recently spoke to a service worker at the Winslow Mall who said he was given 60 days to vacate his home. He said he’d likely have to quit his job and move to Poulsbo. Russell told him Poulsbo is getting very expensive, calling it Bainbridge West. “These people need a place to go.”

Maria Metzler, executive director of Helpline House, said food bank and social services clients don’t have means to live here, so they either have to rent off island and leave their beloved community or face homelessness.

Phaedra Elliott, executive director of Housing Resources Bainbridge, said it’s not money-making to build affordable housing. And Rev. Dee Eisenhouer of Eagle Harbor Church said there has been lots of talk over the years but little action on affordable housing, which would strengthen the community by adding diversity.

Both Stefan Goldby of the chamber and former planning commissioner Bill Chester talked about the need for affordable housing to attract workers to the area.

“Finding employees is hard, and it’s even harder to keep them,” Goldby said, adding the problem isn’t just for those with low wages.

Chester said, “Businesses are struggling to find workers, even if they are willing to pay more. Renters and those on fixed incomes have already left the island.”

He added that the average home on BI costs $1.2 million “so service workers can’t afford to live here.” He said child care is costly and in short supply, and it’s getting more expensive to commute, which causes congested traffic and pollution anyway.

The architect for the Bethany project, Jonathan Davis, said people have nothing to worry about as even if the law passes the city has a rigorous process to decide the parameters of the development. “Let’s get working on affordable housing on Bainbridge Island.”

Councilmember Pollock said he was impressed with the comments at the hearing. “We are a community of good fortune,” he said, adding there are “so many people with compassion for those who are less fortunate than us.”