Hearing examiner on Visconsi project: 'Whatever else it may be, this is not a replay of Safeway'

Bainbridge Island's hearing examiner has rejected an appeal to a proposed shopping center on High School Road, and called the project "a praiseworthy movement in the right direction."

In a 58-page decision issued Thursday, Hearing Examiner Stafford Smith said the conditional use permit for the Visconsi shopping center should be granted, subject to conditions of approval.

Smith also upheld the city's environmental review of the project.

Visconsi, an Ohio-based developer, has been planning to build a nearly 62,000-square-foot shopping center on High School Road, directly across from the Ace Hardware, for nearly two years.

The proposal includes space for retail, restaurants, professional services and health care facilities.

Smith said the project would be much better than the existing development along High School Road, which already includes a large shopping center anchored by a Safeway grocery on one side of Highway 305, and an Ace Hardware and McDonald's on the other.

"Whatever else it may be, this is not a replay of Safeway," Smith wrote.

Smith noted the widespread community opposition to the project in his decision.

Islanders, including many neighbors to the proposed development, warned the new shopping center would create traffic troubles, put pedestrians at risk, and increase noise and light pollution in the area. Some also said the new businesses that would locate in the retail and service center were redundant and unneeded.

A group of opponents, united as Islanders for Responsible Development, had challenged the city's review of the project and had asked Smith to reject the project as incompatible with Bainbridge Island.

Ron Peltier, spokesman for Islanders for Responsible Development, could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

In his decision, Smith said he was struck by the passion shown by those who weighed in on the controversial project.

"An observer cannot avoid being impressed with the depth of dedication and enthusiasm Bainbridge Island residents bring to the public participation process," Smith wrote.

He also noted that some were confused in believing that the proposed project could be rejected because of perceived conflicts with the city's comprehensive plan, the expansive document that guides growth and development on the island.

"But there are areas of concern as well," Smith continued. "In particular, there is a widespread misconception about what role a comprehensive plan can play in the site-specific development review process."

"To oversimplify slightly, once the zoning code identifies the uses permitted in a zoning district, the comprehensive plan can be employed to supply certain refinements that operate as development standards for regulating the establishment of such uses.

"But if the zoning code clearly permits a use, it cannot simply be denied outright based on alleged conflict with comprehensive plan policies."

Smith said the proposed development was a good fit for the property. If residents don't want a particular type of development on a parcel, he added, they should work to change the laws that allow it.

"By Bainbridge Island standards, the High School Road zoning districts are relatively tolerant of and friendly toward a broad range of commercial development. So if there really is a popular consensus that the Island already has (for example) more than enough drugstores, the easy and effective way to address this issue is to amend the zoning code permitted use chapter to delete drugstores from the list," Smith wrote.

"But if the code allows a drugstore as a use in a zone, an applicant is entitled to receive a permit based on a successful running of the regulatory maze — regardless of whether it's a popular idea or not."

The project had earlier gained the stamp of approval from city planners.

In his decision, Smith also said the review before the city's Design Review Board and Planning Commission "worked remarkably well in ferreting out issues of primary importance."

He noted "one big conceptual glitch," however.

"On this highly constrained development parcel, access limitations and traffic impacts were obviously going to drive the site design process, but these problems were not fully identified and fleshed out until midway through the review chain," Smith said.

"The project's transportation impact analysis didn't appear until the DRB process was already well under way, and even then in its initial iteration failed to come to terms with all ramifications of the site access and circulation issues.

"By the time a clearer picture had emerged, both the applicant and DRB were committed to the 'Main Street' concept and didn't want to rethink it. A better process would have produced a complete and adequate traffic study at the very beginning of the review so that it could have informed the conceptual site design discussion before a preferred design option had become entrenched," Smith said.

The examiner also painted the end result in a glass half-empty, half-full manner.

"Project opponents may be expected to continue to make the case for half-empty," he wrote.

"Here is the case for half-full: The current zoning would support approval of a much more intense and aggressive commercial project than Visconsi is proposing," Smith concluded. "Except for the small bank on the corner, the project buildings will be nearly invisible from neighboring roads. The largest retail building will be the pharmacy at just under 15,000 square feet — less than one third of Safeway."

"Whatever else it may be, this is not a replay of Safeway," Smith said.

"In fact, if one compares this proposal with what currently exists in the greater High School Road district, the Visconsi project would deserve to be adjudged superior in almost every way to the jumble of retail and office buildings now gracing the neighborhood.

"So while it may fall short of some ultimate vision of perfection, the facts on the ground strongly suggest that this project comprises praiseworthy movement in the right direction," Smith said.




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