SOUNDOFF: Avoid rancor with design review boards

We stand at a critical point in time. We have a juggernaut of development that unless we direct it, will roll over us and wipe out what makes us recognizably different from than any other place in the U.S.

Recently, Island County Planning Commission heard arguments in support of a design review ordinance that would provide design guidance to commercial developments that occur along our state highways. It would not apply to single family residences. The proposed ordinance would create three design review boards for the three electoral jurisdictions in Island County. The boards would consist of members of the community who have expertise in design and building construction. One member would be a planning commissioner. This proactive effort evolved out of a deep concern that we are in danger of losing something valuable, our sense of place.

Those familiar with the Shell station in Freeland and the storage facility there (unaffectionately dubbed “Fort Freeland”) will appreciate why the Citizen’s Smart Growth Coalition has undertaken this task. Its purpose is to protect what makes Island County special, what draws people here, what supports our economy and supports the engaged, committed and exciting community that we have.

Eighty-five percent of the buildings that we see throughout the U.S. have been erected since World War II. A lot are the cookie cutter franchise and strip mall designs that are cheap to build and accommodate our car-dominated culture. It was an experiment that failed. When asked to choose between a landscaped shopping area and a parking lot dominated one, 90 percent choose the former, and 86 percent of people would rather shop at a town center than a strip mall. The reasons are clear. People have an inherent appreciation of beauty and are attracted to other people. We are social animals. Study after study has demonstrated that building places that recognize this have proven to be economically advantageous. People spend more money where they spend more time.

Design review is a process that communities invoke to protect their sense of place. Coupeville and Langley both have active boards that direct development there. Winston Churchill said, “We build our buildings and then they build us.” It is important then that the local community have its imprimatur on those buildings that will grow us. Otherwise people in distant places sitting in corporate offices of multi gazillion dollar corporations, who don’t know and don’t care about us, will decide for us what we will become.

The planning department does a fine job. This effort is not to be seen as critical of them. But they just don’t have the resources to critically examine a project and offer the builder suggestions that will have the nurturing impact on the community that we need to sustain our power of place. We are proposing a low budget solution to this problem that is a win, win, and win. The community wins by getting something desirable and having a sense of partnership in the process. The county wins by saving money because of the volunteer participation of the board members. The businesses win because they are getting a service that will give them a sense of place in the community, which builds local loyalty.

Compare the utilization of the Country Store gas station in Coupeville to the contested and garish Shell station in Freeland for example. A design review process could have avoided the clamor and rancor that developed over that project.

People value what other people take pride in preserving. We take care of what we care about and that message is loudly proclaimed to visitors to our islands when we do. This design review ordinance is a celebration and recognition of the cultural, historic and natural landscapes that define us. It represents the grossly under estimated but increasingly appreciated, psychological power of place.

As Margaret Meade said, “The destruction of things familiar and accustomed leaves one with an unsettling sense of uncertainty.” What we don’t need in these rapidly changing, post-Sept. 11 times, is a greater sense of uncertainty. Let’s make a commitment to giving the future a sense of stability that an empowering a sense of place will provide.

The planning commission will decide on June 11 whether this concept has merit and should be presented to the county commissioners.

Gary Piazzon is a physical therapist living in Coupeville.

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