Strategic Land Use at the Heart of Land Trust and Housing Resources Partnership

Cullen Brady and Phedra Elliott — Guest Column in Kitsap Sun


Two years ago, when Housing Resources Bainbridge (HRB) and the Bainbridge Island Land Trust co-wrote a newsletter article which explored our interest in one another’s work and our still-nascent partnership, a supporter of both organizations wrote to thank us. The partnership, she said, “presents a stronger response,” eliminating “the need to choose.” She is not alone. We are heartened by the number of islanders supporting both organizations, a testament to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of our community’s need for both affordable housing and environmental protection.

Earlier this year, HRB and the Land Trust announced a joint project that will combine the two interests. The Land Trust acquired three contiguous 5-acre parcels of undeveloped land along Lovgreen Road near Highway 305. The Land Trust evaluates all potential acquisitions using a conservation values index which identifies areas with the highest ecological attributes, such as healthy habitat, the presence of wetlands, or importance as a wildlife corridor, and directs its finite resources to purchase and restore land with the greatest value. The Lovgreen property was notable for its relatively intact forest within a larger band of connected forested habitat. But the property stood out for another reason too. A portion of one parcel fronting the road demonstrated signs of recent human activity with younger vegetation and invasive species — presenting an opportunity for partnership with HRB.

The Land Trust will sell this small section to HRB, where in a few years, HRB will develop a cluster of small single-family homes consistent with existing zoning and affordable housing policy. Like any other HRB development, these homes will be affordable to low-income households as defined by HUD, and they will be kept permanently affordable to eligible households through price regulation and income qualification. Permanent affordability is arguably the most sustainable use of land for housing. Without these restrictions, affordable homes become market rate at the first resale, requiring that we devote more land to replace them.

Our partnership originates in the awareness that both organizations are working to create a more sustainable and resilient community — a multifaceted undertaking which demands diverse expertise and engagement. When we care about our whole community, we look beyond the laser focus of our missions. HRB builds affordable homes. The Land Trust conserves natural lands. We will each continue to do just those things. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way from the time when our missions were pitted against one another. In fact, we’ve arrived at a point when many in our community understand their co-dependence.

Had the Land Trust not made this purchase, under current zoning as many as six large houses and six accessory dwelling units (ADUs) could have been built on lots dispersed across all 15 acres. The building footprints, driveways, parking areas, septic fields, and landscaping — all extending from Lovgreen to the Meadowmeer community — would have fragmented the existing habitat, and no interior forest wildlife refugia would remain.

Instead, the affordable homes, which our community urgently needs, will be concentrated in one small area. It’s tempting to think that this housing and conservation partnership is extraordinary and innovative. But in fact, this sort of strategic land use — compact development paired with conserved natural lands — has become best practice and is shaping communities nationwide as a common land conservation strategy.

Between now and 2050, the Puget Sound area is projected to grow by about 1.8 million people, placing tremendous pressure on environmental resources and escalating already high home prices. To ensure that this growth is equitable and sustainable, and for it to spare our most precious natural lands, we need high-quality and intentional infrastructure.

Affordable housing is a critical element in that infrastructure. It is a public good, much like roads and public transportation, and should be invested in accordingly. It welcomes and retains a diversity of people with skills and perspectives to contribute to our community, benefiting all regardless of where and how they live. A healthy community also requires green infrastructure — a network of habitats and conserved spaces that support native species, provide clean air and water, and build resiliency in a changing climate. This partnership helps meet the need for both types of infrastructure.

As land trusts, our organizations share many of the same values and methods. HRB conserves land for permanently affordable housing. The Land Trust conserves land to safeguard the natural environment in perpetuity. And we both value land as more than a commodity but a vital resource to steward for the good of our community. We can already envision the future of this property—a thriving forest habitat and a neighboring community with sustainably designed and inclusive housing. And it is beautiful.

Cullen Brady is executive director of Bainbridge Island Land Trust and Phedra Elliott is executive director of Housing Resources Bainbridge.