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Question Time for Langley Passage: Council review begins on controversial project

LANGLEY — The Langley City Council began its review of the Langley Passage housing project during a session Monday night that was filled with more questions than answers.

It was just what the doctor ordered. Or in this case, what the city’s legal advisor wanted.

Langley Passage, a 20-home subdivision that local developers want to build on 8.52 acres next to Edgecliff Drive, has been slogging its way through the planning process since early 2006.

The city’s Planning Advisory Board wrapped up its review of the new neighborhood in early August. On a 2-1 vote, the board asked the council to reject the project’s preliminary plat — a generalized plan that shows the location of streets, homes and other components of the development — but upheld the city’s environmental review of the project with a unanimous vote.

Five appeals have been filed that challenge the Planning Advisory Board’s recommendations. The developers, Whidbey Neighborhood Partners, contested the board’s rejection of the preliminary plat. Longtime critics of the project also appealed; the Whidbey Environmental Action Network and the Langley Critical Area Alliance have challenged both the recommendation to reject the project’s plan and the city’s environmental review of the new subdivision.

As the council’s review of the appeals started this week, the efforts of city staff to examine the possible impacts of the housing project took front and center. The council must first reach a decision to determine if city staff acted properly when it looked at possible impacts from Langley Passage — critics have mainly complained there hasn’t been enough study to determine if the development will lead to more landslides on the nearby bluff where many opponents live — before the council can rule whether the preliminary plat itself passes muster with the council.

It was clear at Monday’s meeting, however, that the council was on unfamiliar ground.

Unlike the give-and-take of the Langley Passage hearings conducted by the Planning Advisory Board, city council members were prohibited from discussing the merits of the arguments with those who support or oppose the development.

Instead, at the start of the council’s review of the appeals, attorney Carol Morris reminded the council it was conducting a “closed record” hearing.

Morris, an attorney who handles land-use legal issues for members of the Association of Washington Cities’ insurance pool, which includes Langley, said the council could only pose questions about where they should look in the record to find the information they needed.

That led to nearly two hours of questions along the lines of, “Where in the record can I find ...?”

Most of the questions revolved around what would happen to the bluff along Saratoga Passage if the subdivision were built, and the impacts of groundwater and surface water coming from the Langley Passage property.

At times, the questions delved into the details of city standards for groundwater flows, policies in Langley’s comprehensive plan, the types of native vegetation the city would require, monitoring efforts for the bluff or the water in the ditch along Edgecliff Drive, and what would be done if new homeowners in Langley Passage washed their cars or watered their lawns.

A few questions, however, turned on the council’s ultimate decision on the project.

“What are the legal implications to the city, if we voted to allow a project that, in the end, does exacerbate bluff erosion?” Councilwoman Rene Neff asked.

“What happens if we vote to deny the project, but it meets all the standards that the city has set up?”

Most questions went unanswered Monday night. And given the extensive pile of paperwork on the project — which one council member estimated to be three feet deep — opponents of the project, and its supporters, generally offered vague answers on where information supporting their views could be found. Also in the record: more than 20 hours of testimony on tape from 10 meetings before the PAB on the development.

Some on the council were clearly frustrated by the question-and-no-answer approach, and it became clear that council deliberations would not begin Monday night.

“I’m feeling way overwhelmed,” Neff said. “How are we going to keep track of all this?”

Mayor Paul Samuelson said the parties to the appeal could get a recording of the night’s meeting to make sure they have a complete account of all the council’s questions.

Councilman Robert Gilman, though, said the council would submit their questions in writing for the developer, city staff and the project’s opponents to answer.

Answers to the council’s questions are due by Oct. 4. The council is expected to begin deliberations on Langley Passage at its following meeting on Oct. 18.

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