UPDATE | Council rejects Langley Passage

LANGLEY — During an awkward evening of stutter steps and near apologies, the Langley City Council rejected the plan for Langley Passage, a proposed 20-home subdivision on the northeast end of town, and rebuked the city’s planning director for his “clearly erroneous” environmental review of the project.

The two back-to-back rejections at Monday night’s council meeting left opponents to the new neighborhood jubilant. The Langley Critical Area Alliance, a group made up of homeowners and others who live on Edgecliff Drive near the project site, and the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, had warned that stormwater and subsurface seepage from the development would worsen landslides along the nearby bluff overlooking Saratoga Passage.

“We’re delighted,” said Robin Adams of the Langley Critical Area Alliance.

“I think they made the right decision. There is clearly something wrong here,” he added. “I’m impressed that everybody got their minds around what is highly voluminous and technical stuff.”

Langley Passage has been working its way through the city review process since February 2006. Earlier this year, in August, the city’s Planning Advisory Board recommended the project be denied by the council.

The alliance, WEAN and Whidbey Neighborhood Partners, the developers of Langley Passage, then filed appeals to the board’s recommendations.

Review rejected

On a 4-0 vote Monday, council members rejected the environmental review of the project, led by Langley Planning Director Larry Cort, and said an environmental impact statement should be prepared on the proposed development.

An environmental impact statement, or EIS, is an exhaustive and often expensive study that examines possible problems that development projects may pose on water, air, wildlife and other resources.

It’s the first time in the city’s history that an EIS has been required for a new subdivision. Developers of the Highlands, the largest housing project in Langley history, were not required to complete an EIS to garner city approval.

Representatives of Whidbey Neighborhood Partners declined to discuss the council’s rejection of the project.

The project’s opponents, meanwhile, spilled out of city hall after the decision, and made plans to celebrate at the Edgecliff.

“I still hope he comes back and does something there,” Adams said of the developer, but with a proposal that concentrates the development into a smaller area.

“I think this is an excellent opportunity now for this development to set an example of having a design that does not alter the hydrology of the site,” added Steve Erickson of WEAN.

“Up until now, historically, it’s always been a matter of ‘What do we do with the runoff?’ Here is an opportunity to do a design that really doesn’t change that,” he said.

The council also rejected the preliminary plan on a 4-0 vote.

Still questions

Council members said there were still questions about how much water would flow from the site after the 8.52 acre property is developed. More scientific studies and analysis are needed, they said.

“I still have qualms and worries that more still has to be done before the project can move forward,” said Councilwoman Rene Neff.

Councilman Robert Gilman said dueling scientific opinions on the impact of water flows from the Langley Passage property — there are three, with the developer’s experts and the city-hired peer reviewer in agreement on one side, and the opponents’ expert on the other — meant that more study was needed.

“My core concerns are the basic documents are contradictory,” Gilman said.

Big crowd

A standing-room-only crowd — with many of the opponents of the project, as well as supporters who have often criticized Langley officials for being anti-growth — filled city hall to hear the council deliberate the merits of the project.

Some on the council said the problem of the project wasn’t with its design, just its location. Council members also pointed to a policy in the city’s comprehensive plan that said development near bluff areas should not use infiltration techniques to handle the stormwater runoff that will rush off roofs and roads in new developments. Several also criticized the location of a water pipe across the property that would run alongside a wetland on the Langley Passage property, though that was a requirement imposed on the project by city planners.

Developers of the project had redesigned the project numerous times, and had included multiple rain gardens and other facilities to handle stormwater.

Critics of the project have repeatedly raised concerns that water runoff from the property will worsen landslides along Saratoga Passage, where many opponents to the project have homes. Scientists who have studied the geology in the area have indicated the potential for underground flows to move north toward the bluff from Langley Passage, but experts also agree that the main threat of landslides comes from wave action along the bottom of the bluff, which is underwater during high tides.

Council deliberations on the project proceeded haltingly for nearly 90 minutes.

Council members timidly deferred to their counterparts at crucial points in the discussion, with each council member hesitant to speak first.

Vote confusion

Such tender-footed talk led to confusion during the second vote on whether the preliminary plan for the project should be approved.

With an apparent vote of 3-1, with Councilman Bob Waterman voting “no,” the council was asked to confirm the vote when Neff said “I don’t know” about her vote.

When Mayor Paul Samuelson then asked Neff if she wanted to abstain, Neff again replied “I don’t know.”

The exchange led Gilman to restate his concerns, and a subsequent vote resulted in a 4-0 denial of the preliminary plan for Langley Passage.

Developer demures

Gary Roth, the local builder leading the project for Langley Neighborhood Partners, declined to comment on the decisions, but added that the developers may have something to say near the end of the 21-day period for an appeal.

The next avenue for any appeal, however, is a lawsuit in superior court.

That said, the council’s work on Langley Passage is not yet finished.

The council must adopt “findings of fact” that spell out the city’s reasons for rejecting the project, and after that happens, the clock will start ticking on the deadline for the filing of any court challenge.

Council members were warned by their legal counsel at the close of Monday’s meeting not to talk about the decision until the council has approved its findings at a later session.

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