Blast for the past: Historic conservation district eyed in Langley

The Langley State Bank, shown here in 1923, is now home to Lowry-James Rare Prints & Books. - Photo courtesy of Bob Waterman
The Langley State Bank, shown here in 1923, is now home to Lowry-James Rare Prints & Books.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Bob Waterman

Fans of Langley’s past are looking for an effective way to preserve it for the future.

A committee is being put together to study regulatory options to safeguard and emphasize the city’s village legacy.

“It’s very important to maintain the historic character of Langley,” said Bob Waterman, a city councilman, chairman of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and president of the South Whidbey Historical Society.

“We need to preserve the aspects of the town that appealed to those who came here to live, and to provide an important economic draw for tourism,” Waterman said Monday.

Prominent among the proposals being considered is the formation of a historic conservation district, which would involve alterations to the city’s building codes and policies pertaining to downtown.

Other options include establishing a downtown planning “overlay” similar to those adopted for Wharf Street at the marina and for the Island County Fairgrounds, which set out specific design and development regulations for defined areas.

Also on the table is the establishment of a downtown historic preservation district, along with the inevitable alternative of maintaining the status quo.

“We’ll be looking at all these, to see what would be best for Langley,” Waterman said.

Waterman is recruiting a seven-member committee to study the options.

The panel will include two members from the Historic Preservation Commission and one each from the city’s Design Review Board and Planning Advisory Board and the newly formed Main Street program, along with one property owner and one person with design, architecture or preservation expertise.

He said that after the committee’s first meeting, yet to be scheduled, the group would have 60 days to make recommendations to the city council.

“Once the council decides which pathways to take, it collects community input and moves toward some resolution in the future,” Waterman said.

Historic preservation districts and historic conservation districts are similar in intent, but differ in degree.

All buildings in a preservation district are controlled by historical design dictates. In a conservation district, there’s more flexibility, Waterman said.

“In a preservation district, the buildings have to conform to the look and feel of what’s there,” he said. “In Langley, that’s probably not the best way to go, because there may not be enough buildings to qualify.”

Waterman said that a conservation district allows much broader boundaries when it comes to building, demolition and remodeling, “so long as it maintains the overall character of downtown.”

A conservation district also encompasses other elements besides buildings, such as walkability, alleyways and vistas, he said.

Waterman said the focus of a conservation district would be on general attributes of the area, such a setbacks, scale and visual relationships, rather than on specific building details.

The idea for a historic conservation district for downtown Langley grew out of a survey completed this past fall by Seattle consultant Mimi Sheridan, who recommended that such a district be formed.

Funded by a state grant and Island County match totaling $15,000, Sheridan studied 60 buildings downtown to determine their historic significance, and conducted two public meetings in Langley to discuss her findings.

She concluded that while some downtown buildings might qualify for various historic registers, others had been altered too much to be included.

But she added that the buildings and views downtown would be ideal for a historic conservation district, “a planning tool that strives to preserve a sense of place,” Waterman said.

He said that although the city’s Historic Preservation Commission is leaning toward a conservation district, the new committee will be broad-minded.

“We’re not going to make any decisions, propose any codes or draw any lines on maps,” Waterman said. “We’ll just be fact-finding. It’s up to the council to decide what to do.”

Meanwhile, Waterman said the Historic Preservation Commission is continuing to negotiate with the owners of local buildings that would appear to qualify for the city’s Register of Historic Places.

“We’re working with the owners,” Waterman said,  “but there are no current nominations for the list.”


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