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UPDATE | Council approves Langley Passage

Langley City Councilman Robert Gilman refers to a poster he brought to the city council meeting Tuesday as he explains his take on city requirements for new development. - Brian Kelly / The Record
Langley City Councilman Robert Gilman refers to a poster he brought to the city council meeting Tuesday as he explains his take on city requirements for new development.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

LANGLEY — In the end, it was Langley Passage in a landslide.

After four hours of what seemed like constant corralling by the city’s attorney, the Langley City Council approved the preliminary plan for Langley Passage at a special meeting Tuesday.

The unanimous thumbs-up was a marked turnaround from the council’s last look at the 20-home project. Council members voted 5-0 in November to deep-six the new subdivision of two- and three-bedroom single-family homes amid complaints from neighbors and environmentalists, who were worried the development would damage a wetland in the Edgecliff neighborhood and cause further erosion of the nearby bluff.

Some on the council defended their abrupt about-face, insisting before a standing-room-only crowd of mostly opponents to the project that the council’s earlier rejection was not a mistake. Instead, an offer by the developer’s attorney to work through the contentious issues cleared the path for the project’s approval, they said. City staff met repeatedly with Whidbey Neighborhood Partners, the developer of the project, since the council rejected the plan in November and hammered out changes that would move the sewer line extension for the project to Edgecliff Drive, and shift a water line away from a wetland buffer.

“My vote at the last meeting to rescind the decision that we made was based not on feeling that that decision was a wrong decision,” said City Councilman Robert Gilman.

Does it fit?

Gilman said the council had been advised that they had to determine if the subdivision fit with city regulations — the council earlier said it didn’t, while city staff had said it did — and he added that council members had since discovered they could add conditions to the project to bring it in line with Langley’s development plans.

Council members acknowledged that their approval of the preliminary plan for the subdivision would not please everyone, and they were right. Tuesday’s special meeting was marked by repeated outbursts and interruptions from members of the Langley Critical Area Alliance and the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, which have both opposed the project largely due to fears that stormwater flows from the development will further weaken the unstable bluff north of the Langley Passage property where many of the opponents own homes.

‘We object!’

Protests from the audience started just after the meeting began, when Carol Morris, an attorney for the city of Langley, set out the process for the hearing.

“We object!” shouted Steve Erickson of WEAN as Morris started to explain the council’s next steps.

“There’s no opportunity for objections,” Morris replied. “We’ll have to follow our procedure, and if there is an opportunity ...”

“Excuse me, excuse me,” Erickson said, talking over the attorney. “We inquired earlier on if there was an agenda or process for this meeting.”

Mayor Paul Samuelson then tried to gavel down Erickson.

“You’re out of order,” Samuelson said.

Erickson ignored the mayor and kept going. “We were told the council would decide that,” he continued.

“You are out of order,” Samuelson said, raising his voice.

Robin Adams of the Langley Critical Area Alliance then chimed in.

“Under what authority, Mr. Mayor, have you abdicated the conduct of this meeting to Carol Morris?” Adams asked. “Under which part of the code are you entitled to do that?”

Just a guideline

Morris said she was simply explaining the staff outline of how the meeting should be run. How it actually would be, she added, was up to the council.

But that was only the start of her legal advice, and Morris was kept busy as she tried to keep the council within its lawful boundaries.

It began when Gilman suggested the council could send the proposal back to the city’s Planning Advisory Board for further review.

Morris said that was a non-starter, however.

“The council does not have an option to remand it back to the Planning Advisory Board,” Morris said.

Others on the council then said they wanted to make a decision on the project, and they rejected a WEAN request to postpone the hearing.

“I think we’re here to find a solution ... a solution that will work for the applicant because they have a right to develop their property, and a solution that will work for the city of Langley and the people who live here,” said Councilwoman Rene Neff.

“We’re all neighbors, we’re all trying our very hardest to do what’s right for each other,” Neff said.

Tough decision

Others acknowledged they faced a tough decision.

“I’d much sooner be at the dentist having all my teeth pulled out right now,” said Councilwoman Fran Abel.

WEAN had also asked the council to scrub information from the case file, which would have included suggestions to solve problems noted by opponents, such as the location of a looped water line that some feared would damage the wetland on the Langley Passage property.

Council members decided not to give the opponents the chance to make further legal arguments on that request, given that WEAN testified on the issue at the last meeting held on Langley Passage. That prompted another outburst from opponents.

“Are we going to be allowed to speak at all?” Marianne Edain of WEAN asked the council.

“This procedure that you are engaged in is completely illegal,” added Adams, the spokesman for the Langley Critical Area Alliance, a group of neighbors and others opposed to the subdivision.

“We have brought our attorney along to explain to you why,” Adams added. “We would appreciate a time in the agenda when we can do that before you waste any more time on a plainly illegal activity.”

Gaveled down

After Rhonda Salerno, another member of the alliance, then interrupted the proceedings, the mayor again brought down his gavel.

“I’m sorry — you need to not speak now,” Samuelson said.

And later, when Edain again interrupted, the mayor stressed that the opponents’ concerns had been heard.

“I understand you object to the process. I understand you object to how this is being done. That is duly noted,” Samuelson said. “The council needs to work through this, on their own, in this process.”

Gilman, however, parroted many of the concerns raised by WEAN and the alliance.

He began by noting that he did not recall the record including the suggestion of an alternative route for a sewer line — though others noted that other options for the locations of utility lines had been a recommendation made by the Planning Advisory Board — then Gilman questioned when the change had been submitted to the city.

“It really didn’t get a meaningful review,” Gilman said.

The councilman dominated the discussion, delving into the details as he repeatedly assured everyone that he wasn’t trying to redesign the development — despite his comments about alternative locations for utility lines, building townhomes on the property instead of single-family homes, the type of sewer lines that should be installed or how rain gardens should be constructed — and he disagreed with staff about how additional restrictions could be imposed on the development. He repeatedly offered to point out what he saw as flaws in the scientific studies that said the project would not pose any problems to the bluff along Edgecliff, but his fellow council members did not take him up on his offers.

Stay focused

Morris, the city’s attorney, repeatedly warned the council that they were focusing too much on the details of the project.

A preliminary plat approval, she said, was supposed to be limited to the general design of the proposed subdivision.

But after Gilman brought up the cost of the sewer-line extension, and the council began talking about the prospect for neighbors along Edgecliff Drive to connect to city sewers, Morris again warned the council to stay focused on the big issue of preliminary plan approval.

“We are dealing with this particular application, and what conditions can be imposed on this particular application. I think we’re muddying the waters by talking about how other people will hook up to a sewer line that hasn’t been installed,” Morris said.

The council shouldn’t be second-guessing the location of the sewer line, as well, since that was a decision approved after public and city council review years earlier, she said.

“This sewer line is in your comprehensive plan,” Morris said. “The council should not be reweighing their original decision to put this in the comprehensive plan.”

Morris also advised council members not to try to make attempts to try to add restrictions on the development that were based on perceived conflicts they might see between the city code and its comprehensive plan. Details on the development were yet to come, and if inconsistencies were found, they would be dealt with then, she said.

Watch the law

Trying to create conditions before then, she said, could result in the council adding ones that could not be supported by the law.

One of the most significant conditions — one suggested by Gilman earlier that would require “a net zero impact” from stormwater after the project was developed — was opposed by city staff because the requirement wasn’t in the city’s development rules, and an environmental review of the project determined that stormwater was properly handled by the design of the project.

Gilman suggested rewriting the requirement, and he referred to posters he had hung on a wall in the council chambers to press his point.

“This is the big elephant in the room. Stormwater has been the big issue here all along,” he said.

When city staff again said the condition wasn’t needed, and that the design of the development fit with Langley’s regulations, Gilman insisted the staff review had been flawed.

Morris, however, also said Gilman’s suggestion was inconsistent with the city’s code, but Gilman noted that was her opinion.

A precedent?

Elaine Spencer, an attorney for the developer, said Gilman’s suggestion would bind every other development project that followed, and would increase the cost of housing in Langley.

It also wasn’t needed, she noted, because scientific studies — including one by an expert hired by the city — had said the stormwater from the project would not pose problems in the neighborhood.

Adams, representing the Langley Critical Area Alliance, said the condition was “absolutely essential,” and noted that there was uncertainty about where all the groundwater from the project would go as it seeped from the site.

Eventually, the council agreed to the restriction. Adams turned to other members of the opposition group seated in the audience, and gave them a quick wink and a smile.

After more discussion, the council approved roughly 40 other additional requirements on the new subdivision and passed the preliminary plat.

Mum’s the word

Council members could not talk about the project after the meeting, because the developer and opponents can still ask the council to reconsider its decision, or it can be appealed to court within 21 days.

Adams said later that while they were glad the council approved Gilman’s proposed restriction on groundwater, the group would ask the council to reconsider its decision because the process was biased and flawed.

Adams also blasted the mayor for stacking the deck against his group by not allowing opponents of the development to cross-examine the city official who reviewed the new sewer plan for the project.

He said the alliance would launch “three new campaigns” that would set out the type of sewers that could be installed in Langley, free homeowners from having to connect to the sewer system if they are on a septic system but sell their property, and the stepped-up enforcement of wetlands rules.

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