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Langley asks port to rethink marina project

Langley City Councilman Bob Waterman laughs during a lighter moment at Wednesday’s joint session with the port. City officials are not impressed with the first phase of the expansion proposal for the Langley Marina and are asking the port to reexamine its plans.  - Brian Kelly / The Record
Langley City Councilman Bob Waterman laughs during a lighter moment at Wednesday’s joint session with the port. City officials are not impressed with the first phase of the expansion proposal for the Langley Marina and are asking the port to reexamine its plans.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

LANGLEY — With city officials and others obviously underwhelmed with the Port of South Whidbey’s latest plan for upgrading the Langley Marina, the city council met with port commissioners for two hours this week to gently suggest that the project lacks wow power and needs to be changed.

Talk of remaking the Langley Marina has stretched back years, and port officials have revised their plans for improving the small boat harbor multiple times in light of vanishing money to pay for the marina makeover.

At a two-hour special joint session Wednesday, Langley officials said they hoped to have more influence as the project moves forward.

Larry Kwarsick, Langley’s director of development and the city’s next mayor, said the move to hand the marina over to the port in 2009 didn’t pan out as some had hoped. The port’s current plan for improving the marina includes a $2.5 million first phase that would reposition its Bremerton breakwater just outside the existing harbor, a move that port officials say will create a protective perimeter for the existing marina while giving tour boats and walk-on ferries a place to moor.

Kwarsick said the marina project has been “a significant challenge for the port, on their own, to try and tackle.”

“In retrospect, I see that as maybe not the best path to achieve the best goal for the community,” he said.

He said the interlocal agreement — the two-party contract signed in 2007 that transferred the ownership of the marina from the city to the port — should be reviewed. Kwarsick said the contract should be changed and both sides should come up with an alternative operating and financing plan.

City officials are worried that the project will be stalled after the first phase, and that future improvements may come many years later, if ever.

“We spent a lot of time getting to this point. While I very much appreciate the economic benefits that this phase could have for the city, I don’t believe it’s real to envision those future phases in the near future,” Kwarsick said.

“I look at this not as a phase but as almost a finished product.”

Port officials went to great lengths to detail how the marina expansion had been revised, and revised again, in light of withering financial support for the project.

Port Commissioner Chris Jerome acknowledged the latest design was more modest than the “grand plan” that came before, but it will still mean good things for the city.

“It would definitely expand transient moorage,” Jerome said, giving room for tour boats and ferries to tie up on the outside of the breakwater.

That would increase tourist traffic, he said.

Boat floats would also be installed near the existing boat ramp, and the revised project still includes “significant environmental clean-up” in the harbor area.

If a Homeland Security grant is awarded, emergency vessels will also be moored at the breakwater next to the marina.

The first phase of the project would be something that could be done sooner, rather than later, port officials stressed.

“If we can keep on track here, we should be able to do this construction in 2012 and have an operational facility in 2013,” Jerome said.

Jerome said the port hopes to get started on the first phase while permits for the major expansion continue to be reviewed. Port officials said the approval for the permits for the major expansion may take another six months to a year.

“I’m firmly of the belief that this is the way to move forward,” Jerome said. “We can get some construction done; we can bring some benefits to Langley within a year. But we lay the groundwork also for the future expansion of the harbor.”

Harbormaster Rick Brewer said the phase one expansion would add another 400 feet of moorage dock space, which translates into another 1,250 visits by vessels that are 40 feet or larger, which means yacht clubs and group cruises.

Brewer estimated the increase in moorage space for bigger vessels would bring an additional 3,750 people to town who would spend the night.

Assuming that each visitor would spend $25 while in Langley, an additional $93,750 would be spent in local businesses, and there would be thousands of dollars in additional sales tax revenues for the city, Brewer added.

“When would you like to see an additional $200,000 spent in the town of Langley?” Brewer asked city officials.

Still, Langley’s leaders wanted to know if the first-phase design could be improved.

Councilman Hal Seligson asked if it was feasible to look at changing the first phase, “and polish that to a fine sheen and make that a phase that would last for a long time.”

He recalled buying his home in Langley, and hearing the promise of an expanded marina that was on the horizon.

“We were told very enthusiastically that the marina, in the next couple of years, was going to be built and improved on. And we’re still talking about it.”

“I’d love to see something genuine happen in the near future. And if it can’t be the big enchilada, maybe it can be a well-polished taco,” he said.

Port officials pushed back on the suggestion that the first phase would be the last phase, however.

“I don’t agree that, especially from the port’s perspective, this will be any kind of an end-all project,” said Port Commissioner Curt Gordon.

“There’s an assumption that if we move ahead with the proposed phased one ... that somehow precludes us or has a negative impact on our ability to move forward into future phases,” added Jerome.

“I don’t frankly understand why that is,” Jerome said of the assumption.

There will be some costs for putting in pilings, he said — estimated by the port’s consultants at $150,000 — but there’s nothing that would prevent the port from continuing to pursue permits for the further expansion, seeking more funding for the further expansion, or continuing the makeover once more money is in hand.

Langley Community Planner Jeff Arango said the phased approach outlined by the port didn’t seem logical. Elements of the expanded marina, such as the location of the Bremerton breakwater, would be moved during subsequent phases.

“It doesn’t seem to follow a logical progression,” Arango said. “What you’re putting in is not going to remain in that location.”

“It’s like building a house. When you build a house and add an addition, you don’t tear the house down,” he said.

Kwarsick added that the port’s attention may turn elsewhere in the years ahead.

“Langley is an important part of the Port of South Whidbey, but it’s not the only part of the Port of South Whidbey,” he said.

The marina expansion will be in competition with port projects elsewhere, he said, and Kwarsick recalled the port’s attempt to get more money for the marina expansion via a public ballot measure that failed.

“I think it would be more likely you would get support from the voters in the future for another expansion if we are a partner,” he said. “People expect to see governments working together.”

“My offer is that we work together financially to try and pursue a first phase ... that is more polished than this,” Kwarsick said, adding that a larger expansion was unlikely in the near future.

Port officials said that wasn’t the case, and said they needed to show the public they could get the project moving with the money they had.

“I would like to show the people of South Whidbey ... that we can be responsible with the money that we have, we can stay focused on a long-term planning and permitting process on a larger project, and get something going for them tomorrow,” Gordon said.

“We’re not throwing anything away by getting this first phase,” Gordon said.

“If you want to use a house scenario ... you build the garage and you live in that while you build the house. To me, it is a logical phase: to expand the harbor, to bring more people here, and it’s going to start next year.”

Changes to the plan would mean a lost year of construction, port officials said, mainly because permitting becomes much more complex and burdensome when new over-water structures are added to the design.

Port officials also pointed to the perception that local projects often get too much talk, but too little action, from elected officials.

“Personally I think if we say, ‘OK, wait a minute we can expand in 2012, but let’s not do that. Let’s stop, and let’s talk about it some more and see if we can find some more money and come up with another plan and to expand it in 2013 or 2014,’” Jerome said. “I don’t think that’s the way to build support in this community for getting this project done.”

Port officials also noted they had considered other ways to get additional revenue, without success.

Beyond the failed bond measure, port officials had once considered creating an industrial development district and raising $10 million from property taxes without a public vote, but the hefty tax increase — at 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value — was politically unpopular. By contrast, the $8.2 million bond measure put before South Whidbey voters in 2008 for an expansion of the marina would have meant a 9-cent increase per $1,000 of assessed property value. That proposal was defeated in a landslide.

Councilwoman Fran Abel asked port officials why they wouldn’t reconsider the possibility of creating the industrial development district, given what was at stake.

“How come?” Abel asked.

“A whole lot of reputations are riding on us presenting to the public what we’ve promised, both the city and the port. And the economic advantages of doing it are huge. And the dreams and desires of hundreds of people are kind of riding on going for the whole enchilada,” she said.

Port officials said it was the size of the tax increase that made the creation of an industrial development district a no-go.

Gordon said the property tax increase would be comparable to the fire district’s entire tax levy.

“I would like to just show the public that we can use the money that we have,” Gordon said. “I think the public was pretty clear that they didn’t want to pay that much money at that time all for the harbor.”

Port and city officials ended the discussion with an agreement that both sides will work together to further explore options for upgrading the marina. That will include a fresh look at the interlocal agreement that put the marina’s transfer to the port’s possession in motion, and working to update the master plan for the marina.

After the meeting, Paul Schell, the owner of the Inn at Langley and property near the marina, complained that port officials had not been listening to those who said the current design for the project is inadequate.

Those with suggestions have been rebuffed, he said.

“That happened today. The port said ‘My way or the highway,’” Schell said.

Schell said a public-private partnership should be pursued so the first phase could be something that would double the size of the existing marina.

Hotel-motel taxes could be tapped to pay for the project, and local hotels could help pay for new slips.

“Do a first phase that everybody’s proud of. That is what we were hoping would come out of this,” he said.

“Maybe after this, the port will find its way to work more closely with the community, which they haven’t, and with the city, which they haven’t,” Schell said.

 

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