Langley Marina expansion clears court hurdle, awaits permits

The picturesque Langley Marina will be expanded once the necessary permits are acquired, with work tentatively expected to begin in September. A legal challenge to the bond sale to pay for the bulk of the work was brought by Ed Jenkins, but was thrown out of court by Judge Alan Hancock.  - Justin Burnett / The Record
The picturesque Langley Marina will be expanded once the necessary permits are acquired, with work tentatively expected to begin in September. A legal challenge to the bond sale to pay for the bulk of the work was brought by Ed Jenkins, but was thrown out of court by Judge Alan Hancock.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

The Port of South Whidbey’s marina expansion project continues to be subject to a sluggish permit process and was recently challenged in court, but the wheels are turning and officials hope work will begin this summer.

Ed Field, operations manager for the port, said a handful of local, state and federal permits have yet to be issued, pushing the expected start of construction out to sometime after Labor Day in September.

“I really hope to go out to bid in mid to late July,” Field said.

“The hard part is we have so many hanging pieces. We certainly won’t award (a contract) until we have all the permits,” he said.

The port has been planning a Langley Marina expansion since 2003, but scope, permitting and funding headaches have been a constant problem. The project has since been broken into three phases with the first estimated at about $2.4 million.

It proposes to recondition and reconfigure a previously purchased 400-foot breakwater with pilings, run supporting utilities out to the new dock and install a new 80-foot gangway that would connect everything to the existing marina.

Currently, the port is waiting on the issuance of both state and federal permits. Those from the state Department of Ecology and Department of Fish and Wildlife are expected shortly, but there is less certainty concerning one being reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The permit concerns the installation of the breakwater’s pilings and reorientation and has been under consideration since November, though the entire project has been under the agency’s review since 2007 and been handled by five project managers, Field said.

Most recently, the agency wanted the port to remove the breakwater entirely, as temporary permits to keep it tied to the marina wall have since expired. Fortunately, Field said the length of time the permit has been under review gave the port some room to negotiate and he is hoping to get a green light soon.

“I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic but I’m hopeful,” Field said.

A building permit is also required from the city, but Field is not expecting any hurdles. He said he expects the port’s application to be  submitted in June and to have approval in time for the start of construction.

But continuing to slog through a seemingly endless permit process hasn’t been the only recent headache for the port. Last month, port officials faced off in Island County Superior Court with Clinton resident Ed Jenkins after he filed a motion to halt the port’s sale of $878,000 in bonds.

Jenkins is running against Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Curt Gordon for the Island County district 1 commissioner seat. Both are independents.

The $5,000 and $10,000 Limited Tax General Obligation, or LTGO, bonds will pay for a little more than one-third of the first phase. The remainder will come from a $1.2 million Island County rural economic development grant and a $300,000 Boating Facilities grant from the state Recreation and Conservation Office.

The bonds carry an average interest rate of about 3.75 percent and are expected to be paid off within 30 years, though port officials hope to be finished early.

Jenkins, who called the bond purchase “an absolute travesty,” said he filed the ex parte motion because he believes the project is a losing enterprise, since the port is pushing an expansion at a time when marinas all over are struggling.

“They are hell bent on doing this marina expansion whether it does any good or not,” Jenkins said.

He pointed to Oak Harbor, which has had to forego a scheduled rate increase and offer incentives to lure lost customers. Oak Harbor City Senior Planner Cac Kamak confirmed that occupancy  dwindled from an annual average of 80 percent to 67 percent last year. Right now it stands at 56 percent.

Jenkins also complained that the port commissioners approved the bond sale  with little to no public input. The decision was made on April 18 in a special meeting. Port Clerk Molly MacLeod-Roberts confirmed that the special session was noticed by emailing people who had previously subscribed to receive updates. The Record ran a front page story on the pending bond sale on April 14.

According to the list, of the 22 people formally notified only eight were members of the public. The remainder include five port officials, three Langley city officials, two newspapers and two housing association managers.

However, Jenkins’ arguments were not persuasive enough to carry sway in court. In an interview, Island County Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock said he didn’t have the three-week-old case file in front of him, but that he recalled denying Jenkins’ motion on the basis that he failed to demonstrate how the board had acted unlawfully.

“He did not present evidence that there was a legal basis for issuing a restraining order,” Hancock said.

Port officials adamantly deny any wrongdoing. According to Gordon, project funding and the use of bonds has been the subject of discussion at public meetings since 2009.

“We’ve been talking about it for two years,” Gordon said.

“This was just the finale,” he said.

The final decision was made in a special meeting largely because of timing; the port’s finance director was about to take another job and the bonds had to be signed by a certain date, Gordon said.

The commissioner also defends the project’s legitimacy, saying that Langley is suffering from the opposite problem as Oak Harbor. Instead of losing customers, it actually has a waiting list, he said.

According to Field, more than 120 people are on the list and some have been waiting for a slip since 1994. However, he did confirm that the marina does generally operate at a loss and that last year it ran into the red by $16,700.

With revenue provided by the 10 to 20 spaces created on the new breakwater in phase one, most of which would be transient moorage, Field said he believes the facility will be able to cover its expenses.

“We’re expecting to break even on operation,” Field said.

But he claimed the port’s broader function as an economic driver will still be satisfied. The new facility will open the marina to larger vessels, such as passenger ferries and tourist boats, and the visitors they bring to town will have an economic impact on South Whidbey.

Gordon said he believes revenue from the new facility, which is hoped to be complete and open to the public in time for the 2013 boating season, will supply up to $50,000 in new revenue a year.

That would cover a big chunk of the port’s annual $63,000 bond payment, he said. However, when combined with other recent port investments he believes that the entire bond payment can be made using no tax dollars whatsoever within two years.

“It was a solid bond sale and we’re very proud of it,” Gordon said.

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