Board split on relaxing city rules

LANGLEY — The city’s Planning Advisory Board appears split over whether property owners with land along the bluff near the Langley Marina should get a break from regulations that restrict development.

Last September, the city council asked the advisory board to review rules that guide development along the Langley waterfront at Seawall Park and near the bluff at the Langley Marina.

The request came amid ongoing debate over development proposals near Cascade Avenue, and the council asked the board to suggest changes that might be made to rules that cover building heights or the mass and scale of new projects.

With its advice now overdue, the Planning Advisory Board met Wednesday to review its draft report on waterfront development.

The draft set of options, however, contained two proposals to loosen the rules for development for bluff properties. The first suggested that the city council could allow a variance to “critical area” regulations for building along the bluff, and the second suggested the council could consider an outright exemption from the rules.

Though members of the Planning Advisory Board tried to shy away from discussing actual policy recommendations this week — board chairman Russell Sparkman said he wanted the group to stick to a “mile high overview” of options. Roger Gage said he supported a change in the rules that would help property owners.

“I’m in favor of adopting something that can be done in the Wharf Street area that would be beneficial with everybody; the city, the landowners and the port,” Gage said.

“As of right now, a lot of these people can’t do anything with their properties,” he said.

Bluff stability is an issue, Gage continued, adding that along Edgecliff the cliff is slowly slipping away. “I just think that we need to do something.”

Board member Fred Geisler, though, said he didn’t support a variance to the regulations on critical areas, which includes rules governing setbacks along steep slopes.

Geisler said the city was too busy with other matters to take up the shoreline development issue.

“I am concerned about the level of activity and the responsibilities that we have before us in the city — not just the Planning Advisory Board,” Geisler said.

“At this point, we have 135 to 140 houses, units, that are in development. We have a thrust of development that is occurring now in the city. We also have a marina that is already in the process of being developed,” he said.

“We have just finished ... the comprehsenive plan for the city of Lanlgey, for which we now need to write code. We need to get on it quickly. It’s a big job,” Geisler added. “It’s going to take a lot of time by the staff, by the PAB and by the city council to do these things. There is a lot going on.”

“I think we’ve made mistakes,” he added. “I don’t want to make mistakes going forward.”

Geisler also said allowing a variance to developers may not be allowable because it could conflict with other existing regulations. Development into the bluff would require changing the city’s shoreline master program, he said.

“There is enough going on in the city that we really shouldn’t take up the revision of the shoreline master plan. It’s a huge process,” Geisler said.

But Larry Cort, Langley’s planning chief, that it was too soon to say whether a code amendment or other rule change would conflict with Langley’s existing regulations, which include the city’s shoreline master program.

“Without knowing what the potential law might be, it’s impossible to know whether there might be a contradiction,” Cort said.

Cort also said he did not favor allowing variances to city regulations.

Instead, he said Langley could add a new section to city rules on critical areas that would allow property owners “reasonable use” of their properties even if they are largely limited by critical areas such as steep slopes. State law allows governments to allow some development on such constrained lands, he said.

Earlier in the meeting, Mayor Paul Samuelson said work on the shoreline development issue was a priority for the city, especially since the Port of South Whidbey will take over the Langley Marina next year and has announced plans to further develop the marina area.

“I have great concern about the waterfront that we have in the city limits, that we’re stewards of,” Samuelson said.

“I’m very concerned about that. And I think that that’s on our front burner and something we need to pay attention to,” he said.

“The economic stability, and sustainability, of Langley as a business community, as an active, vibrant community, is equally important to me,” Samuelson added. “So blending those is something that we’re about doing here, something that needs to be done here.”

Talk of waterfront development has divided the Village by the Sea in recent months.

Members of the Planning Advisory Board said they have heard from property owners who say the current regulations are creating a hardship for them, and public opinion has ranged from stopping shoreline development altogether to striking a balance between allowing new development while maintaining Langley’s unique village character.

On Monday, business owners and shopkeepers in town submitted petitions with 138 signatures to the city that said they supported responsible development and rules that encourage well-designed and environmentally-conscious projects in Langley.

The draft report under review by the Planning Advisory Board suggests turning over further work on waterfront development issues to the city council.

Julie Buktenica of Langley’s Planning Advisory Board said it was time the council heard the opinions of Langley residents.

“Obviously there’s some very strong opinions. And I think it would be helpful if the council were to convene some type of town meeting, so that everyone could be heard from, and that it’s not just a specific, few people,” she said. “Everyone would have a chance to speak.”

While some have criticized the recent development proposals that have been suggested near Langley’s waterfront as being out of scale with existing development in town, Cort said later that there are no hard and fast rules that restrict the size of buildings in Langley’s commercial business district beyond the existing height limit of 35 feet.

“There is no setback requirement and no maximum lot coverage,” Cort said.

Also, there are no rules that limit buildings to a maximum square footage.

There is a 50-foot setback from the bluff along Cascade Avenue, however, and the city also has design review standards that are used by the city’s Design Review Board when the board examines development proposals.

The design review standards say new development should work with the natural topography of the land. The standards also cover landscaping, parking areas, pedestrian circulation and aethetics.

The rules say large, monolithic buildings are to be avoided and development should fit with Langley’s existing scale.

Currently, the largest commercial building by square footage in Langley is the Star Store, at 16,520 square feet, followed by the Inn at Langley, at 15,522 square feet.

The largest noncommercial structure is the Langley CMA Church, which has 36,995 square feet of space.

The Planning Advisory Board is expected to finalize its report at its next meeting on Jan. 23.

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