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Downtown owners blast board report

Suggestions by planning board find little support from property owners

LANGLEY — Some property owners on Langley’s waterfront say their property rights are being ignored in the ongoing discussion about shoreline development.

“They were trampling on property rights,” Richard Francisco said. “And I don’t think they know how hard it is for the business community.”

A number of property owners were put off by the Planning Advisory Board’s recent recommendations to the city council that suggested tightening, and not loosening, development restrictions on the waterfront. Property owners near the marina have complained in recent months that development regulations there are inconsistent with those imposed on First Street properties.

Francisco, who owns property all along the shoreline, including the Village Pizzeria and land along Edgecliff, said some development is needed to give Langley an economic push.

“People forget about property rights,” Francisco said.

Francisco said he doesn’t plan on filing any lawsuits to fight the city over its conflicting development rules, but he said he knows his rights as a property owner and he’ll protect them.

“I’m not gonna have people walk over me,” he said.

The Planning Advisory Board finalized its report last week after a six-month review of potential changes to Langley’s regulations on shoreline development.

The board suggested that the city delay changes to the Shoreline Master Program until revisions are required by the state in 2011. The board also asked the city to pay for an independent consultant to do a citywide study on bluff erosion and coastal flooding.

The board recommendations did not include exempting the waterfront near Wharf Street from the city’s critical areas ordinance as many business owners had hoped. The board also said the city should “refine” the exemption on First Street to create a no-build setback for preserving Sea Wall Park.

Francisco said it is vital for Langley to develop the waterfront. That will enhance the city’s tax base and bring more people into town to shop. But development has to make economic sense, he said.

“At the land prices, you can’t just build something that’s small and cute and loses money,” he said.

Francisco has had his properties on the market in Langley for a long time and he was glad to see people with a vision and credentials like developers Josephson/Day propose a project in Langley.

“I spent a lot of money remodeling the Whidbey Inn.

I built the pizzeria. At my age, I have no desire to develop. I’ve already been through it when it was a lot cheaper,” Francisco said.

“Now I’m willing to sell. It doesn’t make enough money. Right now it’s not an economic winner for me,” he said.

Francisco recalled buying his first property in Langley.

He has owned crucial pieces of downtown since 1985, but has been coming to the island since the 1950s.

“At the time, I was the new guy in town who had a couple of bucks. Everybody tried to sell something to me,” Francisco said. “It never worked out for me. I’m surprised anybody wants to develop in Langley with the property values and the city and state restrictions.”

He said most of the critics haven’t been around very long.

“They were the last people in on the ferry and now they don’t want anything to happen,” Francisco said.

“When Paul Schell did The Inn at Langley, it was the same thing. They trashed him,” he recalled.

Christina Drake also feels restricted in her property rights and trapped by the city rules.

The Drake family has owned Drake’s Landing on Wharf Street since 1983. Christina Drake and her sister are now considering selling it to be developed by Brian Stowell.

“This is our legacy. However, this was our mom and dad’s dream, this is what they wanted. It’s not the dream of my sister and I to be innkeepers, but it is important to us is that the property is put in the right hands,” she said.

“What is in the way of realizing any plan now is the 50 foot setback rule that completely limits what we can do with our commercially zoned property,” she said. “The code was changed on Wharf Street in 2005. Three property owners were affected at the time - emphasis on three, and we were never notified. Before this code went into affect, we had the full benefits of other commercial properties in Langley. Now, we have nothing.”

The Drake’s have been hoping the issue could be resolved.

“We have been held hostage by this set-back issue since October 2006,” she said. “Our property is valuable to Langley, but the City of Langley has allowed this ruling to devalue our property.”

The Drake sisters didn’t learn about the 50 foot setback ruling until Nov. 2007.

“It’s astonishing that as one of three property owners affected, we were not notified of the zoning ‘taking.’ The result of that 2005 ‘taking’ has massive implications on what is or is not allowed on our property. We were never asked for public comment from City Hall during this zone ‘taking’ and given the flip side of what we’ve been subjected to in the way of public meetings to date, that’s surprising,” she said.

Being stuck in this situation has been tough on Drake, she said.

“The decision of selling our family home was a hard one to begin with, and now that this has become such a long drawn out process, it has added an incredibly disruptive and stressful component to our lives,” Drake said. “We have been patient to date, but now we feel that our patience has done us no favors, and on some level it feels like we are being taken advantage of a process that is clearly broken.”

“Getting up to speed on the Langley Municipal Code, the Shoreline Master Plan and other zoning nuisances waiting on the PAB’s recommendation that says wait until 2011 to do anything and last but not least, the Port has thrown their hat in the proverbial Wharf Street ring, with an entirely different vision and different set of plans, it all adds up to more questions rather than answers,” Drake added.

“We would like to think that we will not be forced into considering litigation. Although, this is a question asked of us all the time,” Drake said.

Kathleen Waters-Riehl has been trying to work with city officials, but her patience is wearing thin. She owns property on Wharf Street as well.

“At this time, I’m working directly with the city and hope to have a solution to the requests I’ve made of them without having to resort to legal action,” she said Monday.

She didn’t want to comment further on the issue, but she criticized the suggestions made by the Langley Planning Advisory Board in the community’s online chat room.

She wrote that the recommendations don’t leave much room for waterfront revitalization.

“This is in essence an open space plan in disguise, realized on the cheap, to be paid for at the expense of a handful of us less than fortunate property owners,” she wrote.

“If the city council adopts these astonishing PAB recommendations, the net effect is likely to be a continuing downward spiral of an increasingly derelict marina area. The very limited development capacity of our sites would not only greatly devalue the properties (and associated tax base) but would make it economically impossible to develop mixed use buildings here on our end of Wharf Street.”

Waters-Riehl also said the Planning Advisory Board’s recommendations completely ignored the inequity between the exemption from the rules that’s applied to First Street properties. She also warned of legal trouble.

“I’ve been told that Washington law is very supportive of constitutional equal protection. Wouldn’t it be a shame to spend a ton of taxpayer money on lawyers in a fight with citizens - when we could instead engage in a creative design dialogue and realize great things, working together?” she asked on the Web forum.

Waters-Riehl is now looking to the mayor and city council to provide direction on how the marina area is developed. She also called for other business owners to speak up.

Other property owners are caught up in the controversy and have been actively pushing for a fast solution, as well.

Ruth Den Adel, who also owns property on the waterfront, has also been calling for straightening out the rules.

Despite the controversy surrounding waterfront development, interested developers have not yet given up on their vision for the waterfront.

Steve Day, who wants to build a mixed-use complex near the marina, hopes the city council will continue to review the issue.

“We are hopeful that the city council will not adopt these rather bewildering Planning Advisory Board recommendations but will amend the critical areas code to allow development and to work with all of the interested Langley stakeholders in a positive design dialogue to realize great things at the marina area - mixed use, slope stabilization, arts and culture, economic development. But it needs to make economic sense or it will never get built,” he said.

Despite the delays and critical voices in the community, Day said he is more than willing to continue talking about the design of his project with the city and others.

“It’s just that we need to first set out some basic, workable ground rules. And right now, there simply are no workable or consistent rules guiding development in the commercial-zoned properties at Wharf Street and Edgecliff,” he said.

Day and his business partner, Nancy Josephson, sent an extensive analysis to the city last month on Langley’s regulations.

Developer Brian Stowell, who introduced his project last summer and was met by equally harsh criticism by some in Langley, is also not discouraged.

“We are interested in participating in the revival of Langley’s waterfront and making a contribution toward that end with the built environment,” Stowell said. “Our particular parcel serves as the visual gateway to the marina on the approach from Wharf Street. What holds things up is the toe of the slope setback.”

He also said it was time for city leaders to guide the discussion on waterfront issues.

“It effectively kills a property that was intended for development, as envisioned by existing zoning, the comp plan, the shoreline master program and the small boat harbor master plan. There is an inherent conflict within the city’s own code and governing documents concerning our parcel,” Stowell said.

“The property owners adversely affected by the current setback and the Planning Advisory Board recommendation are more like spectators here and not consciously giving up perceived rights in order to further their interests,” Stowell added.

“I appreciate the effort of the Planning Advisory Board to try to come up with specific recommendations but the compromise seems more like an effort by the Planning Advisory Board to reconcile conflicting city rules. The appropriate opportunity for a compromise, in my opinion, is within the context of a specific development application,” he said.

Stowell remains optimistic that a solution can be found in Langley.

“Legal action is the always the last step and comes into play only after communication, fair play and good will break down,” he said. “I think there is still an abundance of all three at city hall.”

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