Council to get first look at board report

LANGLEY — The controversial recommendations by Langley’s Planning Advisory Board covering waterfront development will be presented to the city council tonight, but Langley officials say people shouldn’t expect a drawn-out debate.

Instead, the council will get an overview of the board’s report.

Councilman Robert Gilman said first changes to city rules could come soon.

“The waterfront is likely to be a priority this year, with progress being made in steps,” he said.

Gilman said the council will be introduced to the recommendations tonight, but won’t have an in-depth discussion until the council meeting on March 19.

Then, the council could instruct city staff to draft new code language.

The city council had asked the Planning Advisory Board in September for a review of the city’s waterfront development rules. The request came after weeks of intensive debate about shoreline development in the Village by the Sea that was prompted by proposed development projects near the city marina. Other property owners near Wharf Street also pressed the city to amend rules that would give them the same development options as the ones that other downtown properties have on First Street.

In February, however, the Planning Advisory Board said changing development rules may also require changes to the city’s Shoreline Master Program, and the board suggested waiting on revisions until the city is required to update the program in 2011.

Langley’s Planning Advisory Board also suggested minor changes to allow Wharf Street property owners to improve their existing structures and build within the historic setbacks on their properties.

On the First Street side, they suggested revising the existing exemption to further restrict development based on community feedback.

They also recommended that the city should pay an independent consultant to conduct a bluff erosion study, as well as a coastal flooding and drift study that would take into account long-term sea level rise.

The recommendations were roundly criticized by property owners near the marina, and some said the changes did not go far enough.

Councilman Russell Sparkman expects the recommendations will see some changes.

“The recommendations have come under some criticism, but they are just that — recommendations,” he said.

Sparkman was the chairman of the Planning Advisory Board while the board was working on the draft report.

“Of course I’m a bit biased, but the Planning Advisory Board did a good job given the complexity,” he said.

Sparkman said he hopes the council tackles the shoreline development issue sooner rather than later.

“As fast as possible,” Sparkman said. “I’d like to see that resolved this year.”

Sparkman said he expects the council to not only review the board’s recommendations, but also the documents and findings collected during the six-month review by the Planning Advisory Board.

What’s missing from that package, however, is a detailed look at the city’s shoreline development rules by Langley’s in-house land-use planning experts or legal team.

The city’s planning staff has not analyzed the regulations, nor has Langley’s legal advisors, despite months of complaints from property owners near the marina who claim they are being treated unfairly because development rules for properties along nearby First Street are more lax.

Those legal issues were recently raised again by developers Steve Day and Nancy Josephson in two letters sent to Mayor Paul Samuelson in January.

Josephson and Day said the city is unfairly treating commercial property owners in the marina area differently than the way the city has dealt with property owners on First Street, who have an exemption to the town’s critical areas ordinance that limits building on or near steep slopes.

Sparkman said the Planning Advisory Board never got legal advice from the city’s legal council or any land-use experts while he served on the board.

Despite the push by property owners and waterfront development critics alike to clarify the rules, the waterfront isn’t Gilman’s top priority, however.

Gilman said he wants to focus instead on long-range planning for neighborhoods across town.

“It’s a multi-facetted situation. It’s a priority for me to move ahead on some of the basic planning tools to eventually get to the subarea plans. At the same time life doesn’t stop. For many people the waterfront is very important. It’s clearly a priority,” he said.

Gilman said he views the two stretches of waterfront as two different areas that can be treated differently.

“Wharf Street and First Street present different situations. On First Street we have buildings in need for upgrading. It’s also important to maintain the public space of Sea Wall Park and preserve or even enhance the character of First Street,” he said.

“On Wharf Street, it’s an issue of scale. The amount of land down there is quite small. A single dead end road goes down there. It’s an issue of safety. The challenge is to find what’s the optimal scale,” Gilman said.

Gilman said it was also necessary to clear up the some of the rules for waterfront development before the Port of South Whidbey takes over the city marina in early 2009.

“The first area that needs to be clarified is the port’s area of the marina,” Gilman said.

The port plans to improve the marina but also bring commercial space to the area and spark economic development.

While the economic development component is important, Gilman said revitalizing the waterfront isn’t the only thing that could boost Langley’s economy.

“We need to take a broader look. It’s been a tendency to put a lot of eggs in the marina basket,” Gilman said.

He added that aiding arts and culture activities and increasing the Internet presence of small businesses may make a bigger impact.

“We could get more bang for the buck,” he said. “I think people are setting themselves up for disappointment if they think the marina is going to be a fabulous economic development engine.”

The city council will review the Planning Advisory Board recommendations tonight at 6:30 p.m. at city hall.

City planning chief Larry Cort said the Planning Advisory Board recommendations won’t be accompanied by a staff report.

If there is interest by the council in proceeding with a specific code amendment, the staff will work with the board to write a draft amendment, perform an environmental analysis of the potential impacts of the amendment and schedule public meetings and a hearing to gather input.

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