Council says waterfront is a top priority

LANGLEY — Proposed changes to the city’s development rules near the marina don’t go far enough, developer Steve Day told the city council Wednesday.

The city council got its first official look at the Planning Advisory Board’s recommendations on changing the regulations at the council meeting this week.

But Day, who has proposed building a commercial and residential project along the bluff above Wharf Street, said the board’s suggestions would not make his project feasible.

“Looking at it from a developer’s standpoint; what could actually be developed is very limited considering the cost of development on a site like that,” he said.

The Planning Advisory Board had recommended allowing property owners near the marina a minor exemption to the rules that restrict building on steep hillsides. The board’s recommendation, if approved by the council, would let property owners build within the historic setbacks that have been established on the properties near the marina.

Echoing what other property owners have said earlier, Day told the council the proposed exemption wouldn’t be enough.

Day said that the recommendations won’t leave room for a revitalized waterfront. He said it isn’t financially feasible to develop on the properties if the city doesn’t allow larger footprints.

“We could not figure out how to develop it even if the land was valued at zero,” he said.

“We would respectfully recommend that these recommendations are set aside for further investigation. They don’t really get us there,” Day added.

Six months ago, the city council asked the Planning Advisory Board for a review of the city’s waterfront development rules. The request came after two independent proposals for waterfront development in the marina area were harshly criticized by some community members.

Property owners near Wharf Street, however, 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. On First Street, property owners are exempted from no-build setbacks on the hillside.

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

On the First Street side, the board 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 the long-term sea level rise.

The recommendations were roundly criticized by property owners near the marina, however.

Planning Advisory Board member Melanie Shafaat said the board believes its recommendations are a workable compromise.

“We wanted to be respectful of the owners, we wanted to be respectful of the merchants,” she said.

Councilman Robert Gilman asked why the board recommended waiting to make changes to the Shoreline Master Program for three years.

“I think it just had to do with time,” board member Julie Buktenica said. She said the board understood the importance of the marina issue, but there were too many other things going on.

Shafaat agreed.

“It seemed better to table it for a while,” she said.

Resolving the shoreline development issue is a priority for city officials, however.

“I appreciate their concern with our caseload,” said Mayor Paul Samuelson. “But I believe caseload has to be a concern of the council and certainly the administration.”

Councilman Russell Sparkman wanted to know if any changes suggested by the Planning Advisory Board could be made without amending the Shoreline Master Program.

Planning chief Larry Cort said they could.

Day also pointed out that most of the changes to Langley’s code could be made without amendments to the Shoreline Master Program.

Day added that for Josephson/Day’s plans, no major changes to the Shoreline Master Program would be necessary.

He also said the vision of shoreline development set out by the Planning Advisory Board is not consistent with the goals of the current Shoreline Master Plan, which calls for economic development and revitalization of the waterfront.

Currently, owners can make renovations and additions, but the restrictions won’t allow for major expansions or moving buildings.

Cort said if buildings in the marina area are torn down, it would be nearly impossible to rebuild under the city’s existing rules.

Sparkman said the council should also keep in mind that the bluffs are tricky terrain.

“The big dead elephant in the middle of the living room is building on the bluff,” he said.

A study by the engineering firm Shannon & Wilson, a firm out of Seattle that has observed the bluff off and on for nearly 20 years, had reported that the bluff underneath the Edgecliff Restaurant is eroding 1 to 2 inches per year over 20 years.

“We have to consider the council’s responsibility what an inch to two inches means to the community over 100 years,” Sparkman said.

Stabilization is necessary. The best way to do that is with native vegetation, but Sparkman said if stabilization through development is a fit, it should be considered.

Day said his engineers have said the bluff, if not stabilized, will face serious erosion. He said creative and sustainable solutions for stabilization — as well as handling storm-water run-off — are possible, but somebody has to pay for them.

“None of this is really possible without a way to pay for it,” Day said.

Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Rolf Seitle said he supported the recommendations because it allows the property owners to maintain their properties, but protect the bluff.

He also said he sees no reason why there should be a 50-foot setback on the bluff.

Seitle said building close to the bluff is basically a private risk.

However, Seitle said he was opposed to building into the bluff. Water run-off would be diverted and would cause trouble elsewhere.

Marianne Edain of WEAN said she supported the board’s recommendations and urged the council to consider the impact of global climate change on the site.

Others were not so happy with the board’s work.

Waterfront property owner Kathleen Waters Riehl said that she was surprised and disappointed in the recommendations.

Waters Riehl had been in negotiations with the city for years to get the setback issue resolved so work can be done on her vacation home.

The recommendations from the Planning Advisory Board wouldn’t help solve her problems, she said.

The board was also criticized for how it handled the review of changes to the shoreline rules.

Waterfront property owner Ruth Den Adel took issue with the way how the Planning Advisory Board arrived at its final recommendations.

The board had worked with a draft of options for several weeks, but at its final meeting on the report, the board approved an alternative version introduced by board member Fred Geisler that included specific recommendations.

“It was kind of like, ‘Where did this come from?’,” she said.

Gilman said that while the issue is complex, the city needs to take action.

“We need to get to a stage of closure,” he said. “We need to get to some sort of milestone.”

Samuelson, who has been meeting with all parties involved, also wants a solution - fast.

“This is a huge priority to this administration,” he said.

Day said his company is still willing to talk about the design and scope of its project with the community.

He also stressed that the developers are not considering litigation.

Day had sent the city two letters in recent weeks pointing out the legal issues involved in developing along the bluff in Langley, and stressed that treating property owners on Wharf Street differently from those on First Street constitutes an unequal and arbitrary application of the law.

Cort, the city’s planning chief, will prepare a breakdown of issues and policies for the council to study.

The council will continue prioritizing changes resulting from the rewrite of its growth plan, including waterfront issues, at its next regular meeting on March 19.

The council will also continue discussion about the waterfront recommendations at that meeting.

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