City promises six-month fix to waterfront rules

LANGLEY — The city of Langley made a giant leap toward overhauling its regulations for waterfront development.

During the regular city council meeting last week, the city council discussed possibilities for changing waterfront rules and talked about how much land property owners along the city’s bluffs would have to give up and leave undeveloped.

So far, nothing is official. But the city council and property owners have agreed to work together to resolve problems within the city’s guidelines that hold back some property owners from expanding development on their properties. The city also came up with ideas how to protect Seawall Park from future development.

Councilman Jim Recupero said he wants to move quickly, but any decision will resonate for years to come.

“What we’re attempting to do is something for future generations, something that we can leave, something we can be proud of,” he said.

The city expects to have an approved set of standards — including limits on the size and scale of development projects — for First Street and Wharf Street within the next six months, city officials said.

First Street

The discussion about protecting Seawall Park was sparked last year after the completion of the Two Totems project next to the Dog House in Langley.

Residences on the new building reach almost down to the park level next to the shore and some became worried that the park would turn into the front yards for homeowners at the Two Totems.

At the same time, the aging commercial structures on First Street are in dire need of repairs. Some fear they could slide down into Puget Sound.

“While it would be lovely to freeze everything in time, the forces of nature won’t let us,” Councilman Robert Gilman said.

Gilman said the question is how to keep a park with water on the one side and greenery on the other, while still allowing property owners to stabilize their properties.

Gilman said he favors a no-build setback at a certain mark above sea level that would prevent buildings from extending to the level of the park. He said that would change the character of the public gathering place.

Gilman suggested a piling wall that would stop above the park, but would allow the buildings to be stabilized.

“Visually you could put lots of vegetation on it — lots of vegetation,” he said.

The council agreed that a design-based approached along First Street would work best for preserving the character of the area, and that city officials and the public would have to define what they want in this area.

Another problem is that the park is currently located on private and public property. The city has not yet done a survey to locate the property lines.

The property lines were drawn on the original toe of the bluff, which is now only three to five feet away from the seawall in some places, said Challis Springer, the city’s new public works director.

“If you’re talking about preserving a Seawall Park along the entire flat area, you’re talking about a substantial amount of private property,” planning director Larry Cort said.

Councilwoman Rene Neff was concerned about infringing on people’s property rights if the city would enact a short-term block to construction in the area.

“What I’m anxious about is limiting businesses and property owners so severely that they can’t do anything,” she said.

Neff said she would prefer a no-build setback at the toe of the bluff or a bit up the bluff to allow property owners the chance to stabilize buildings along the bluff.

“There has to be a tradeoff,” she said, adding that it must make economic sense to remodel and that could mean slightly enlarged buildings.

“It’s not just a historic or agricultural landscape, it’s also an economic landscape,” Cort agreed.

Gilman suggested public/private partnerships that would allow public money to be spent on projects if they have a public benefit.

Councilman Bob Waterman said there are also historical preservation benefits available — grants for minor changes and tax breaks for major remodeling projects.

Waterman observed that everybody was talking about preserving the “character” of the area, but that the interpretation was broad. He recalled the work done years ago when Langley residents met to talk about the future of the

Village by the Sea.

“During the Imagine Langley interviews, a couple of years back, I was struck by the uniformity of the words why people ended up here. There was ‘magical,’ ‘felt like coming home,’” Waterman said. “But we never defined what that means.”

While it is clear everyone wants to preserve the elusive character, Langley resident Mark Wahl cut through the chase when he asked what legal tools the city had to make sure Seawall Park remained public.

Condemnation is an option, Cort said, but one the city would like to avoid.

“The first car in the train is working with the property owners individually,” Cort said.

“Even if you condemn property, you owe market value,” he added.

Langley resident Shirley Owens said the park should stay public.

“The property line situation is a very muddy one,” she said. “The public had use of the fill area the past 35 years or so. There is precedence to continue public use.”

Debra Waterman, who owns a building on First Street, said the talk was promising.

“To have a master plan that everybody buys into is really positive,” she said.

She added a win-win situation can be created. For the talks with the property owners, she recommended more visual aids.

Sharen Heath, who has been an outspoken critic of waterfront development, was concerned about public safety. She said it’s not a secret that some buildings on First Street need help.

The bad conditions the buildings are in may also turn off potential buyers or investors, she said.

“There is this fear part about these old buildings,” she said.

Heath recalled a windy day at the Dog House. A steep breeze hit the facade and the windows shook.

“Twenty four people jumped up and started running,” she said. “Safety and stability is vitally important.”

Gilman said the trick is to put an economic model together that works without heavily relying on the troubled housing market.

Wharf Street

The marina area has been the section of the waterfront that had stirred controversy since developers Nancy Josephson, Steve Day and Brian Stowell presented their ideas for waterfront development to the public.

Some Langleyites want any development to be minimal, while property owners have urged the city to loosen restrictions and allow them to expand their ability to develop.

Gilman pointed out that the waterfront in the marina area has special requirements.

It’s on a dead-end street, and there are large parking requirements for the marina, he said. That means there is not a lot of room for development.

Gilman favored the historic setbacks as suggested by the Planning Advisory Board earlier this year.

“I have a feeling that people put their homes where their comfort level was. There is some wisdom in that,” he said.

Others took a different view.

While many residents have been strongly opposed to allowing construction into the steep slope, Neff said she is not opposed to allowing building into the bluff as long as the size is limited.

Recupero said he was OK with building into the bluff as long as the views above Cascade Avenue were protected. He said he was also fine with the elevator for public access that was suggested by developer Brian Stowell last summer.

As some audience members murmured that they didn’t want an elevator, Mayor Paul Samuelson said all city officials agree that better access is needed, but the shape and form is where different visions exist.

While some have suggested a bus connection or golf carts as a way to get people down the hill to the marina, city officials have said they want a better way for elderly and disabled to get to the beach.

Day, who wants to build a mixed-use complex with commercial and residential space, said he is open to any ideas from the community. But he also asked city officials to be open to change.

“We are excited about the possibility of diving into the long-term design approach if it’s a bit out of the box. It’s a very tight box,” Day said.

“It’s an impossible box right now,” he added.

He also urged the council to move carefully but expeditiously, and stressed again that the recommendations from the Planning Advisory Board would prevent him from developing near the marina.

“We feel that the Planning Advisory Board’s recommendations are still too restrictive to make it economically viable,” he said. “We think great things can happen if this village is willing, and the council is willing.”

Stephanie Drake, who owns Drake’s Landing with her sister Christina, urged residents to open their minds to what developers have to offer. They are considering selling their property to Stowell for his project.

“Open up your thinking to what’s possible with modern construction,” she said.

“Everybody is flipped out about a gazzilion condos down there.

I get that. I encourage everyone to hear what’s possible and be open to work with them,” she added. “If they need to go in the slope a little, listen.”

Drake said that if the developers were to leave town, it would be tough to find new buyers who want to pay a fair price for the properties in the area. She also pointed to the troubling housing market.

“Now that the market has done what it’s done, we have time,” Drake said.

The discussion turned to bluff stability and if it was safe to build into the bluff.

Some developers have said that building into the bluff would help stabilize it, while some residents warned of potential slides given the history of the area.

Cort said it’s a priority for the city to protect its assets, namely Cascade Avenue, from any damage.

Cort said that studies have shown that the bluff is fairly stable even though the marina bluff has been historically more stable than the bluff north of First Street and Edgecliff.

Drake said the city should take advantage of the studies already done by Stowell, as well as those prepared for Josephson/Day.

Besides new construction in the area, improvements to the narrow Wharf Street are on the line.

Cort said more than $200,000 for Wharf Street improvements hinge on building permits being issued in the marina area. The rural economic development funds will only be released if Langley exhibits economic development on its waterfront.

Property owners told city officials that they are not interested in short-term solutions — as the city council had hinted in recent weeks was possible — but urged Langley to move forward with a long-term approach.

The city will meet privately with various property owners in May. Cort said the city expects to have an approved design approach for First Street and Wharf Street within the next six months.

The planning departments presentation about waterfront code possibilities can be viewed at the city’s Web site at html.

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