Board to tackle waterfront zoning

Some still worried about development along shoreline

LANGLEY — Discrepancies between the city’s rules on seaside development continue to spark controversy and heated discussion.

During the last Planning Advisory Board meeting, the five-member panel attempted to sort out how to rewrite Langley’s development regulations and the city’s rules for building on environmentally-sensitive properties to bring the two sets of rules into harmony.

The Planning Advisory Board has been tasked with finding a solution, and as if the task wouldn’t be tough enough, the board also faces a broad spectrum of public opinion.

Some at the Nov. 28 meeting said no decisions should be made before it’s clear what residents want.

“Why are city officials so afraid to survey what the city wants?” Langley resident Eric Levine asked.

“Because they are afraid that the results are in the direct opposite of what they are espousing,” he answered.

“We need surveys. We need advisory votes,” Levine said.

Interest strong

on waterfront

Still-evolving proposals to develop land near the city’s marina has led to increased interest in seaside development, and that’s pushed the regulations guiding waterfront development to the top of the city’s priority list.

The waterfront below First Street and the area near Wharf Street is zoned “commercial” and it is designated under the city’s shoreline master program for “urban - high density” development.

In contrast, Langley’s critical areas ordinance calls for protecting the area’s critical natural features, such as sandy beaches and steep bluffs. City officials said those rules won’t allow large-scale development on such environmentally-sensitive lands.

There are three solutions to the problem:

• Change Langley’s planning documents, zoning and code language;

• Amend the critical areas ordinance;

• Or exempt the waterfront area from the critical areas rules.

The community seems split on what it wants along the waterfront, however.

While some say they would like a shoreline that keeps the economy of the Village by the Sea vibrant, others want the city’s coast to remain largely untouched.

Opinions are strongly divided

Even the Planning Advisory Board has different opinions on the subject.

During Wednesday’s meeting, for every rule favorable to development quoted by one of the board members, board member Fred Geisler quoted another one that would contradict it.

Geisler then, in dramatic fashion, pulled a poster from a bag and revealed an aerial photo of the waterfront. Superimposed on the image was a five-story high rise on the bluff. The photo-illustration was meant to show what development could do to the seaside.

While some audience members seemed to agree with the bleak vision, board chairman Russell Sparkman objected.

“This is incredibly out of place,” Sparkman said. “This shows something that never would happen.”

However, later in the meeting Sparkman presented his own poster.

It came from a “poster walk” early in the process of rewriting the city’s growth plan. An economic development committee had asked residents if they favored seaside commercial activity connected to the rest of the business district, and people were told to put stickers along a line on a poster to indicate if they liked the idea or not. The majority of dots were glued on the “agree” side of the spectrum.

However, critics at last Wednesday’s meeting said the sticker exercise didn’t reflect the true sentiment of the community.

Langley resident Emily Day claimed she didn’t have time to read and understand the whole statement before she glued her sticky dot on the board. Geisler couldn’t recall when the poster walk had occurred and how it worked.

Shoreline eyed

for more growth

In recent months, two developers have expressed interest in developing mixed-use projects on Langley’s shoreline near the marina.

In addition, the port of South Whidbey has big plans to revitalize the small boat harbor. And city officials have long been concerned about current development rules that prevent them from providing a larger setback to preserve Seawall Park.

The two developers interested in building on the bluff have said the rules should be changed to be consistent on both shorelines within the central business district, and, of course, allow for development.

The waterfront of First Street is exempt from the critical areas ordinance because buildings were already in place when the ordinance was enacted. Developers new to town say everybody in the zone should be treated equally, however.

Brian Stowell wants to build on a small property on the footprint of Drake’s Landing, and Nancy Josephson and Steve Day want to build across four properties from The Edgecliff Restaurant to the water level. But they can’t get started unless changes are made.

Geo-tech specialists for Stowell evaluated the bluff near his property and said it was stable enough for development.

The geo-tech firm working for Josephson/Day said the bluffs on the properties they want to develop need improvements to avoid erosion or landslides.

Residents worry

about bluff stability

At the Planning Advisory Board meeting, however, some in the audience questioned the objectivity of the bluff consultants and called for independent studies.

Interim city planner Donna Keeler said the city could pay for such a study. However, it is questionable whether the city council would agree to an analysis because of the fiscal impact.

A key argument by opponents of development is that the bluff near the marina is not stable enough to withstand intense development.

Critics are also concerned about rising water levels due to global climate change.

Marianne Edain of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network said the city has been aware of the fragility of the bluff since at least 1973. She also pointed to rising sea levels as a threat to development.

“This is not a very smart thing to do,” Edain said. “For years,

I have watched the city manage its bluff in favor of erosion.”

Langley resident Laurie Keith said things were moving too fast.

“We need to do whatever we can to slow down everything,” Keith said. “Why should we and city staff work so hard if we don’t want to grow like this?”

Langley resident Bruce Kortebein said the city should take its time before making decisions on waterfront development.

“The pressure comes from a commercial interest,” he said, adding that the community should dictate the process.

But Kathleen Waters, a property owner on Wharf Street, reminded Langleyites that it was residents, and not developers, who had shaped the plans in earlier years that envisioned commercial properties along the downtown waterfront.

“The city and citizens did this,” Waters said. “This was a community process.”

Waters said she and other property owners were frustrated at being caught in the debate over shoreline development. She said she didn’t understand why some people want to completely reverse what other Langleyites worked so hard to put in place.

“When you say, ‘What is the rush,’ you could be in the same place I am 15 years from now,” Waters said.

Board to revisit issue next week

Port Commissioner Rolf Seitle said he was annoyed by the statement by developers that the bluff near the Edgecliff was in danger.

Seitle said developers should present more information on their proposed projects before the city changes its development rules.

Others asked for a delay, too.

Edain said no decisions should be made until the city has hired a new senior planner.

While some in the audience continued the press for no development, Sparkman pointed out that not everyone is opposed to reasonable development on the waterfront. He urged others to voice their opinions in the future.

“I’d like to hear more than the usual suspects,” Sparkman said.

The planning advisory board did not make any decisions and will pick up the topic again at its next meeting on Dec. 12.

Michaela Marx Wheatley can be reached at 221-5300 or mmarx

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