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Port looking to develop near marina

New plan could include retail-office space, condos

LANGLEY — It’s not just out-of-town developers who have been eyeing land near the Langley Marina with visions of commercial buildings that will draw tourists to town.

Add the Port of South Whidbey to the list.

Port commissioners have been quietly talking with property owners along the city’s waterfront and potential developers as the port wonders what it should do with its shoreside property after the port takes over the Langley Marina in January 2009.

So far, the talk has centered on building a couple of three-story structures on the port’s publicly-owned property and dramatically changing how the small boat harbor looks.

Later this month, port officials will present their master plan to the Langley City Council for the new “South Whidbey Marina.”

Port officials have always said they wanted to take ownership of the marina, a view reinforced by their nine-year battle with the Department of Fish and Wildlife over the boat ramp at Bush Point. There, port officials said a lack of control stymied their efforts to resolve a series of construction problems that still exists.

The new plan for the marina is ambitious and expensive; as much as $15 million will be needed over the next 10 years. And the port is hoping to create what they call a “public/private partnership” to help finance new commercial buildings near the marina, though commissioners haven’t ruled out asking voters for a special property tax levy to pay for the project some time in the future.

Meanwhile, talk of development along the shoreline in Langley has heated up as off-island developers have presented early and evolving proposals for commercial development around the bluffs next to Camano Avenue that overlook the waterfront.

Port officials have been considering how development along the bluff might dovetail with what the port wants to do at the marina.

“Things are moving in a good direction,” Port Commissioner Lynae Slinden said. “We’ve come up with a responsible answer for Langley’s commercial needs, visitors to the harbor and locals who want access to the water.”

The port’s plan deals with two facets — the waterside and the uplands which extend to the bluff below the town.

Preliminary drawings reveal a marina with a vastly different look, one that commissioners hope will pass the close scrutiny of the city, South Enders and a host of state and federal oversight agencies.

The new South

Whidbey Marina

Initially, the port has budgeted $200,000 to renovate the existing boat launch ramp, a project that’s been on the drawing board for years.

The next phase includes tearing out the old 35-slip marina, plus the docks, wharf, Phil Simon Park and the restrooms. The facilities would be replaced with a new state-of-the-art facility that could serve 80 to

100 vessels plus another 25 slips on six outlying “pods.”

Port commissioners also envision a new pier extended almost 800 feet into the harbor, sited slightly south of the existing pier and ending at a 400-foot floating dock specially designed to combat damaging waves.

Satellite piers will lead to protected marina hub modules where up to seven small boats can tie up in the harbor, with six pods in all. The port anticipates the slips to be used by a mix of permanent and transient boaters.

The recently acquired breakwater the port purchased from Bremerton will protect the entire complex from northeastern winds and waves and will be used to attract small cruise ships and whale watch tour boat operators. Tall lamps along the floating dock will light the walkway at night.

The plan’s designers, Art Anderson Associates, have made room for a sewage pump-out station, a water taxi landing and future float plane tie-up at the end of the breakwater.

Anchored outside the main marina will be six more pods, each accommodating four to six summer overflow boats for short periods.

Design engineer Greg York cautioned that these pods would have no electrical power at first. Eventually, though, they would be lit up at night.

“The cost of running a submarine cable to each one is prohibitive,” he noted. “A solar-powered system for navigation lights should suffice.”

The rebuilt marina would have space for 125 boats. By comparison, the only other major marina on Whidbey Island is in Oak Harbor, which has 424 total slips.

Uplands property would be developed

The landward side of the marina master plan concept is slowly taking shape.

Driving down Wharf Road, visitors will first see a turn-around area big enough for fire trucks. On one side would be a large boat sculpture. Straight ahead will be a narrow paved road running along the bluff with up to 35 parking spots against a 10-foot retaining wall. At the south end will be a special area for boat trailer parking.

If commissioners can find private developers interested in reaching a deal, the port would like to build two three-story structures no higher than 35 feet with 3,700 square feet of space. The buildings would straddle the end of the new pier, with one building becoming home to the port’s offices.

The other structure would house several water-based retail stores — a dive shop, kayak rental and marine supply outlet or seafood restaurant — with 10 condominiums on the top two floors.

Running along the entire waterfront will be the new Phil Simon Park, a roughly 50-by-800-foot stretch of grass and landscaped greenery with picnic tables and benches. A stout bulkhead will face the marina.

Commissioners have considered several options for getting travelers who come by the sea up the steep hill and into the shops and restaurants. The ideas include a high-speed elevator, an internal stairway tunnel under the bluff and solar-generated battery-powered golf carts, possibly driven by high school students.

“Another option is a funicular railway up the hill or even an escalator,” Slinden said.

“In the short term, an Island Transit shuttle might do the trick.”

There are many challenges before the vision becomes reality.

“Does it work and can it meet all state and federal permitting requirements?,” asked port manager Ed Field. “There are still lots of variables at this point in the concept phase.”

Despite the challenges, the payoff will be huge for Langley and the entire South End, commissioners said.

“If we can provide economic revitalization and increase public access to the water while exceeding all environmental requirements, we’ll be doing our job,” Port Commissioner Rolf Seitle said.

The port’s predicament

In an agreement signed three months ago between the port and Langley, the port promised to begin major changes to the marina, including an update to the boat launch ramp, more parking and sprucing up or relocating Phil Simon Park.

Port commissioners also promised to develop a master plan that would detail their overall vision for the future of the marina and the uplands area. The uplands area extends from the waterline to the bluff.

However, a short time later they discovered that restrictions exist based on the original land grant from the state in the 1970s on the public property. The restrictions prevent commercial ventures on the property, which would seriously impacting the port’s ability to finance the project.

“We have discovered we can only use the land in support of the public interest,” Seitle explained. “We cannot do anything of a commercial nature ourselves and that forces us to develop public partnerships with the private stakeholders.”

Seitle added the port has only two choices; buy the property needed with taxpayer money or work with private developers who now own the land.

“This is a massive planning exercise where we, and our constituents, must consider all the possibilities,” Seitle said.

The best example of how that would work revolves around Drake’s Landing, the blue-painted bed-and-breakfast at the bottom of Wharf Road.

Sisters Christina and Stephanie Drake own it and Christina Drake is currently renting four rooms out for overnight stays.

Part of the master plan requires installing 35 parking slots next to the bluff. For that to work, the inn would have to be moved.

Also, Colorado-based developer Brian Stowell has an option to buy Drake’s Landing. The port has asked Stowell if he could move the inn closer to the water should the sale go through.

In return, the port hopes Stowell would consider financing and building two structures at the marina, one of which the port would lease as an operations center.

“Of course, this is all absolutely up in the air,” Seitle said. “Brian hasn’t agreed to anything. We wanted a master plan that made sense for everyone and this would help us get there.”

There’s another option, too.

“Brian told me he might move the inn off the property completely,” Christina Drake said. “Right now the sale of the inn is in a holding pattern while the city considers a setback ruling.”

Drake added she supports any plan that will help the city’s economy and draw visitors who normally would give Langley a wide berth.

“I’d love to see everything improved,” she said.

Seitle noted that he was in favor of buying the inn several years ago but his fellow commissioners at the time felt otherwise.

“We backed off, but I think it was a missed opportunity,” Seitle said. “It just wasn’t in the cards then.”

Seitle said the master plan is realistic.

“The bottom line for the port is our desire to dramatically improve the marina for those who live here and those who come by boat. Public access will increase and it will become a beautiful place to bring families who want to get close to the water,” he said.

“However, it will take time, money, vision and hard work.”

Developers target Langley

Shoreline development has been the talk of the town in recent weeks.

Last month, a Seattle-based developers Nancy Josephson and Steve Day presented two variations on mixed-use projects at the waterfront.

The first option features 58 residences, an inn, conference center and 5,000 square feet of commercial space.

The second, scaled-down version would have a smaller conference center and 27 private residences near what is now the Edgecliff Restaurant.

Stowell, the developer who has an option on Drake’s Landing, presented his development proposal months ago.

Stowell asked the city to consider a condominium complex built into the bluff itself but ran into a buzzsaw of community opposition.

Other property owners near the marina are already moving ahead with improvement plans.

Langley’s Paul Schell recently announced plans for his Boatyard Inn. He’s adding two smaller buildings, one for a common breakfast room with suites above and another for a culinary academy showcasing island chefs.

How any of these ideas will affect the port is unknown.

“All options are on the table at this point,” Seitle and Slinden both stated.

The latest version of the master plan will be presented to the Langley City Council on Dec. 19 for their review and comments.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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