Residents press for control of growth in Freeland, Langley

LANGLEY ­— Officials helping to rewrite Langley’s growth plan are tip-toeing around a controversial proposed policy that would put 85 percent of the city’s urban growth area off limits to development.

For the past year, Langley officials and citizen committees have been rewriting the city’s comprehensive plan — the document that will guide growth and development in Langley over the next two decades — chapter by chapter.

Some of the volunteers who are helping to update the plan, however, have proposed policies that appear to violate state laws on growth planning.

Even so, members of Langley’s “integration committee” — the group that’s riding herd on more than 330 proposed growth goals and policies — said Monday that none of the suggestions will be cut, including the controversial one that would leave 85 percent of the land annexed into town in the future as an untouched “greenbelt” that would surround the seaside village. At least not yet.

Instead, city planning staff will divide the policies in “comp plan material” and a “city/community action plan.”

A week of public lobbying by proponents of the greenbelt policy appears to be paying off, at least in the short term.

The nine-member integration committee met this week at city hall to begin the process of weeding through the individual proposals generated by the citizen committees that have spent months pouring over improvements to the city’s growth plan.

Members, however, refused to immediately reject growth policy proposals that the city’s planners and lawyers say don’t mesh with the state’s Growth Management Act, the state law that guides growth planning for urban and rural areas.

The most questionable of the new policies is one suggested by Eric Levine to create a greenbelt around the city.

If adopted, the policy would require 85 percent of the land brought into Langley through annexations to be left aside as undeveloped open space, including land that’s eyed for medium- and low-density housing.

Levine’s original proposal also presses the city to buy up private properties within the town’s growth area, and would create a new “environmental design review board” that would review development plans to see if they are green enough.

The problem with Levine’s proposal, though, is that state growth laws dictate that land within the state’s cities — and their urban growth areas — is eventually expected to turn increasingly urban as more people move to Washington. Preserving much of the land as rural, with few homes and wide open acres, runs counter to urban planning.

Indeed, land-use experts say urban growth areas are, by definition, reserved for urban growth.

Levine said his proposal belongs in Langley’s comp plan, a document that carries the weight of law and will be used to craft more detailed development regulations.

For the past week, Levine has been leading the charge to preserve his proposed policy after growth experts and others questioned the legality of the greenbelt proposal.

Levine stressed that his proposal calls for “clustering” homes; a development technique that packs houses close together while leaving other pieces of developed parcels as-is.

He said that since the county has approved clustered development elsewhere, such an approach could be used throughout Langley’s urban growth area.

“Island County has approved what are called planned residential developments that are clustered with 85 percent open space,” he said. “One of them is being planned near Oak Harbor. Right here in Langley’s urban growth area is another PRD called Talking Circle.

“It is an example of how the entire greenbelt could be interspersed with PRDs that would allow the forest greenbelt to remain contiguous,” he added.

Levine also said his proposal wouldn’t strictly limit the number of homes possible on any piece of annexed property, but strengthen the policy already in Langley’s comp plan that talks about clustered housing.

Even so, he admitted that the number of dwellings would be determined by the amount of land left after 85 percent of the property was preserved as open space.

Levine also indicated such housing could range in size, and could include condos, apartment building and multi-family homes.

“The dwellings could be of any size,” he said.

Levine stressed that he would only support such dwellings depending on design, however.

Currently, property outside the city limits is zoned for one house per five acres. Levine said roughly half of the land in the city’s growth area could be annexed and developed at medium housing densities, and the other half, at low density.

Medium housing densities in Langley allow for six homes per acre, while roughly three homes per acre are allowed under the city’s low density zoning.

Levine said that’s too many homes.

“If it were to be annexed into the city just less than have of the acreage in the UGA would be zoned for parcels of 7,200 square feet and a little more than half the acreage would be zoned at 15,000 square feet. If all the area were to be developed at this zoning level, there is no doubt that any semblance of a greenbelt would be decimated,” Levine said.

“Given the present building boom in Langley this is not an exaggeration, but a looming reality,” he added.

For critics who worry that setting aside large tracts of open space may make housing unaffordable, Levine said clustering may not mean high housing prices. Developers would need to build shorter streets, and could pass the savings along to homebuyers.

“Implementation would actually allow and encourage homes within the urban growth area to be more affordable because less land per unit is required in clustered projects and shortened utility corridors decrease infrastructure costs,” he said.

Recent history in Langley has shown otherwise, however. Construction of the Grove - a housing development with a vast swath of open space - was halted and sent back to the drawing board after the developers said the project wouldn’t pencil out with the amount of land that was to be left undeveloped.

Proposal says city should buy open space

Levine’s original proposal also suggests making property owners in Langley’s urban growth area inform the city if they intended to sell; the city would also inventory all property within the urban growth area and get first dibs at properties for sale.

The proposal also said the city should establish a fund buying land in the growth area to preserve as open space.

Levine said funding for such measures wouldn’t necessarily have to come from taxpayers, though most of the potential money sources he identified were built on taxpayer funding.

Langley City Hall has not been flush with funds for public property purchases, though. Two years ago, the city had to ask voters to approve a hike in property taxes so there would be money for basic government services.

Even so, Levine said Langley preserve land through other methods, such as getting bargain sales from landowners, or private contributions.

“It could be anything. If Saratoga Woods could be saved, this is possible,” he said.

Other mechanisms that could be used include the transfer or sale of development rights, the use of real estate excise taxes, impact fees, and installment sales, he said.

Island County does not currently have a transfer of development rights program, however, and property owners in nearby Snohomish County, which has such a program, have been uninterested in the program. And while Langley already collects a share of real estate excise taxes, it used those revenues on capital improvements and general government services.

Author says DRB is not enough

Levine’s proposal also included an amendment to establish an environmental design review board.

The city already has a design review board and all proposals go through the standard environmental review processes.

“An environmental design review board would be able to scrutinize environmental impacts more closely then the present design review board,” he said.

“For example, in some cases they might go out to a site to check on whether factors like critical areas and required open space are involved and to what extent projects should proceed accordingly. An environmental design review board might also design a tree ordinance and monitor projects for compliance,” he said.

Levine said the city’s current Design Review Board doesn’t do an adequate job. Marianne Edain, a supporter of the greenbelt policy, said the existing Design Review Board “would probably fall by the wayside.”

City state officials are skeptic

The proposal has had its critics early on.

City Planner Larry Cort issued a memo May 31 to the landuse committee pointing out inconsistencies between the policy and the Growth Management Act.

Citing state law and a legal opinion by Carol Morris, a lawyer with the Association of Washington Cities, Cort wrote that the urban growth areas can’t be designated by a city for predominantly open space - a proposition which Morris doesn’t feel is supportable by the Growth Management Act.

Cort wrote that the policy better match the definition for rural development — adding that urban growth areas are designated for urban growth.

Cort said the vision set out by Levine’s policy more closely matches the state’s definition of “rural development.”

Levine said the policy should be put into Langley’s growth plan to save the forested landscape around the city.

“With all that’s at stake and what’s on the table my biggest concern is that people will be put off with all the figures and minutiae,” Levine said.

“It’s vital that Langley citizens realize the stark reality of the consequences of not putting the gist of the annexation amendment and the rest of the proposal in the comp plan: namely that one of the defining features of Langley — its forest border — can be literally wiped out,” he said.

In an informal poll taken among the nine members of the integration committee, six said Levine’s proposal shouldn’t be added to the comp plan. One said it should be adopted without changes and two said it could only be adopted after a major rewrite.

Councilman Robert Gilman, the leader of the group revising the comp plan, declined to say if the policy has his support.

He said he agrees that Langley isn’t where it should be when it comes to preserving open space. The current comp plan indicates that 25 percent of the city should consist of open space and the city has not reached that goal.

“While I do understand there is some disagreement on how to achieve open space, I see agreement to do a better job than what has been done as far as open space goes,” Gilman said Thursday.

As the draft progesses, it has to go through major editing, he said.

Group to put non-comp plan material in action plan

City planning staff have also highlighted other policies that don’t belong in the city’s comp plan.

Instead of an outright rejection of those ideas, committee members now want to put them into a “city/community action plan” for further review.

Even so, it’s clear that some of the suggestions won’t find a home in the city’s growth plan.

“If your only window into city government is the comp plan, you’ll load everything into that window,” Gilman said.

Though the integration committee tried to narrow the number of additions to the comp plan last week, some Langleyites wanted to add to the list.

Integration committee member Gail Fleming said a number of residents had pointed out to her that the document was missing important elements from the original proposals by the citizen advisory committees. Audience member Mark Wahl also wanted to know how to get some issues included into the document.

A number of former comp plan subcommittee members and other community members who attended Monday’s meeting said they were worried their ideas would be scrapped prematurely.

Rhonda Salerno said residents didn’t get enough input before some policies or goals were included.

She also feared the impact on the community if a policy that would small businesses in the urban growth areas would be implemented.

“It could turn into a nightmare,” she said.

Zoning laws exist to provide predictability so people can know what to expect in their neighborhood when they purchase land, Salerno said. She also said stand-alone businesses could change the character of neighborhoods and hurt the downtown business core.

Integration committee members were quick to point out that talk about growth policy issues will continue into the future.

The integration committee next meets on Monday, Sept. 10.

Before that meeting, all members will prepare a list of items that they want to discuss further.

The city council is expected to vote on a finalized plan in December.

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