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Policy would limit building in Langley’s growth area

If Langley’s volunteer planners get their way, large parts of the city’s urban growth area would remain undeveloped even after the land is annexed into town.

Volunteers helping to update Langley’s growth plan want the city to adopt a policy that would leave 85 percent of the land that’s pulled within city limits as “open space” untouched by development.

Even so, some say the proposed policy may run counter to the state laws on managing growth.

The group working to update Langley’s growth plan recently released a draft set of policies it wants to see added to the plan, called the comprehensive plan. The city council is expected to vote on new growth policies in December.

A number of proposed policies, however, have been marked by Langley planning staff as “not wholly consistent” with the Growth Management Act, the state law that guides growth planning for urban and rural areas.

Among the questionable policies is one that would require new annexations to preserve at least 85 percent of the annexation area as open space.

“We struggle with that one,” city planner Larry Cort said. “We don’t believe it meets the intent of the Growth Management Act.”

Under state law, urban development is restricted to areas designated as “urban.” Cities must also identify “urban growth areas,” land that will be eventually annexed and densely developed as cities make room for the people who are expected to move to Washington’s cities over the next two decades.

Langley’s current plan preserves 25 percent for green space in the UGA.

“But there has not been a GMA hearing board decision that said this is too much or too little,” Cort added.

The new policy, though, would strictly limit the number of homes possible on any given property.

The Growth Management Act requires counties and cities to allocate land for urban growth based on population projections made by the Washington State Office of Financial Management. Bringing undeveloped land into the city limits, but keeping it rural, would run afoul of state law.

“There is a reason it is called the urban growth area,” Mayor Neil Colburn said.

Experts agree.

Tim Gates, a senior planner with the Department of Community, Trade & Economic Development, said communities do have a “significant discretion” over how much green space is required in their growth areas.

Gates said he is not aware of any other community with an open space percentage as high as the one proposed for Langley.

“I could see how this would raise a flag,” he said.

Others said the policy could prevent the construction of affordable homes in the Langley area, because larger lots within urban growth areas typically mean higher home prices.

In recent weeks, Langley residents have been extremely vocal on growth issues, and some have said the town’s “quality of life” is at stake. An annexation proposal was put on hold earlier this month after officials said they needed more time to research the annexation project.

Jason Easton, director of Government Affairs for the North Puget Sound Association of Realtors, said quality of life isn’t limited to just maintaining open spaces. It also means keeping housing affordable and providing places for residents to live.

“It takes a home, a job and a community for quality of life,” he said.

Another policy that Langley’s planning staff marked as iffy under the state’s Growth Management Act is a broad policy that would set a growth cap based on quality-of-life measures.

Cort said neither the city’s land use attorney nor representatives from state agencies have been supportive of establishing such a policy.

Other proposals that may run counter to state law include policies for developing pre-lease/pre-sale requirements for developments, and developing a land gains tax for property that experiences rapid turnover in ownership, Cort said.

City planning staff have also highlighted other policies that don’t belong in the city’s comp plan. Those suggestions, Cort said, may be too detailed for the growth plan.

Gates, the state growth-planning expert, said its wise to keep the comp plan somewhat broad.

“There are comp plans like Christmas trees decorated with lots of colorful policies,” Gates said.

“But do you really want that for your comp plan? It’s not out of the question, but it may be unpractical,” he added.

Gates said comp plans must be written in a way that allows for flexibility, since the plans must be able to adjust to changing circumstances over their 20-year lifespans.

Weeding through the list of hundreds of ideas is now up to city staff and Langley’s comp plan integration committee.

The individual comp plan committees turned proposed policies on Aug. 13.

City Councilman Robert Gilman stressed that the policies are still under review.

“They are recommendations of the advisory committees, not decisions,” Gilman said.

“We’ll do the decreeing and pruning later within the integration committee,” he added.

The full list of existing and proposed policies can be viewed at www.langleycommunityforum.org.

Not all items may make it through the review process by city staff and the integration committee. The city council will also have the final say on new growth policies.

The list of goals and policies is a draft that will be used as a starting point for developing a set of recommended goals and policies to send to the council, Gilman said.

Along the way, the integration committee will add and subtract from the list, based on what the integration committee labels as truly comp plan-type material that is consistent with state law and in the balanced, long-term, common good of the community.

Gilman said due to the large number of committees, not every group received planning expertise from city staff. That means some ideas may work while others may not mesh with state law.

The integration committee wants to wrap up work on the policies by Oct. 19 to hit a deadline for submitting the document to the state for review.

Colburn, who also serves on the integration committee, was straight forward on what happens next.

“The first thing we’ll do is get rid of things that aren’t GMA compliant,” Colburn said.

Colburn added that he doesn’t expect too much controversy over the editing decisions of the integration committee.

“That’s where I am counting on the diversity of the integration committee,” he said.

The integration committee consists of the citizen advisory committee leaders and the executive team of the comp plan group. The members represent a wide spectrum of opinions, ranging from people with professional expertise on growth issues to others who suggested untested yet innovative ideas.

Some members of the advisory committee fear that they won’t have much input in the final product.

“My concern is that we committee members have little say for several steps of the process and our ideas could fall off the table unbeknownst to us,” said Mark Wahl, a member of the land use advisory committee.

“Our mission is then to stay in touch with integration committee members to see how deliberations on our proposals are going and what is being included or left out,” he added.

Advisory committee member Rhonda Salerno said she didn’t like the designations added by the staff that marked some items as questionable.

If a specific policy isn’t put into the comp plan, the city can’t create development regulations to make sure the policy is addressed at the development stage.

“Can the staff assure us that the language for the creation of these regulations exists currently or is being added?” Salerno asked.

One of the discrepancies between the advisory committees’ vision for Langley and what the state mandates is that while many want to preserve the rural character of the Village by the Sea, Langley is required under state law to absorb urban growth as a city.

“We’re not rural, we’re urban. What we have, and I don’t think anybody would disagree, is village character,” Colburn said. “We can do that and still be urban.”

While the integration committee will work on changes to the growth plan, members of the community are invited to comment on the items on the list.

Comments for the record can be made in writing and sent to city planner Larry Cort at landuse@whidbey.com, in person at an integration committee meeting at 4 p.m. at city hall, every Monday except Aug 20 and Sept. 3, and in person at the public hearing in November.

Informal comments, not for the record, can be made to the members of the integration committee; Gilman, Colburn, Walt Blackford, Ross Chapin, Gail Fleming, Leah Green, Linda Irvine, Russell Sparkman and Bob Waterman.

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