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Tough night for Langley developer

Skeptical crowd wants answers on new project

LANGLEY — The developer of a potential project on Wharf Street said this week his vision for a mixed-use seaside development won’t hurt the cliff on Langley’s coast.

But Langleyites wouldn’t buy it.

Colorado-based developer Brian Stowell hosted a meeting Tuesday for locals to share ideas for a waterfront project.

Stowell owns a small parcel neighboring the steep bluff on Wharf Street and he also has the option of buying Drake’s Landing. The developer is considering either building on the footprint of his property or constructing into the city-owned bluff. The development would be split between homes and businesses, though no designs or concepts have been finalized.

About 75 people came out for the meeting, and Stowell, his team of architects and a geologist faced a tough crowd.

Stowell began by review a few of his past developments. His company built Morningstar, an upscale hillside development near Aspen, Colo., amid public concerns about wildlife corridors, scenic views, private stream rights and other sensitive issues.

He also talked about his work at the Greenroof Development Company in Phoenix, Ariz., which builds urban infill projects in downtown Phoenix.

Neither Morningstar nor Greenroof is appropriate for Langley, Stowell said, but both projects eventually received rave reviews by locals.

Stowell also came with experts to talk about specific issues surrounding development along Langley’s shoreline.

Geotech engineer Siew Tan, an associate with PanGEO of Seattle, said he had collected exploratory data about the bluff’s stability.

PanGEO, Inc. is a geotechnical engineering firm that focuses on providing geotechnological solutions to developments underlain by complex soil conditions. Tan said the slope could handle construction.

“In general, the bluff has been pretty stable,” he said, drawing snickers from some in the audience.

Tan said the slope was compacted by a 3,000-foot-thick glacial ice layer that sat atop the bluff thousands of years ago.

“We won’t see a landslide wiping out Cascade Avenue,” Tan said.

But many residents weren’t satisfied with Tan’s findings. Some areas of Langley’s bluff has caused some trouble in the past, and some Edgecliff neighbors can recall how portions of the bluff gave way in the 1960s and 1980s.

Audience member Charles Scurlock wanted to know if the bluff was stable enough to withstand an earthquake.

Tan said it was, but new buildings would have to be designed according to modern earthquake standards.

“If you have an earthquake in Langley, this (project) is the least of your problems,” he said.

Others in the audience asked how water runoff from the property would be controlled. Tan said a number of commonly used, high-tech water management systems are a possibility.

Stowell once again underlined his commitment to developing a project in Langley. He also made clear that public opposition won’t drive him away, but could simply alter his project.

“We can build something smaller here. That would be the simple solution,” he said.

Even so, Stowell said talks with the city have focussed on providing better public access and economic development. Discussions so far have been based on ideas that come from Langley’s current growth plan and other city guidelines.

Many in Langley are worried that development along the shoreline will hurt the city’s postcard-quality setting. And some consider the greenery covering the bluff as part of the view.

Stowell said the discussion should include if a new development could add to the look and feel of the waterfront.

“Some people want a really active waterfront, others don’t want any change at all,” Stowell said.

Hal Seligson asked if estimates have been made of what the city-owned slope is worth and if Langley will receive compensation for the land.

“No appraisal has been undertaken,” Stowell said. “The discussion has been pretty vague.”

Seligson also wanted to know what the company could do to safeguard neighbors and the city in case of a construction accident, a landslide or if company is faced with a financial crisis.

“What happens if your company goes belly up, and you have to walk back to Colorado?”

Stowell said it was up to the city to demand performance guarantees in the form of a bond or other insurance.

He said previous projects such as Morningstar didn’t require a bond or other performance guarantees. He also stressed that the views from Cascade Avenue weren’t in jeopardy.

Much of the meeting was marked by skepticism.

At one point, some suggested that residents of Langley should get to vote before the city would be allowed to sell or give away its bluff property.

Many said they enjoyed the waterfront as it is with its rustic feel.

“It’s the sereneness. For me, it’s counting the boats and picking up feathers by the beach,” said Langley business owner Susan Ishikawa.

The stability of the bluff was a reoccurring theme.

“What matters most to me is that Langley doesn’t do anything to the bluff land,” said Victoria Moore, a resident who lives near the marina.

She also said people should not block all ideas.

“Something is going to happen down there and the only way to get something we want is if we steer it that way,” Moore said.

Many were critical of Stowell’s efforts to develop his Wharf Street property, especially the idea to build a public elevator to improve access to the waterfront near the marina.

While the elevator has gotten the support of Mayor Neil Colburn, who said it would improve beach access — a longtime goal for the city — the majority of audience said the current access was fine.

Some people were concerned that the residents of the condo portion of the project would be bothered by the public using the marina and beach.

Currently, many properties in the area are not used year-round.

“The (Boatyard) Inn is not intrusive. This new building is,” said Langley resident Ursula Roosen-Runge.

Paul Schell, another property owner on Wharf Street, said it doesn’t bother him when people walk on the beach in front of his property.

“The fact that you are uncomfortable walking on the beach is something you have to adjust too,” he said.

But others underscored that not every new resident may feel that way.

Schell also criticized the unfriendly tone the discussion about waterfront development has taken in recent weeks, in the community and on the Langley Community Forum, an online chat site.

“I am disappointed at this budding class war,” Schell said.

“Brian can build on his site with height restrictions at 30/35 feet. I feel almost bad I encouraged him to talk to the city,” Schell said.

He added that access for elderly or disabled people to the beach would be a community benefit.

Schell also said the community should stop trying to make Stowell jump through hoops, and give him clear direction on what the community would support.

“If we don’t, we need to tell him in a hurry,” Schell said.

“Do you want him to build 3 1/2 stories of condos and go away, or do you want something we all can enjoy?” he asked.

Architect Ross Chapin also said the community should look at a possible project with an open mind. The elevator, for example, could be both functional and beautiful.

“It could be a new Langley landmark… let’s celebrate it,” Chapin said.

Langley voices

Langleyites saw these possibilities

• Commercial activity (restaurants, boating supplies, groceries for boaters)

• Use by community and greater public

• a trail with/without a stairway to the waterfront

• Greenroofs on building at waterfront

Concerns:

• little parking

• keeping the small town feel

• pollution

• too much traffic

• water drainage and bluff stability

• Preserving views and the waterfront as a resource for boaters and watersports.

What the community would like to see in a project

• Should blend with nature

• gateway or “on ramp” for boaters to visit Langley

• Should look like Langley, “not Miami.”

• Nostalgia married with freeform

• a friendly public park

• “Italian riviera Langley-style”

• integrated public space

• wild unplanned feeling

• environmentally safe design and operation.

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