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Waterfront project draws feisty crowd

LANGLEY — A standing-room only crowd at city hall gave the Langley City Council some Fifth of July fireworks, showing up in full force Thursday to voice concerns about waterfront development.

Colorado-based developer Brian Stowell was scheduled to make a presentation at the city council meeting about his plans for a potential mixed-use complex on Wharf Street. Stowell, the developer of the Garden Bungalows in Langley, is considering a waterside project near Boatyard Inn that would include stores, apartments or condos.

The developer’s plans for the city’s waterfront sparked plenty of interest. A large audience filled the council chambers to the last seat, while others sat on the floor and spilled into the hallway.

A few fireworks had been expected. Over the past week or so, a drawn-out, rather negative discussion about the pros and cons of waterfront development has been the buzz in local coffee shops, letters to the newspaper and on the Langley Community Forum Website.

Stowell took the intense interest in stride.

“Somehow this seems like a little bit larger crowd than usual at a city council,” Stowell said at the start of this week’s packed council meeting.

Stowell said he owns a small parcel of paved land near the Boatyard Inn, but also has an option to buy Drake’s Landing. There is also a chance the city would make available portions of the bluff above Wharf Street for the project.

“While it is true that I approached the city to discuss building on our parcel, the city actually invited me to consider larger development possibilities above Wharf Street,” he said.

Later in the meeting, Mayor Neil Colburn said expanding the project was his idea.

“I suggested to build in the bluff,” Colburn said.

“If you want to shoot somebody, shoot me,” he told the audience.

Colburn said the city was looking for a way to provide better public access to the small boat harbor and the surrounding waterfront.

Also, city officials view development into the bluff as a possibility to stabilize the steep slope.

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Complex could feature stores, homes and elevator

While nothing is set in stone, Stowell’s building could reach from the Wharf Street level to the street level of Cascade Avenue. There has also been discussion about a public elevator and walkways through the complex.

Some audience members asked how the city of Langley would benefit from the project.

“I see a revitalization and a connectiveness between the commercial core and Wharf Street,” Colburn said. “I think downtown is struggling and I think this will help.”

Access for elderly or disabled to the beach was another selling point.

“In 10 years, it will be very difficult for most of us to get down there,” Colburn said.

Company has done preliminary studies

Even though no detailed plans have been presented to the city, Stowell said preliminary work has begun for development of his property.

His company, Greenroof Development, has commissioned a geo-technological study for the bluff, the hillside has been surveyed, and there had been much talk about parking.

Stowell said he would share the results at a upcoming community meeting within the next two weeks. Times and locations will be announced in the Record.

He praised the process that’s been followed in the past by noted local architect Ross Chapin. Chapin is currently assisting with the construction of the Highlands, the largest housing project in the city’s history.

“I want to follow the style of Ross Chapin’s community meetings,” Stowell said.

“At this point, we’re hesitant to go forward, because if the community doesn’t want it, then it ends here,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he would give up on a waterfront project. Instead, Stowell said he would build a smaller-scale project.

“It would be a lot easier for me,” he added.

Any potential development is in the conceptual stages, however. No proposals have submitted to the city, Stowell said.

No affordable housing in the plans

During his talk, Stowell also knocked down rumors that have been circulating in town. Some residents have wondered about the eventual cost of homes in the Garden Bungalows.

“The Garden Bungalows were never intended to be affordable housing,” he said.

“I am not sure I see that as affordable housing, either,” he said about his new project, a comment that sent a ripple of laughter through the audience.

No intentions in blocking views

The city and the developer also never discussed building above Cascade Avenue.

“We always understood the views are sacred,” Stowell said.

Councilman Jim Recupero agreed.

“Our views are second to none. We will protect them at any price,” Recupero said.

Stowell also said he wanted to construct a project that fits with the oft-heard desire for more vibrant life on the waterfront and he based his ideas on existing city regulations and the comp plan.

“We didn’t come here with our vision. The vision existed,” Stowell said.

Port will be part of the discussion

Councilman Paul Samuelson wanted to know if Stowell had met with the Port of South Whidbey. The port will take over the city’s marina property in 2009 and are expected to become major stakeholders at the waterfront.

Stowell said he met with Port Commissioner Rolf Seittle and port manager Ed Field. Port officials are also open to more talks.

He also met with waterfront property owners such as Paul Schell, but he hasn’t spoken to the Nichols Brothers Boat Builders or neighbors of Sunlight Beach.

Stowell added that it is important to work together with the other property owners.

“It has to be thought through before you dig dirt,” he said. “Digging dirt is expensive.”

Not all voices were critical

While there were many critical voices, some urged the crowd to give Stowell a chance to offer more details at his upcoming meeting.

Schell said he encouraged Stowell to talk to the city and the community.

“This is the opportunity to do something that feels like Langley and works for the city and community,” Schell said.

“Everybody who wants to develop in the city isn’t automatically a bad guy,” he added.

Stephanie Drake, co-owner of Drake’s Landing, the other property needed for the project, said she has a good feeling about Stowell.

“Brian approached us. Actually there are people in the room who approached us. But he was the only guy who wanted to know what we want,” she said.

“We didn’t enter this discussion with dollar signs in our eyes. Keep the door open,” Drake said.

The mayor agreed.

“We have chased people out of town with belt buckles the size of dinner plates. That’s not an exaggeration,” Colburn said.

“The reason why I wanted to work with Brian is after working with him on the Bungalows, I see a quality guy.

“No one has proposed anything and no one would allow our precious view to be taken away for love or money,” Colburn added.

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