County, city and fair end dispute over fairgrounds

LANGLEY — Wednesday’s surprise settlement to the long-running feud over Fairgrounds Road came after two weeks of low-key meetings between Langley and county officials.

Details were few of the agreement, which would spell an end to a city lawsuit to condemn a portion of the county fairgrounds in exchange for city-financed improvements to the fairgrounds.

Langley officials said they had an “agreement in principal” with county and fair officials for an easement across the fairgrounds, and said details would be released following a review of the agreement by city and county lawyers.

Commissioner Mike Shelton, who initiated the talks that led to the deal, said the settlement was the best for all involved.

“At the end of the day, a negotiated settlement gives everybody certainty of what everybody gets and what everybody gives up,” Shelton said Thursday.

“In a difference of opinion, it is not wise to give up the control to a third party, in this case a superior court judge. In court there would be a clear winner and a clear loser. The negotiated settlement is, and I’ve said it from the start, the best for an ongoing relationship,” he said.

Shelton had hammered out the basics of the agreement over the past two weeks, holding separate talks with each of the entrenched sides. City officials have not met with fair board members as a group since negotiations stalled earlier this year, City Administrator Walt Blackford said Thursday.

Shelton didn’t say what had changed this time to make an agreement possible. Fair officials consistently refused to grant an easement since Langley first asked for access across the fairgrounds more than a year ago.

“I can’t answer that. We negotiated in good faith. I don’t know what it was that made it work this time,” Shelton said.

Fair board chairman Dan Ollis said it wasn’t an easy decision for the stewards of fair. Fair supporters have opposed the road in the past because some have been worried it will lead to a loss of space in the campgrounds at the fair.

The fair board remains divided on the proposed road across the southern tip of the fairgrounds, which Langley says is needed to handle traffic from the Highlands and other development on the city’s southern end. Ollis said the fair board’s vote earlier this week on the road agreement was not unanimous.

“It was a heated debate,” he said.

Even so, most of the fair board members were ready to move on.

“I think the fair board wanted to get its focus back on the responsibilities of the fair,” he said.

While the city and county lawyers have yet to finalize an official agreement, Shelton said he was confident that the deal will survive the coming weeks. And he is also certain that the whole issue will be resolved quickly.

“I don’t see an elongated thing here. Certainly sometime in the next month,” Shelton said.

Shelton and Langley Mayor Neil Colburn will meet with county and city engineers next month to discuss engineering issues related to the proposed road, called Fairgrounds Road.

Colburn said Thursday no demands had popped up that were a surprise during the negotiations.

He said the fair board had concerns about signage, safety and the use of the fairgrounds. The city is ready to address those issues.

The fair board is also worried about the impact of the road on the bluff that runs along the edge of the fairgrounds and how resulting stormwater drainage would be handled.

“It’s a legitimate concern,” Colburn said.

“If there is a water drainage issue, we’re on the hook for it,” he added.

Langley initially offered the fair association approximately $138,000 in site improvements in exchange for the road easement — including changes to the stormwater drainage system, a sewer line extension along Langley Road, and the installation of a dump station for recreational vehicles – in an offer the city tendered in March 2006.

That deal dropped to $72,000 in improvements by June 2006, however.

And after the condemnation lawsuit was filed by the city last October, Langley offered just $12,075 for the roughly half acre of land needed for the Fairgrounds Road project.

It now appears that some of the improvements offered earlier by the city are back on the table.

Colburn said the city plans to extend the sewer lines up the new road to allow for a RV pump out station on the fair campgrounds.

Langley will also provide fencing, and Colburn said the city will stick to its promise about closing Fairgrounds Road during the annual four-day fair.

The fair board and the city have also agreed to work together on the fair’s zoning proposal. Fair officials want the zoning for the fairgrounds changed so the property can be used throughout the year for a broader variety of events.

Colburn said he was “cautiously confident” about the agreement.

“There are still a lot of Ts to be crossed and a lot of Is to be dotted. That’s why it (the agreement) is in principal,” Colburn said.

City officials say Fairgrounds Road is needed to lessen traffic impacts from the Highlands, the largest housing project in city history.

Construction of the 53-home Highlands began this week. Fair officials had refused to give the city a route across the public property, citing safety concerns and potential impacts to the fair campgrounds.

The news were well received in Langley on Wednesday.

Some audience members clapped after the announcement. But some were wary.

“While I am optimistic, it ain’t done till it’s done,” Councilman Robert Gilman warned.

The agreement was reason for joy at the county level.

Commissioner John Dean said he was pleased with the agreement.

“I think this is how it is supposed to be done - governments working together,” he said.

Dean said Shelton did a great job respecting the personalities that were emotionally vested in the dispute, especially on the fair side.

“I give credit to Mike for hanging in there,” Dean said.

Dean said he is confident that the agreement will hold up during its legal review.

“It would have to be something pretty dramatic,” he said. “We’re certainly committed to it.”

The agreement comes on the heels of a growing push by Langley residents for prompt action by county officials. Some have said commissioners erred by asking the county fair board for an OK on the easement, and city officials last month rejected commissioners’ call for a public vote on Fairgrounds Road.

Residents on the southern edge of Langley are worried that traffic from the Highlands development will hurt the walking route along Al Anderson Road, a popular pathway in pedestrian-friendly Langley. Some also feared noise and traffic congestion.

The “Walk to Save Langley” demonstration that had been planned for Saturday is still on.

Organizer Craig Cyr said the walk will be more of a celebration now than a demonstration. It will start at 2:15 p.m. on Sixth Street and Al Anderson Road leading to the fairgrounds.

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