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Next moratorium extension in Langley may not be the last

LANGLEY — The Langley City Council will decide tonight if the ban on building in town will be extended for six months.

City officials have said the extension would give planners more time to work on subarea plans and other planning tools.

But the amount of work ahead is huge. Not even Planning Director Larry Cort can promise that this potential extension would be the last.

Still, he sounded optimistic.

“It’s not unreasonable to be done in six months,” he said. “Work is underway. We’re working on it every day.”

However, proposed changes to Langley’s growth plans and regulations must undergo a lengthy review process.

“Because they are all code amendments, the have to go through the Planning Advisory Board and city council,” Cort said.

Cort added another continuation is not unthinkable.

“It certainly is a possibility,” he said. “But it’s a serious step to take.”

The review of proposed changes could take several months. The Planning Advisory Board is still without a chairman after the former chairman was appointed to the city council, and new members are just getting up to speed.

Once changes are recommended by the Planning Advisory Board, the city council has usually a discussion and at least two public readings before adopting an amendment to the city’s growth plan. Public hearings are also necessary.

A new staff report by Cort also raises the question if the city will be able to do the work in the time frame now envisioned.

Cort wrote in his report that one of the reasons for the original moratorium enacted a year ago was to complete a number of changes resulting from the city’s new growth plan.

Some major changes were added at the last minute during last year’s comp plan rewrite, including a move to conduct subarea planning and wrap up work on zoning. Those pieces, though, could become time sponges as they undergo review by Langley’s Planning Advisory Board and council.

City officials have created a work plan that outlines a timeline for completion of the process.

Cort wrote in the staff report that the city was on track until about six months into the moratorium. Then, once the comp plan was adopted, things began to grind to a halt.

Cort said in the report that it was due to the extensive work related to subarea planning and other planning tools, including the idea for a transfer of development rights program and a move toward land-use budgeting.

Creating subarea plans can be complex and time-consuming work, as can the creation of transfer of development rights programs. Island County spent more than five years drafting a subarea plan for Freeland, and King and Snohomish counties spent years developing transfer of development rights programs.

Cort said Langley’s work grew from “a relatively narrow reconsideration of the subdivision ordinance and zoning districts” to a wide-ranging approach that would guide both residential development and the conservation of high-value open space.

Tonight’s meeting coincides with the one-year anniversary of the moratorium. On June 6, 2007, the city council unanimously approved an emergency moratorium to bar acceptance of applications to divide land for residential use. It was set for one year.

City officials have to decide if they want to continue the building ban or lift the moratorium.

At the May 21 council meeting, the three council members in attendance — Bob Waterman, Rene Neff and Robert Gilman — said they were interested in extending the moratorium for six months.

The city council had voted for the original moratorium in part because council members feared new construction in town could conflict with changes made in Langley’s long-range growth plan.

Langley residents get to weigh in on the discussion at 6:30 p.m. today during a public hearing on the subject.

Immediately after the hearing, the city council will consider the options and make a decision.

The length of the ban on building has already become an issue for some property owners.

A Langley couple is negotiating to get an exemption from the moratorium.

Dave and Cathy Schmidt sent a letter to the city April 7 to make their case.

The couple owns a 1.14-acre parcel on Third Street and they want to subdivide their land into three parcels, with their home on one lot. They asked the city to consider an exemption if the moratorium is continued, because they want to sell their home this year.

“We love this community, this island, and we want nothing more than to see it remain the beautiful place that it is,” the Schmidts wrote.

“We believe this project is in keeping with the responsible planning concepts that are necessary to accommodate the inevitable population growth. Our oversized lot is in an area within the city limits that should support a more dense housing capacity.”

Cort, however, advised in a recent staff report against an exemption.

In his most recent report, Cort said the council could consider an exemption for smaller subdivisions such as the one proposed for the Smiths’ property.

Others, however, have asked for the building ban to be broadened.

Langley resident Gail Fleming said the moratorium should be lifted subarea by subarea as the planning wraps up for the individual neighborhoods.

“Why have a moratorium if you shoot holes in it?” she asked. “Give us the chance to do the subarea planning.”

Fleming wrote a letter to the city on behalf of the Langley Critical Areas Alliance, a group formed by a number of Edgecliff neighbors who have raised concerns about bluff stability and want drainage improvements in their neighborhood.

She urged the city not to allow any extensions, especially not near critical areas such as wetlands or the bluffs.

“So much of our neighborhood is made up of critical and sensitive areas that need protection. The moratorium protects them until we do the subarea planning,” she told The Record this week.

If the city council decides to continue the moratorium, it will be continued until December. At that point the city has to either lift the ban or extend the moratorium again.

With every continuation, the risk of lawsuits may grow.

Traditionally, the longer a moratorium continues the higher the risk that a disgruntled resident or developer would sue the city.

Cort said it’s a top priority for the city to move fast.

“It’s the highest priority for the mayor and the council and, by extension, the staff,” Cort said. “It’s just not good planning to have a moratorium in place for longer than we have to.”

Michaela Marx Wheatley can be reached at 221-5300 or mmarxwheatley@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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