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Design review sought

A group of Whidbey Island activists with their eyes on planning and land-use issues want Island County to go one step further in how it decides who builds commercial buildings where, and how those buildings look.

In January, the Citizens Smart Growth Coalition paid $800 to have the county's Planning Department and Planning Commission consider forming a design review board. Using the county's annual comprehensive plan review as their opportunity to the introduce the idea, the coalition asks in its proposed amendment that the county take design more seriously than it does now.

Speaking about the proposal, coalition president Tom Fisher said this week that his organization wants to emphasize aesthetics along the Highway 20 and Highway 525 corridor. He said a number of recent commercial projects, including the Clinton Les Schwab Tires store and Freeland's A-OK mini-storage units should have gone through a more rigorous review. What gets built along the highway, Fisher said, is how visitors and residents picture the entire area.

"We tend to identify our island with what the highway shows us," he said Monday.

Design review is a somewhat common practice in cities across the state. In most cases, a board of volunteers looks over proposed development projects and takes public comment about their appearance before a building permit is granted. The coalition proposal is limited in scope, addressing only commercial development on the highway in Clinton, Bayview, Freeland and Greenbank.

But design review is a practice that is almost nonexistent in counties, said Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke this week. Currently waiting for Fisher's coalition to submit a revised form of its proposal, Bakke said he does not have a lot of hope for the idea this year, since Island County is trying to cut about $2 million out of the coming year's budget. Adding a design review board would add costs he said the county cannot afford.

"In times of severe cuts, it's hard to be positive about a program that would require more resources," he said.

Bakke said he knows the proposal comes out of frustration on the coalition's part over some recent development along the highway. He said that frustration should abate in the future as planners in his department become more adept at using recently adopted design rules in the comprehensive plan. Through even last year, those rules were not being used in every case because planners did not know them that well.

"Those provisions are still pretty new," he said.

Fisher said he doesn't believe the cost of forming a design review board would be high. Even if it does cost something, he said it is something that is "critically important" and a step Island County needs to take if it is to retain its character.

"It will cost some money, most likely, but it's worth it," he said.

In the long run, design review could save the county money in cases where citizens pursue legal action to block objectionable development. Those cases cost Island County when it has to defend its development regulations.

The coalition proposal will get a hearing in front of the county's nine-member planning commission on May 28 in Coupeville. If it wins approval there, it will be voted upon by the Island County Board of Commissioners in October or November.

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