Langley backs off harbor transfer

After two years of discussions, the city of Langley and the Port District of South Whidbey may no longer agree on which of them will own the Langley Boat Harbor and what will be done with it in the future.

The Langley City Council hosted the Port District of South Whidbey at a meeting Wednesday to discuss giving the Langley Boat Harbor to the port, but the meeting finished without an explicit decision of who will have ownership by January 2006. Also up for discussion was how much property would be given to the port, and whether harborside Phil Simon Park and nearby uplands would still be considered in the possible transfer.

A transfer of the boat harbor was scheduled to take placeby January 2006 from the city to the port, but port commissioners and city councilmembers agreed Wednesday they are not ready for a land transfer yet. It was the first meeting between council members and port commissioners regarding the transfer, which has been in discussion for the past two years.

In the meeting, Mayor Neil Colburn said that during a council retreat that afternoon, council members raised concerns over the transfer. Whether a transfer of the harbor property will be made by the end of the year he could not say.

“I really do think we need to pull back,” Colburn said during the council meeting. “We are pulling back.”

For over an hour and a half, port commissioners and city council members debated several items, including the positive benefits of either agency owning and operating the harbor. Councilmember Doug Allderdice said there are several benefits to the city owning the Langley Boat Harbor, including a sense of ownership because of it’s Langley location, a vested interest and the infrastructure — like the police and public works departments. He then asked what the port commissioners felt the port’s strengths and assets would benefit the boat harbor.

Rolf Seitle, president of the port commission and a Langley resident, said it is time for the port to step up to its responsibility as an agency designed to improve the economic development in their district. While the port does not have the same infrastructure as Langley to operate the harbor, that does not mean the port cannot create those same departments, he said.

While the port commissioners showed they have conflicting beliefs about who should have ownership of the harbor, they could agree it was the object of the port to fund projects like the harbor expansion to benefit their district. Commissioner Lynae Slinden said by working jointly with the city, the harbor improvements would also have a better chance at obtaining grants to fund the improvements.

“This is what we do,” Slinden said. “This is the time to at least get those things moving.”

She also recommended the upside land remain in the city’s ownership, while the port could receive the water-side part of the property. Doing so would benefit the city of Langley, while the port would hold most of the liability.

In a letter from the port to the city council in February, port commissioners wrote in the transfer it would include the harbor and its structures and appurtenances, the boat launch ramp and the tidelands in front of the old marina building and The Boatyard Inn — if they are given to the city of Langley. Port commissioners also requested the city will redevelop Phil Simon Park, but will co-apply on permits for the project.

In exchange, the port would agree to operate, maintain and improve the harbor; complete the design and construct the new boat ramp and float; fund the completion of Phil Simon Park and act as a co-applicant; and provide assistance to the city for reconstruction of the upland area.

The port said they will also be a permit co-applicant with the city and Langley Marina LLC on permits for the demolition of the old Marina structure and will receive mitigation credits and will make its best effort to design, implement and initiate a transient float and fueling facility in 2005.

Conflicting legal advice between the two agencies about who should hold ownership was also a concern, and both groups agreed further outside studies of a land transfer to ensure it would be legal before any land swap between the two government agencies.

The three port commissioners could not agree whether the port would improve and develop the harbor unless it the port assumes ownership. Commissioner Seitle said several times he did not want to execute such a large project without ownership control.

“This is the largest expenditure that the port has made in a long time,” he said. “We would like to be in control of our major projects.”

The decision seemed split between the commissioners though when Slinden and Gene Sears said they would be open to discussion and consideration of funding harbor improvements without ownership.

Sears said it is discouraging the Langley Boat Harbor has become an eyesore, with Langley spending more time and money on the downtown area. With the money the city generates from harbor usage, Sears said it appeared Langley did not put any of that money back into the harbor itself.

City councilmembers agreed the harbor had not received the type of attention it has needed over the past years. While not speaking for past administrations, councilmember Robert Gilman pointed out both agencies now have a common goal to improve the Langley Boat Harbor.

“I don’t hear anybody saying they don’t want a better marina,” Robert Gilman said. “The Langley marina is more than a Langley asset.”

Over the past two years, Seitle said, differences of opinion between the two agencies and the public had shifted. A Langley Boat Harbor Master Plan signed in 2004 might not be what’s best for the harbor.

“Somehow things changed and I don’t know why,” Seitle said.

He said the large and ambitious project seemed doomed because of the millions it would take to expand and create a larger harbor. Not only did it seem out of scale for the community, but resistance from the public has shown bigger is not necessarily better or what the public wants.

“That’s just not in the cards,” Seitle said.

Before the meeting ended, the port and the city agreed to sign a Joint Aquatic Resource Permits Application to improve the boat ramp at the Langley Boat Harbor, and Phil Simon Park. The two parties also agreed discussions about the harbor need to continue.

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