Few supporters back building size change

Opposition to a proposed increase in the maximum size of buildings in Freeland and Clinton has county planners thinking twice about the idea.

If commissioners approve of the rule change, bigger buildings — up to 50,000 square feet — could be constructed in parts of Clinton and Freeland.

The county planning commission may make a recommendation on the new regulations at their meeting in late July, and has been gathering public comment on the idea.

The proposal would permit buildings three times the size of the largest building that’s now in Clinton, and nearly double the size of the largest existing building in Freeland.

Development rules currently prohibit buildings in Clinton from exceeding 14,000 square feet. Freeland buildings can’t be built larger than 27,000 square feet.

According to a review of comments that have been submitted on the new rules, few people support the change for bigger buildings in Clinton or Freeland, however.

Some people are worried bigger buildings in Clinton and Freeland will hurt the rural character of the area. And others have said they need more time to offer input on the proposal.

Residents’ concerns have county officials rethinking the idea.

“My inclination is that we back off,” said Phil Bakke, Island County planning director.

More research may be necessary before the planning commission makes its recommendations, he said.

If the county commissioners eventually approve the new size limits, the change would be limited to commercially-zoned areas in Freeland and Clinton.

Both areas fall under a Rural Area of Intense Development designation, or RAID.

RAIDs set strict regulations for urban growth within non-urban boundaries.

Both communities were labeled RAIDs several years ago to comply with the county’s comprehensive plan, the 20-year plan guiding growth in Island County.

Some residents say the restrictions now in place prevent buildings from being built too close together. Having large buildings stacked virtually on top of each other would disrupt the rural character of South Whidbey, they say.

Most residents support the rules now in place, according to emails and letters to the county reviewed by the Record.

“The current county code limitations on building size in Freeland and Clinton RAIDs are there for a reason,” Lou and Emyle Malzone of Freeland.

The RAID prevents South Whidbey from resembling communities along Highway 99, they said.

One resident said county officials need to find out from the public firsthand what the community wants.

The county officials should leave Coupeville and come to the communities, said Jack Lynch of Clinton.

Tate said requests from people, especially developers, led to the planning department asking for the review in February.

The review also gives the county an opportunity to write a clearer definition of building restrictions. That will mean less confusion in the future about what’s allowed, he said.

Rick Almberg of Oak Harbor RDA and Associates, a development company, and Jeff Lien, owner of Payless Foods, have pressed for the change in size limits for new buildings.

Since the 27,000-square-foot Payless Foods is the largest building in Freeland, Lien could not expand without a change in the rules.

Alberg’s company owns property next to Maple Ridge in Freeland, where it wants to build an assisted living facility. If the rule changes are passed, the company could clear a large hurdle to construction.

Beyond the rural character issue, some Island County residents have raised other concerns about the building size rules.

Locals want to block big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and other businesses from coming to the area. People have also said they’re worried about drainage and parking problems.

According to the proposed rule change, developers could build larger buildings for “essential services not fully being met.”

But people also want to know how “essential services” will be defined, according to comments submitted to the county.

If the planning commission decides to examine the size limitations further, Freeland may still someday allow 50,000-square-foot buildings.

Once the county approves Freeland’s subarea plan proposal, Freeland would become a non-municipal area of urban growth, or NMUGA.

The NMUGA designation would permit denser housing developments and possibly larger buildings.

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