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Planning board hones in on Langley's historic building demolition rules

Rich Frishman speaks about the importance of keeping the Dog House Tavern.  - Ben Watanabe/ The Record
Rich Frishman speaks about the importance of keeping the Dog House Tavern.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe/ The Record

Be more specific.

That’s what members of Langley’s Planning Advisory Board said to the city’s planning director at a meeting Wednesday regarding rules and regulations for the demolition of historic buildings.

As the city’s draft standards exist now, buildings that are at least 50 years old would qualify as historic structures. But the exceptions and the steps a building owner would have to go through need refining, according to the four board members at the meeting.

The Langley City Council approved an emergency six-month ban on demolition of historic buildings after the owners of the Dog House Tavern, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, asked the city about the demolition process.

Now in the second month of the moratorium, the city is scrambling to come up with rules and regulations to keep a cornerstone building in its downtown core. Members of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and the South Whidbey Historical Society were also at the meeting to speak on the historic component of the standards. Bob Waterman, one of the commission members and a member of the South Whidbey Historic Society, said it was important to keep the Dog House standing.

“People who come to visit the town look in and ask, ‘When is it gonna open? Why isn’t it open?’ … It’s a very important part of Langley’s history,” he said.

The board also had concerns about what an owner would need to provide as evidence that renovating or restoring a historic structure was an “economic hardship.” As the language existed, board member Gail Fleming said it was “wishy-washy.”

“There’s certainly some gray areas in that,” said Jeff Arango, Langley’s director of Community Planning.

He cited that a simple equation of what a typical rent would bring in versus cost of restoration or renovation could be a guideline, though the issue was not a matter of new construction or renovation being cheaper. The burden of proof would be on the property owners, not the city.

Already written into this round of the draft was language to combat someone letting a historic building fall into disrepair. One of the provisions for allowing demolition was if a building was found to have structural integrity issues. Under the proposed new code, structures listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places or the Washington Heritage Register must be maintained. Langley’s building official is also granted authority to inspect historic properties periodically “to determine compliance.” Arango said that if a building was neglected, the city could charge fees or, in extreme cases, claim eminent domain.

Langley’s planning office will work with the South Whidbey Historical Society to create a list of buildings which will be covered under the definition of historic structure.

Lorie McNeill, a First Street property owner, asked about the cost of the city-funded survey and how much time would be added to the demolition permit process if the new rules are approved.

“Building is expensive on Whidbey Island, on top of added time,” she said. “At what point are we pricing ourselves out of business?”

A rough estimate, Arango said, of the survey would be $2,000. He also said the demolition permit process could take two months, depending on how prepared the owner is to prove an historic building meets the city’s new criteria.

Trying to preserve the look and character of First Street, the Planning Advisory Board looked at building dimension rules. Should someone make it through the demolition checklist, they would also be asked to provide building plans which would have to adhere to new requirements that would be in line with the existing appearance. The idea, Arango said, is to keep someone from buying several properties and buildings, demolishing them and erecting one massive structure.

One way the city hopes to determine its look is with setbacks of upper levels. Existing code requires a setback of upper levels along the north side of the road down the bluff to Seawall Park, but lacks a set depth. Arango recommended a minimum of 5 feet per floor, a measurement he said was arbitrary but allowed for a better look than cutting 10 feet into the building’s dimensions. He also said that a tradeoff could be made by setting back the ground floor farther from the seawall and combining setbacks.

The purpose of requiring the setbacks and a building width of 30 feet is to keep a building from encroaching on city property, as in the case of the Dog House Tavern’s stairs and deck, which is currently allowed by the city. Setbacks also will vary the waterside face of the buildings to keep it from looking like one sheer wall.

 

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