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Langley extends subdivision moratorium

The city’s moratorium on subdivisions in three neighborhoods was extended for another four months by the Langley City Council at a marathon meeting Monday night.

The action was requested by city planners so they could wrap up new development regulations they’ve been working on for the past four years.

The extension was granted by the council despite a bomb dropped by Councilman Robert Gilman, who proposed an 11th-hour reworking of key elements of the burgeoning subdivision rules.

The moratorium, which has been in effect for 2½ years, already has been extended three times.

The ban against subdividing land was first approved in June 2007 for one year, then extended in June 2008 and again in December 2008.

It prohibits new subdivisions in the city’s RS-7,200 and RS-15,000 zoning districts, the areas of town where medium- and low-density housing development is allowed. Mainly affected are properties in the areas of Al Anderson Avenue, Edgecliff and Saratoga Road.

A key provision of the draft proposal by the city’s Planning Advisory Board and the planning department is that the concept of “overlays” be used to fine-tune development of property in individual zones.

Planning Director Larry Cort said the concept already has worked well in the Wharf Street waterfront area and for modified uses at the Island County Fairgrounds.

But Gilman, launching a 2½-hour discussion of what appeared to come as a surprise to the other council members, said that the overlay concept, rather than being used only in specific cases, should be made the zoning foundation from the outset.

He said by adopting a “neighborhood” approach to each residential zone, the city could be certain that questions of natural attributes, an area’s existing built character and its social aspects would all be addressed.

Gilman said his suggestion would be easier to understand, and easier to administer, and would be certain to involve residents of a neighborhood in all aspects of the process.

“We can’t solve problems using the same kind of language that created them,” Gilman said. “This would be a placeholder while we work toward what comes next.”

Cort, however, said the lengthy revision of the city’s development regulations has followed guidelines set out in the city’s updated comprehensive plan.

He said planners started with the big picture, and have been working their way down to the individual zoning level, at which point extensive public involvement would occur.

“This is already something completely new, with a lot of language you may not have heard before,” Cort said.

He said the next phase of planning will address neighborhood issues.

That would probably cover all of Gilman’s concerns.

“Then why not put the concept in at the outset?” Gilman asked.

Langley architect and University of Washington professor Ron Kasprisin, who did extensive work on the Wharf Street overlay, cautioned that Langley is not like Seattle or Bellingham, two cities which use the neighborhood planning concept.

He said neighborhoods are organic entities that constantly evolve, and that Langley doesn’t have the resources or the planning staff to handle minute layers of development.

Kasprisin agreed with Cort that the current philosophy of putting in place subdivision rules that work citywide, then fine-tuning that structure with overlays, would accomplish most of what Gilman desires.

“The two approaches are compatible, and in the end they’ll mesh,” he said.

Other city council members expressed concern that years of work by the volunteer Planning Advisory Board might go by the wayside if the council changes direction at this late date.

“This should have been brought up late last year,” Councilman Bob Waterman said.

Gilman, who has been the council representative in the extended planning effort, said he had been busy with other aspects of the process and had only recently encountered draft language he questions.

“I’ll take the responsibility for being in denial,” Gilman said.

But he added that he was only talking about a small segment of the code, and stressed the work already done wouldn’t be wasted.

In the end, the council directed Gilman to work closely with planners to determine if an agreement on language can be reached within the next four months that satisfies everyone.

“It can be done,” Cort said. “But I don’t know if it can be done in four months.”

“I have a pretty clear idea of how to do it,” Gilman said to Cort. “Can you use my help?”

“I’m going to need it,” Cort responded.

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