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City presses for approval of Langley Passage

LANGLEY — For better or for worse, the review of Langley Passage will continue next month.

For Edgecliff residents, the proposed 20-home subdivision on the east end of town represents the worst.

At a public hearing Wednesday, they pleaded with Langley’s Planning Advisory Board to reject the project. Residents are worried that development of the 8.52-acre property between Edgecliff Drive and Sandy Point Road will worsen drainage problems and jeopardize homes to the north that sit on the crumbling bluff overlooking Saratoga Passage.

City officials, however, said the new subdivision should be approved because it fits with Langley’s zoning and more than meets the requirements for residential development.

Larry Cort, Langley’s director of community planning, also said the housing project — on the only undeveloped lot east of Furman Avenue between Edgecliff Drive and Sandy Point Road — would mean the installation of a new looped water main that will reduce the length of dead-end water lines on Edgecliff and Sandy Point. That would mean more residents would still have water in the event of a break in one of the city’s main lines.

“There is no other feasible alternative at this time,” Cort said.

Water from a different source, though, has dogged the project since it was proposed by Whidbey Neighborhood Partners in April 2006.

Nearby homeowners have repeatedly raised concerns about water issues — Langley Passage sits at a bottleneck of a 426-acre drainage basin just south of Saratoga Passage — and are worried that development of the Langley Passage property will mean more landslides along the Saratoga Passage bluff.

The Langley Critical Area Alliance and the Whidbey Environmental Action Network filed challenges to the city’s environmental review of the Langley Passage project last May.

Although much of the land in the city is locked up under a long-standing moratorium that prevents new subdivisions, the Langley Passage project was already in the pipeline before the moratorium was started in June 2007.

Cort said at Wednesday’s hearing that the project fits with Langley’s development regulations as well as the comprehensive plan, the document that will guide growth in the Village by the Sea over the next two decades.

Cort said 48 percent of the property would be left as undeveloped open space, well above the city’s goal of a 25-percent set-aside.

“This more than meets that standard,” Cort said.

Cort also said each home lot would have its own rain garden to handle stormwater runoff. Rain gardens would also be constructed in the middle of the single, private road leading into the new neighborhood, and an infiltration system would also be installed under the roadway to handle stormwater run-off.

Gary Roth, owner of the Roth Co. of Freeland, is the managing partner for the housing project. His company specializes in building custom homes, and Roth has built green-style houses before on South Whidbey, including the new cottages at Sixth Street and Camano Avenue in Langley.

Proponents of the project told the audience of more than 80 at this week’s hearing that just eight trees would be cut down for the development of the land, and three trees would be planted for each one taken down.

Doug Kelly, an attorney for the developer, said two main issues remain: wetland impacts and drainage.

“No one seems to be concerned about the view. No one seems to be concerned about what it’s going to do to the neighborhood,” Kelly said.

The builder has agreed to reduce the amount of impervious surfaces — such as pavement and rooftops — that speed the flow of stormwater off-site. The homes to be built will be smaller than those originally proposed, he said.

“The applicant has listened to what has been said by the city and continued to refine their proposal,” Kelly said.

The only work that will occur in the wetland on the property, he said, was due to the city’s request for a looped water main. The concerns raised by the community have been met by the developer, he added.

“There will be rain gardens, there will be reductions in impervious surfaces, there will be retention of the tree canopy and there will be replanting throughout the site,” Kelly said.

The developer will also monitor what happens after the project is complete, he added.

Langley residents were not convinced.

Bruce Kortebein, representing the Langley Critical Area Alliance, said the skepticism starts with the amount of clearing that will be done on the property. But it doesn’t end there.

“I don’t feel confident, I don’t know that LCAA feels confident, that those eight trees are the only ones that are going to go,” he said.

“That’s a cookie-cutter development,” Kortebein said.

“They ran a road down the middle, put lots on each side of it, and said, ‘Here you are.’ It’s unimaginative,” he added.

Kortebein said the Langley Passage property sits at the downslope end of a 426-acre drainage basin, and water from upslope drains toward Saratoga Passage and destabilizes the bluff.

“We all bought our houses here knowing that this was a problem,” he said. “We’re not saying, ‘Gee whiz, the airport was already there.’

“We’re saying, we don’t want this to be exacerbated by the development across the street,” Kortebein said.

Robin Adams agreed.

“Development increases the risk of [slope] failure,” he said. “That water has to go somewhere.”

Adams added that the proposed monitoring program was incomplete, and would only run for three years.

He said the developer could explore reasonable alternatives, such as developing a smaller project with fewer homes, and planting more trees on the property.

The bluff along Edgecliff is considered “unstable” by the state Department of Ecology, and experts from the U.S. Geological Survey have said erosion at the bottom of the hill from the waters of Saratoga Passage is the “long-term driving factor” for the destabilization of the bluff, according to a city staff report on the development proposal.

Local geology, groundwater and human activities near the bluff were listed as contributing factors to the long history of landslides.

The developers, and their opponents, conducted multiple studies on geotechnical issues on the proposal in 2007 and 2008. The city sought an outside “peer review” of the analysis, and of the emerging “dueling geologic interpretations” that arose after opponents hired their own experts to review water issues.

After soil borings were conducted along with another study in late 2008, a subsequent review by the city’s hired hydrogeologist said the project would not have “undesirable impacts,” but noted there was “some scientific ambiguity” about how much water would seep out of the wetland and into the downstream drainage system.

Due to the length of the presentations, only three audience members had the chance to speak. The Planning Advisory Board agreed to extend the hearing to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 14.

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