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Langley ends subdivision moratorium

The city’s nearly three-year moratorium on subdivisions was terminated Monday night.

The five-member Langley City Council voted unanimously not to extend the ban again when it expires today.

“The moratorium has done its work,” Councilman Robert Gilman said. “The time has come to lift it and move forward.”

Nearly 40 people packed city hall to weigh in on the moratorium, which was adopted in 2007 to allow an update of the city’s subdivision regulations. The ban had been extended three times.

About half those attending Monday’s hearing said the moratorium had gone on long enough, while others cautioned that its removal would provide a window for development under the city’s existing subdivision regulations, which are less stringent than the revisions being proposed.

“This scares the bejeebies out of me,” said Marianne Edain, a founder of the local watchdog group, the Whidbey Environmental Action Network. She urged the council to either extend the moratorium again, or adopt interim zoning regulations as a safeguard until the new regulations are put into place.

“At least hold that door closed so nothing terrible gets in,” Edain said.

But Fred Fossek, whose family owns one of the largest areas of undeveloped property in the area covered by the moratorium, said the existing codes have safeguards of their own.

“The old ordinance is not some evil device,” Fossek said. “It’s a good tool and shouldn’t be something to be afraid of.”

Developer Craig Carty agreed.

“End the moratorium and go back to the old codes,” Carty said. “They work.”

The ban against subdividing land was first approved in June 2007 for one year, then extended in June 2008, in December 2008 and again in December 2009.

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.

The moratorium has been intertwined with a revision of the city’s subdivision regulations to reflect Langley’s updated comprehensive plan, which will guide the city’s growth through the next two decades.

City officials had hoped the new regulations would be in place before the moratorium was lifted.

Ironically, the proposed revisions to the subdivision regulations arrived in the council’s lap only three weeks ago, after 22 months of deliberation and public hearings conducted by the city’s Planning Advisory Board.

Gilman said the council still needs to review and probably tweak the proposed new rules, a process that will take more time.

Gilman, who has worked closely with the PAB in developing new subdivision rules, said the process may take months instead of weeks, “but I don’t see it taking six months, and I don’t see it taking a year. That’s my guesstimate.”

Several in attendance said ending the moratorium would hasten the revision process, because the council wouldn’t have the ban as protection.

“As a taxpayer, there’s been a real lack of urgency here,” resident Robin Adams scolded the council. “You have to get the zoning code aligned with the comp plan. It’s time to get it done and dusted.”

Larry Cort, city planning director, said that even if a proposed development project were submitted to the city this week, it would take a month at least to review it for completeness.

Cort said that rarely are initial applications complete, “and it would probably take much longer.”

“That’s the kind of window we’re talking about,” Cort said.

Projects do not become vested, or “grandfathered,” under existing rules until city officials determine a complete application has been submitted.

In the case of the recent Langley Passage project, for example, that development application was submitted in April 2006 but not deemed compete until January 2007 by the city.

While city planners made no recommendation about whether to extend or terminate the moratorium, they did pass along an opinion from the city’s attorneys saying that the ban shouldn’t be extended unless there is “a strong justification for doing so.”

Kathleen Waters, a Wharf Street property owner, said it was time for some “fresh faces” in the push to get the new subdivision regulations done.

“There’s a tremendous amount of expertise in this community,” Waters said. “It’s time to call on them.”

Most at the hearing doubted that, given current economic conditions, there would be even one large development project that would be submitted for approval in the interim, let alone a flood of projects.

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