Langley City Council approves fairgrounds zoning change

The Port of South Whidbey’s proposal to amend the zoning at the Fairgrounds has moved forward.

The Port of South Whidbey’s proposal to amend the zoning at the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds to allow a workforce housing project has overcome its first barrier.

During a meeting this week, the Langley City Council unanimously decided to pursue the next steps in the zoning change with the caveat that it could change course at any time. The council also expressed interest in the use of other public lands, such as the South Whidbey School District property, for possible housing.

The council’s action went against the recommendation of the city’s citizen-led Planning Advisory Board, which in March decided against recommending code amendments that would permit multi-family housing within the Fairgrounds Overlay zone.

Council chambers were packed to the gills Monday night as members of the public flooded into the room to offer their input on the issue, which has become increasingly controversial in the past year. The port, which owns the fairgrounds, has a plan to build new concession stands on the midway and place apartments above them as a way to alleviate the housing crisis in Langley and on South Whidbey. The proposed development concept that the port has presented to the community, however, is not part of this zoning amendment application.

Those who oppose the project — and by default, the zoning change — have shared concerns about negative impacts to the Whidbey Island Fair and all of its beloved traditions, including the size of the midway. Port officials have pointed out that the food booths will need to move anyway, since they must be repaired and are currently located on school district property. The port has received $150,000 from Island County for the feasibility phase of the project.

Right off the bat, Councilmember Chris Carlson expressed his support for the zoning change as a way to provide housing for workers. Enjoying the fair every summer with his two little girls has been a hallmark of his Whidbey experience, Carlson said, but it is also Langley’s responsibility to ensure that the community thrives the other 361 days of the year when the fair isn’t happening.

“Langley’s service sector is slowly dying for lack of workers,” he said. “Our community continues to get older, more affluent and less diverse. We’re losing our ability to be a self-sustaining, self-sufficient community.”

There will be a number of steps before the final code change is adopted. Langley Director of Community Planning Meredith Penny assured council members that they would have plenty of opportunities to make changes or reverse course.

Public comment on the topic lasted nearly an hour. Many people with longstanding ties to the fair insisted the fairgrounds were not the right place to build housing and suggested it be put elsewhere. One commenter wondered if the fields behind the South Whidbey Community Center, which are owned by the school district, might make a more suitable place for housing.

“Housing does not honor the original intent for this land or doesn’t respect and appreciate all the past people that have built the fair to what it is today,” said Albert Gabelein, a former superintendent of the fair.

Some worried about the type of people moving into the apartments, from child predators to Boeing employees who don’t work in the community. Workforce housing is targeted at households with incomes between 80 and 120% of area median income, which varies depending on the number of people within a household. In Island County, a single person in a household making 80% of area median income is $52,850, but for two people, it’s $60,400.

Others echoed Carlson’s comments and voiced a dire need for housing. Nicole Whittington-Johnson, the executive director for the Langley Chamber of Commerce, said the vast majority of business members support the zoning change. The biggest barrier to keeping employees remains affordable housing.

Dominic Anania, who owns an excavation and demolition company, shared his perspective as a South Whidbey business owner who has lost five employees within the last year that couldn’t find housing at an affordable rate.

Some pointed out that the fairgrounds’ proximity to city sewer makes it one of the few locations for affordable development in the Village by the Sea.

Angi Mozer, the port’s executive director, reminded everyone that the project is still in its early stages, and concept drawings that have been presented are not final.

Councilmember Gail Fleming noted that there were good points made on both sides of the argument. She outlined some stipulations, which included the addition of only one story above an existing building, no parking on the fairgrounds for housing and the clear distinction that housing is a secondary use of the area’s zoning.

Councilmember Craig Cyr brought a baseball analogy to the discussion, with the fairgrounds zoning change located at home plate. If the council decided to throw a third strike, the decision-making would end that night. But if it issued an intentional walk, then the proposal will have crossed the first of many hurdles to come, any of which could stop the project.

Cyr added that the current topic reminded him of a similar time 15 years ago, when multiple government entities tangled over the resurfacing of Fairgrounds Road. Opponents of that project worried about poor drainage, less parking and restriction of big trucks, which did not come to pass. The project originated as a way of connecting the Highlands neighborhood of Langley.

“And here we sit today considering another housing project that will definitely impact the fair and the fairgrounds, there’s no doubt, but I trust will not kill the fair,” he said. “In fact, I think it will enhance usage of the fairgrounds 360 additional days a year.”

Carlson acknowledged that the height and midway encroachment concerns are valid and need to be addressed.

“We’re not saying housing is going to take up the midway. We’re not saying that it’s going to be a six-story structure,” he said. “We’re too early in the process. So let’s continue the process and we’re going to reach a point where it either happens or it doesn’t happen but tonight’s not that night.”

In the end, the council decided to authorize city staff to draft an amendment to the fairgrounds overlay that makes multifamily housing an allowed use in the zone. The motion passed in a 4-0 vote. Councilmember Rhonda Salerno was absent from the meeting.

In addition, the council voted unanimously to take a closer look at other public lands within a certain zone for the purpose of housing as part of the city’s comprehensive planning process.