Proposed walkway plan incurs wrath

The Oak Harbor Planning Commission opted last week to hold off on making any recommendations regarding a permit needed to help the waterfront walkway project move forward.

The public hearing for the Shoreline Development Permit was continued from an earlier meeting. Decades in the planning phase, the proposed project would effectively connect Windjammer and Flintstone parks.

Designs for the undertaking meet all requirements of the Shoreline Master Program development guidelines passed down from the state Department of Ecology, said City Senior Planner Rob Voigt in November.

For the stretch of walkway bordering the Waterside Condominiums and other residences, easements were purchased and donated with specific stipulations attached including height and lighting regulations.

Fred Walrath, one of the property owners who sold an easement to the city, said Tuesday that the transaction was made under duress after an impasse could not be resolved.

“We did not want to sell,” he said. “We fought it for two-and-a-half years.”

Walrath explained to the Planning Commission that he was concerned with the design, construction and location of the proposed trail. The location, he said, is along the “ordinary high-water mark,” where a buildup of driftwood serves as a natural bulkhead.

“It is the only thing there that keeps us from flooding,” he said. Flooding has reportedly occurred on the property in extreme conditions.

Walrath, who has lived for 25 years on the property that has been in his family for 70 years, said the city first proposed the trail in the early 1980s, but ultimately took the residents’ advice and continued using the beach as the pedestrian thoroughfare. Then in 1985, the city approved construction of the condominiums, he said, which were built right on the spot where the walkway should have been sited.

“I think they used the wrong setback,” Walrath said. “It’s a major concern.” The condos are almost flush with the driftwood line.

Throughout the process, the property owner said the Planning Commission has been the only entity receptive to his concerns.

“Nobody else is listening,” he said.

City staff is considering handicapped-accessible ramping or stairs. The former option seemed to be off the table, Walrath said, adding a level of exclusivity to the design.

A former builder and carpenter, the incensed resident decried a project he felt would inevitably be destroyed by winter storms.

“This here looks like an accident waiting to happen,” he said.

Steve Powers, city Development Services director, said ramps are still a possibility and nothing has been finalized.

“At this point, we’re trying to convey the message that the options are still on the table,” he said.

Confusion among the Planning Commission members ensued as they attempted to determine exactly what they were voting on. Several commissioners were against the project entirely. Powers explained that the commission’s responsibility is to make a recommendation to the City Council solely on the basis of the project’s consistency with the Shoreline Master Program. The City Council’s role is broader than the narrowly-based design issues, as it will ultimately be asked to authorize funding and construction of the trail. Within the context of the larger discussion, Powers said specific design issues could arise.

Commissioner Keith Fakkema questioned how the project could have even progressed to its current status.

“I think there are a lot of questions we don’t have answers to,” he said. “It looks like a pie in the sky idea.”

Powers said the project was adopted into the city’s comprehensive plan as well as the parks and recreation plan.

“The concept has been part of community thinking and plans for decades,” he said.

After a motion to recommend approving the permit died, the Planning Commission considered recommending the City Council deny the proposal.

“For me there’s a lot of design issues,” said Commissioner Kristi Jensen, adding that other city projects in the pipeline might be more viable. “I just look at this as spreading ourselves too thin.”

Powers again clarified for the commission that it was delving into City Council territory. He asked if additional, specific information compiled by staff would help with the decision. The members formulated four areas of concern, all of which the city will research and later discuss with the commission.

Planners will focus on the ramp versus stairs issue, the general topic of flooding in the proposed area, the plausibility of a berm breach where the walkway would lie, and the logistics and aesthetics of the walkway connection.

Powers said the Planning Commission’s March meeting would likely be the soonest the information could be presented.

Commission Chair Mark Wiggins later suggested informally meeting with staff to review the quasi-judicical roles of the group versus legislative matters. Powers agreed that with the addition of new Commissioner Greg Wasinger, a “refresher” would be helpful.

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