Where does the next Big Box go?

A so-called big box retailer interested in coming into Oak Harbor would have one major problem: There’s no place to go.

The Home Depot built on the city’s last sizeable chunk of land zoned C-5 highway corridor commercial, a designation intended for businesses that have a regional draw.

Members of the Oak Harbor City Council and the Comprehensive Plan Task Force have been debating over the last year whether or not the city has enough commercial property, and if not, how more can be created.

It turned out to be a controversial issue. The task force couldn’t come to a simple consensus, so they recommended that the city obtain broad-based public consultation before designating new commercial areas for large retailers.

A number of City Council members, however, said they wanted to move forward with zoning more land as commercial. At a council workshop, Council members Larry Eaton, Sheilah Crider and Richard Davis said they wanted to discuss designating commercial zones in the city’s urban growth area, which is just outside the city limits.

“We must move forward with this now,” Crider said. “We can’t wait another year.”

The city council is holding a public hearing on comp plan amendments at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 18 and the issue seems likely to be discussed.

This shortage of large-scale commercial property has added a wrinkle in the debate over the so-called Boyer property. Much of the land on the northern edge of the city, including the Boyer property, is zoned C-4 highway service commercial. A developer wants to build a large shopping pavilion on the property.

Some folks feel that it’s encroachment on the Navy base, while others say it’s one of the few properties where retail businesses can locate.

Yet there are a few prime pieces of empty commercial land left in the city. There’s a number of large parcels, zoned C-4, on the highway in the northern part of the city. In addition to the Boyer property, developer and hotelier Joel Douglas recently purchased a 13-acre piece just south of Westgate Homes and RV Center, according to accredited senior appraiser Gregor Strohm. Both the Boyer and Douglas properties fall under the accident potential zone in the Navy’s new map.

Also, Mayor Patty Cohen’s family owns about 10 acres of C-4 property next to Flowers Marine.

The C-4 zone allows a list of 14 uses — including car and boat sales, drive-in banks, restaurants and self-storage — as well as similar uses “as defined by the planning director.”

Strohm said one of the best commercial properties left in the city limits is about four acres on the highway, owned by the Freund family, between 7-Eleven and Whidbey Island Bank. Like many people have suggested, Strohm said it would be a great place for an Olive Garden or Red Lobster.

City Development Services Director Steve Powers said there are a few empty lots on Midway Boulevard, but none of them are large enough for a big-box store. He said such large retailers, like Wal-Mart or Target, need at least 10 to 15 acres.

Yet, he said there are a number of ways the city could provide for more commercial property. He said the council could designate a “greenfield” site outside of the city, in the UGA, as commercial.

Large retailers would probably want to be on the highway, but the proximity of the Navy base prevents development in the north end of the city. That means the commercial property would have to be found on the highway at the south edge of the city.

“There’s just not much commercial land available,” Strohm said. “It’s got to go south.”

Or, Powers said the zoning designation could be changed on property within the city. In fact, the comp plan task force is recommending that two Highway 20 properties currently zoned residential office be re-designated as C-3 community commercial.

A group of property owners requested that six parcels on the corner of Highway 20 and Whidbey Avenue — across from Jack in the Box — be designated as C-3 so that it can be redeveloped for “retail outlets, banks or national business franchises.”

Realtor George Churchill also wants a mobile home park across from Best Western to be turned into C-3 commercial property.

In addition, Powers said the city could encourage the development of unused or under-used commercial property.

The old Copeland Lumber site on Highway 20, for example, is a six-acre commercial property. Strohm, who writes a real estate column for the Whidbey News-Times, said a possible developer is in the process of buying the property.

There’s also the site of the old Market Place grocery store on Midway Boulevard. The 1950s building, he said, would be a great place for an upscale grocery store, like Trader Joe’s. But it may not be alluring to a lot of businesses or developers because it’s not on busy Highway 20.

On the other hand, the City Council and Comprehensive Plan Task Force have been looking into ways to encourage commercial business away from the beaten track of Highway 20. The council approved tourism consultant Roger Brooks’ plan for redevelopment of downtown and the waterfront. The task force recommends adopting the Brooks plan into the comp plan.

The task force recommends design overlay standards to guide development and improvements on both Pioneer Way and Midway Boulevard.

In addition, the task force recommends the council adopt a policy allowing small-scale commercial uses — such as coffee shops, dry cleaners or small markets — within residential neighborhoods, particularly new neighborhoods.

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