Planning board decides against DRBs

The idea of establishing county-wide design review boards to regulate commercial development in Island County hit a wall on Tuesday, as the Planning Commission voted to deny a new planning ordinance proposed by a coalition of concerned citizens.

Yet, in denying the immediate need for citizen-led DRBs, the Planning Commission unanimously agreed that there was a need for more specific development guidelines for incoming commercial developments, and that citizens concerned with preserving the rural and historic appeal of Whidbey Island should get to work on amending the county’s existing Comprehensive Plan.

For now, the Planning Commission’s vote will be passed to the Board of Island County Commissioners as a recommendation to deny the ordinance as currently proposed.

The Island County Smart Growth Coalition, led by its president, Tom Fisher of Clinton, first presented the ordinance to the Planning Commission on May 28. As such, the ordinance would have created two distinct DRBs coinciding with Commissioner Districts One (South Whidbey) and Three (north of Oak Harbor and Camano Island). In the proposal, it would be the job of DRBs to review site plans for commercial structures on the island prior to those businesses being vested.

Board objectives in pre-screening commercial plans, as outlined in the ordinance, would have included making sure businesses did not have a “deleterious effect” on neighborhoods and environmental surroundings, that they preserve rural and historic character and that tree and soil removal is kept to a minimum.

Fisher said that the coalition’s goal is to avoid structures antithetical to the appeal of Whidbey Island, such as the “hovercraft” look of the controversial new Shell gas station at Fish Road and Highway 525 in Freeland.

County Planning Director Phil Bakke, however, said the existing Comp Plan, which delineates all zoning and development guidelines throughout the county, is sufficient to address the concerns of the coalition. Also, Bakke indicated that in light of the county’s current budget difficulties, and with 11 percent cuts looming for 2003, the creation of DRBs would place an undue burden on his already financial strapped department.

Members of the Planning Commission generally agreed with Bakke’s assessment, with many citing extreme budget setbacks as a disincentive to adding another layer of bureaucracy to Island County government.

“I cannot see how this would not cost more money and staff time,” board member John Edison said. He said he couldn’t vote for the proposed ordinance unless more revenue was found to support it.

“I don’t like it,” said board member Henry Powers. “We don’t have any money.” He added that, “from a business point of view, I think the hurdles are enough as it is.”

Board member Lyn Moses expressed concern about who, if anyone, would keep design review boards in check. “I find it another level of central government,” she said of DRBs. “Who is going to control their excesses?”

Not everyone was as critical of the coalition’s ideas. Board member George Crampton, while voting against DRBs in particular, suggested that coalition members look into forming citizen groups in order to help revise existing development codes.

Chairman David Osterberg praised the hard work and “earnestness” of the Smart Growth Coalition, and suggested to Fisher that the group begin working on setting up specific development standards that would appeal to the public.

“The problem is coming up with standards that are sufficiently broad to have wide appeal,” Osterberg said.

Despite the negative vote, Fisher thanked the Planning Commission for their deliberations on the proposed ordinance. He said he realized the ordinance as written was “amorphous,” and that there was still work to be done.

“We’re not professional planners by any means,” Fisher said of the coalition. “But we knew we had to get this before you.”

Fisher said he appreciated the suggestions that the coalition focus on amending current development guidelines, and said he will seek grant money in order to bring in professionals to help draw up new standards.

“The crux of the whole matter is coming up with a set of design guidelines that reflect the community,” Fisher said.

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