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Property owner impedes plan

Oak Harbor officials hope to use the city’s eminent domain powers to force a hold-out property owner to sell a waterfront easement so that the city can complete a trail that will extend from Scenic Heights to the city marina.

City Attorney Phil Bleyhl told the council Tuesday night that the city needs to obtain missing-link easements through three lots, located between Flintstone Park and City Beach Park. The problem is that at least one of the property owners refuses to negotiate.

Bleyhl explained that the city has the authority to condemn the piece of land, and assert eminent domain, in order to build a walkway for a public purpose. Of course, the city would have to pay fair market value for the easements.

The city council had to postpone making a decision on the matter until the Jan. 6 meeting because proper notice hadn’t been sent out.

Nevertheless, it seems likely that the trail will finally be completed. Steve Powers, city development director, said the building of a waterfront trail is supported by a long list of city plans dating back 10 years or more.

“The trail has the single most references of projects within our Comprehensive Plan,” he said. “I think that means something.”

When complete, the two-mile trail will basically run the length of the waterfront within the city limits. Powers said that the trail was designed by a specialized consultant who identified where it should run in order to minimize the impact on the environment.

The city was awarded a Conservation Future Grant from Island County for the purchase of a lot in the Scenic Heights neighborhood, which is at the southwestern end of the bay. Powers said the lot will serve as a trail head.

From there, the trail runs through the Freund Marsh, which is in the area behind Whidbey Island Bank. Volunteers from the Island County Trails Association helped build the gravel trail last summer. It connects to the blacktop walkway that runs along the water through City Beach Park. Once the trail in completed, it will continue from City Beach, through Flintstone Park and on the sidewalk along Pioneer way to the marina.

City officials once envisioned that the trail would run within Navy property at the Seaplane base all the way out to Maylor Point. While increased security after Sept. 11 has complicated things, Powers said he hopes something can be worked out someday.

There are a few gaps in the trail, but Powers said the biggest and top priority is the break that expands across six properties at the eastern end of City Beach park.

The city already has easements for two lots in front of the waterfront condos. Bleyhl said that the owner of one of the properties, local developer Bill Massey, has agreed to donate the easement to the city and actually construct the trail across his land.

That leaves three properties that the city needs easements though. In this case, the easements are a 20-foot wide lines of property.

Bleyhl explained that the city has authority to obtain the property through eminent domain. Under state law, he said the city can exercise eminent domain power if it is for the purpose of expanding a street, adding to a park or any other public use — all of which he said apply in this case.

But even after the gaps are filled, the trail building may not end. Powers said the long-range plan is to connect the waterfront trail to a county trail system. That would mean extending it from Scenic Heights, along Fort Nugent Road to Joseph Whidbey State Park.

According to Doug Shepherd of the Island County Trails Association, the trail is also part of the great Pacific Northwest Trail, which extends 1,200 miles from Montana to the Olympic Mountains and beyond.

Powers pointed out that trails bring in tourists and dollars to the city, but he said it’s really meant for the citizens.

“It demonstrates our willingness to make public investment in the public realm,” he said, “for the good of the community.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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