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City waterfront trail foes lose

Oak Harbor’s waterfront trail has long come to a dead end of sorts between two condominiums overlooking Oak Harbor Bay.

That’s because, although there are public walkways running in front of the two condos, there is a natural tangle of driftwood, beach grass and sand that lies between them.

But filling this gap — which extends about 300 feet — has proved controversial.

Several property owners have argued against the city’s plans to extend the pathway in front of homes that have belonged to their families for generations. Those homes are set back from the beach and nestled between the two condos.

Oak Harbor City Council members took the heat Tuesday evening before voting unanimously to begin negotiations to purchase the property. Council member Paul Brewer was absent.

“A bold decision needs to be made,” said council member Larry Eaton. “For any I have made sad, I’m sorry for it. But it’s for the benefit of the entire community.”

Opponents of the city’s plan to extend the pathway packed the meeting room, as did a handful of supporters who also took their turn at the microphone.

One woman who lives in the condominiums brought a measuring stick with her, showing how close the existing path is to her neighbor’s front window. It measured about 4 feet.

By filling in the path’s missing gap, walkers and joggers are apt to become a common fixture in front of both condos, reducing privacy.

Other people traveled from as far away as Tigard, Ore., to talk about their family’s property, which has looked out on the beach for decades.

Many took the opportunity to criticize the city for not keeping its beaches and parks clean and said they worried that the problem would only get worse once this portion of the path is completed.

Meanwhile, supporters said the waterfront path could well be the city’s crown jewel.

Long-time city activist and chairwoman of the city’s Park Board Helen Chatfield-Weeks proclaimed, “This trail will be the biggest asset to the city.”

She brought up a similar trail in Port Angeles that had energized that city’s waterfront area.

Others described trails in Seattle, Spokane and even Missoula, Mont., that have helped each of those cities provide their residents a place to walk and enjoy the scenery.

Closer to home, Lucy Beck and her daughter, Isabella, 3, were out for a stroll near Oak Harbor’s waterfront on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. They stood on the pathway in front of the tan Harbor Park condominiums and wondered why the path ended abruptly.

“It just stops,” said Beck, who moved to Oak Harbor in January from San Diego. “You should be able to walk on down.”

Beck said she was happy to hear the City Council had decided to extend the path. Right now, walkers must make a detour near the blue Waterside condominiums, as they move between two city parks — from City Beach Park to Flintstone Park.

To reach either park, pedestrians use a sidewalk along Bayshore Drive, that takes them away from the water.

To open up this missing link of waterfront trail, the city needs to purchase easements on four pieces of property — or, in a worst-case scenario, condemn the parcels and assert eminent domain.

In either case, the city is required to pay fair market value for the easements.

Acquiring the necessary easements to complete this stretch of waterfront trail is a long-standing city goal. When the link is added, it will create a continuous two-mile walkway along Oak Harbor Bay, starting at the west edge of City Beach Park and ending at the Oak Harbor Marina.

The trail is viewed as an important part of the city’s Old Town redevelopment plans and can be found in several of the city’s key planning documents, beginning at least a decade earlier.

Not all of the property owners involved in the waterfront project are against it.

Oak Harbor developer and property owner Bill Massey has agreed to donate the easement on his parcel to the city and construct a trail across his land.

He pointed out that when the condominiums were built in the 1980s a condition was placed on the development that a public trail be placed in front of each.

Indeed, the walkways that front the two condominiums sit on city-owned land are part of a public easement.

Once the city proceeds with filling in this section of the trail, the focus will shift to another public pathway — one that wends its way through Freund Marsh, behind Whidbey Island Bank’s headquarters.

The city was awarded a $60,000 Conservation Futures Grant from Island County to purchase a lot in the Scenic Heights neighborhood that will serve as a trailhead.

It was the second grant the city received in two years to help with its trail system.

In 2003 the city acquired another Conservation Futures grant totaling $55,000 to purchase easements on its waterfront trail. That money will be used to help acquire easements from property owners.

In the meantime, volunteers have helped develop the marsh trail, and recently the city added crushed gravel to the surface, planted trees and began building a bridge across a drainage channel.

Eventually, both the marsh trail and the city’s waterfront trail will link together and, city staffers say, will hook into an even larger county trail system along Fort Nugent Road to Joseph Whidbey State Park.

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