Oak Harbor zones out car dealers

When city officials made changes to Oak Harbor’s zoning codes in 2000 they aimed for a more livable, more attractive city.

The bottom line, they said, was economic development.

But it turns out that at least one of those changes has made a potentially serious dent in one of the most profitable businesses within the city: car dealerships.

Under the city’s zone changes, auto dealers are no longer welcome to expand their businesses along the busy section of Highway 20 that adjoins Pioneer Way, leading to Oak Harbor’s downtown.

Instead, car dealers who are clustered along this pricey stretch of highway, are being encouraged to move to the northern edge of the city.

As it stands, the dealers don’t have to move. State and federal law, as well as Oak Harbor’s own land-use codes, prevent zoning changes from uprooting existing businesses.

Or as Steve Powers, the city’s director of developmental services put it, “As long as you stay as you are, you can stay exactly where you are.”

But because of the zone changes car dealers will be prevented from making significant improvements or expansions to their business.

For city staffers, city councilors and members of the public who sat in on hearings that formed the city’s zoning codes four years ago, the idea was to move car dealerships out of the city’s gateway area.

“In an ideal world the waterfront area would be more for recreation and a civic center,” said Oak Harbor council member Richard Davis. “The other types of activities would take place further out on the highway. The dealerships happen to be in an area that ideally could be part of a downtown renovation, but right now isn’t.”

Unfortunately, no one notified the dealers, who say they only recently discovered the zoning changes that will prevent them from updating or significantly remodeling their businesses.

“I just totally disagree in what the city’s thinking is,” said Mike Horrobin, who owns Oak Harbor Motors. “They’ve alienated us towards them. We don’t feel like they want us to be there.”

Horrobin added: “We’ve supported the community in a lot of ways, through Little League and the schools. We feel we’ve been kicked in the teeth.”

Car dealerships, with their rows of shiny trucks and sedans, swaying balloons and glass-fronted main offices now predominate the section of highway that adjoins Pioneer Way.

Indeed, car lots sit on, or near, three out of four corners that form one of the city’s busiest intersections — the place where the highway curves away from the entrance to downtown.

The city upgraded one of these corners a few years ago by creating Beeksma Gateway Park, a place that features wooden benches, flowers, a row of flags and a large sign letting motorists know they are in Oak Harbor.

Two car dealerships sit across the intersection from this pocket park, which occupies the corner of Beeksma Drive and Highway 20.

Kitty corner to the park is a now defunct Chevron gas station that some in the city had coveted as a place to build another nicely landscaped area — in hopes of inducing more visitors to turn toward downtown instead of following the highway’s curve.

It’s this old service station, with its newly blacktopped parking lot, which Kevin Helwick, general manager of Whidbey Island Ford-Mercury, had planned to fill with cars.

Right now, the dealership is hard-pressed to display all its makes and models. Cars take up space at the dealership’s main office along the west edge of the highway and the dealership also displays used vehicles across the highway in a jam-packed parking lot.

Buying the vacant Chevron station seemed to be a common-sense business move. It would have allowed the dealership to easily expand its current parking lot.

That’s before Helwick and owner Ron Rennebohm discovered last year that the city had changed the zoning several years previously. As it stands, the car dealership is prevented from moving into the space, even after making a significant investment in the property.

“I can put trailers there, mobile homes, pretty much anything you want with the corner, except cars,” Helwick said.

Helwick has filed for a change in the city’s comprehensive plan, in hopes of adjusting one section of the city’s zoning map to a new designation. Right now, the property is listed as C-3, a catchall commercial category that includes everything from bakeries and plumbing shops, to supermarkets, taxidermists, veterinary clinics and novelty shops.

Car dealerships also used to be listed as a permitted use, until the city scratched auto dealers from the C-3 list — effectively banishing car sales from the city’s core.

So to put cars on the lot, Helwick is hoping the city will agree to change the zoning map, shifting the parcel to C-4. This zoning category allows for a narrower list of permitted businesses. But it includes car dealerships, boat sales and repair, real estate sales, furniture stores and restaurants, among other things.

City officials say they should be able to give Helwick an answer by September.

If the city does approve Helwick’s request, the parcel would be the only one zoned C-4, in an area that is otherwise entirely C-3. Making such a change is sometimes referred to by land-use watchdogs as “spot zoning” and is generally frowned upon.

In this case, however, permitting Helwick to place cars on the parcel makes sense because it would dovetail with the surrounding businesses — car dealerships.

But granting Helwick a zone change doesn’t end the larger issue of what place car dealerships have within the city limits. Nor does it answer for the city’s lack of communication with some of its biggest, most profitable, businesses.

Last year, for example, Whidbey Island Ford-Mercury contributed more than $200,000 in sales tax directly to the city.

“If you take away the dealers, the city will run out of money,” Helwick said.

Auto dealers say now that they are fully aware of the city’s plans to move them to the northern edge of town, they are letting city council members and city staffers know just what is at stake financially.

Because car dealers sell big-ticket automobiles that fetch as much as $50,000, they contribute huge amounts of sales tax that directly benefits the city.

At Oak Harbor Motors, for example, Horrobin said his business generates more than $1 million in sales each month. If he needed to move to expand his business, he likely wouldn’t stay in Oak Harbor, but would move to the Sharpes Corner area of Anacortes where dealerships have formed a growing auto row.

“They’re flirting with fire here,” he said of the city. “They have people that have a lot of money invested in these things.”

City staffers say they are talking with dealers about their concerns.

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