Zoning change surprises car dealers

When changes were made to Oak Harbor’s zoning codes in hopes of prodding local car dealers to relocate to the north of town, car dealers say they weren’t told about the changes.

Indeed, dealers discovered the zoning change several years after the fact.

Mike Horrobin, owner of Oak Harbor Motors, said he was made aware of the new zoning after looking into constructing a steel building on his property, which sits at the corner of Pioneer Way and Highway 20.

The contractor told him of the changes, Horrobin said, telling him “they don’t want you to sell cars.”

Shocked and angry, Horrobin called the city. Indeed, the city did not have to send a written notice to Horrobin and other car dealers informing them of the changes.

That’s because the city did not make one change to a single piece of property, but effectively changed an entire zoning category.

C-3, a catchall commercial category, no longer includes car dealers, although it does include a wide variety of other uses.

Changes were made to the C-3 category between 1999 and 2000, as part of a major update to the city’s zoning codes.

Oak Harbor’s process, like that in other cities, involves public meetings and scheduled public hearings. But although the city’s zoning codes have the ability to shape the look and feel of a city, and impose new restrictions and other requirements, few attend such meetings beyond developers and others in the construction industry.

This was certainly the case for car dealers, who say they had no idea that the land their dealerships stood on had been reclassified to exclude their business.

Because they are existing businesses, however, the car dealers are effectively “grandfathered in” and can stay on their land as long as they like.

But they cannot make significant improvements to their property or expansions.

Since learning about the change in zoning, Horrobin has begun attending economic development meetings conducted by the Oak Harbor City Council. Such meetings are held at 6 p.m., the fourth Thursday of each month.

This month’s meeting is slated for May 27. All meetings are held at the Day Break Respite Care Center.

Horrobin, 54, has owned his car dealership since he was 29, raising two kids in Oak Harbor’s schools and enjoying the laid back quality of life.

He never dreamed that the city’s plans for economic development would mean banishing car dealers to the outskirts of town.

“I’d like to know, if you don’t want me here, what do you want?” he said.

Steve Powers, the city’s director of developmental services, said such questions are important and need to be asked by everyone in the community.

“The ‘comp plan’ is not the city’s plan with a capital ‘C,’” Powers said. “It’s the community’s plan. It really embodies the community’s vision. It should and does respond to the needs of the community.”

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