Dealers sell council on zone change

It appears that dealers in Oak Harbor have sold their argument to City Council members.

Tuesday night, council members back-pedaled on a four-year-old zoning change that eliminated auto sales as a permitted use in the “C-3 community commercial” zoning district. That meant the three auto dealers in the district — Frontier Chevrolet, Oak Harbor Motors and Whidbey Island Ford — could not expand their facilities because they were nonconforming.

“We encourage you to support us,” Mike Horrobin, owner of Oak Harbor Motors, told the council, “so we can continue to support the city of Oak Harbor.”

The council unanimously (Councilman Eric Gerber was absent) voted to initiate a potential zoning code amendment, simply adding back auto sales as an allowed use within the zone. The action sends the matter to the planning commission, which will make a recommendation and return it to the council for a final decision at the August or September meeting.

As a result, it seems likely that the dealerships will remain downtown — and possibly grow bigger and better — for at least the near future.

Mayor Patty Cohen and the council members agreed that the reasoning was sound behind restricting auto sales along Highway 20 in the gateway area of the city, but that it had unintended consequences.

Councilman Richard Davis said he has nothing against car dealerships, but he would rather have “a resort hotel or something” in such a visible area, close to the water. But he said it will happen naturally, without being forced.

“Economics will drive that,” he said. “When they get a check (for the property) that’s too big to turn down, they’ll be gone.”

The idea behind moving the car dealerships to another part of town — notably the north end, near the Volkswagen dealership — started more than five years ago when the local group Harbor Pride, led by architect Terry LeDesky, brought in a Northwest Chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ “design assistance team” to meet the community, evaluate the needs and create a list of priority projects designed to revitalize the city. More than a dozen architects, including a nationally-recognized architect James Moore of Florida, held workshops with the community to create the “Blueprint for Change” document.

One of the most important long-term goals, agreed upon by architects and involved members of the community, was relocating car dealerships near the intersection of Highway and Pioneer Way to the edge of town and be replacing them with well-designed businesses. Moore called the area “one big ugly parking lot.”

The idea made its way into the city’s Comprehensive Plan. In 2000, the City Council approved a round of amendments to the zoning code, including the elimination of auto sales as a permitted use within the C-3 zone.

The problem was nobody notified the car dealerships of the change, though the city held the necessary public meetings.

The dealers didn’t find out about the change until Whidbey Island Ford purchased the former Chevron station to handle the overflow of cars. The general manager, Kevin Helwick, discovered he wasn’t allowed to expand.

So the dealers complained the council members, several of whom weren’t aware of the restriction. The dealers and council held a brief workshop together last month. Tuesday night, Helwick complained that a simple call to the dealers back in 2000 could have averted the controversy.

Cohen wrote in the “mayor’s comments” section of the agenda packet that the decision in 2000 to make the auto businesses nonconforming had “unintended consequences.”

She wrote there are three reasons why the issue should be revisited. First of all, there’s currently not enough demand for their commercial property to make selling it and relocating to another area financially feasible. That could change when, and if, the area becomes revitalized, with a new library and municipal dock.

Also, she pointed out that zoning restrictions prevents the dealerships from investing in their businesses, including nice landscaping.

Finally, Cohen wrote that the city should work with the dealerships — as a partner, not as a regulator — to possibly assist them or offer incentives for relocation.

“I support revisiting this decision,” she wrote,” to see if we as a community can find a solution that is at once respectful of current economic realities and visionary with respect to finding the best possible location for our downtown auto dealers.”

Yet so far, the only solution council members are exploring is simply changing the zoning code to allow car sales in C-3 zones. The council asked that the matter return to them for a final decision at the August or September meetings.

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