City buffer may go to landowners

A stretch of land on the south side of Whidbey Avenue in Oak Harbor has been an eyesore — with overgrown vegetation catching trash — for years.

The city-owned buffer is supposed to be maintained by adjacent homeowners, but they are separated from the area by fences in the rear of their yards. The residents have to walk all the way around the block to get to the area.

“The problem is out of sight, out of minds because we don’t see it from our side,” Lori Campbell, a representative for the homeowners’ association, told the City Council at a recent meeting.

A possible solution is for the city to basically give the land back to the 11 adjacent property owners and allow them to move their fences 20 feet toward the road, encompassing the property into their yards. The council members decided to pursue this option, though Councilman Eric Gerber objected to the aesthetics of having more fences up against the sidewalk.

Other possible problems are environmental concerns and the legality of the city giving away land.

The issue dates back to 1995, when developer Arthur Piculell submitted a preliminary plat for the Glenn Haven subdivision.

Councilman Paul Brewer, who was on the city council at the time, said a condition in the preliminary plat was that the developer was supposed to leave trees in the 20-foot buffer area along the street. He said all the “significant” trees were cut down during the clearing process.

“Only a few skinny, scrub trees were left behind,” he said, “and they were blown down in a wind storm.”

The city ordered Picullel to re-plant trees in the area. Brewer said the developer put in the small fir trees that are still growing there. He said he wasn’t satisfied with the plantings, but there was nothing he could do at the time.

Since then, the area has degenerated into ugliness. Campbell said the buffer collects trash because of the traffic on the street. Also, some of the residents are elderly, so they have trouble maintaining the buffer.

Steve Powers, development services director, told the council that one option would be to amend the plat to remove the buffer. The homeowners’ association would be responsible for costs associated with the amendment.

Other options, he said, include creating a series of deeds to release the buffer to individual homeowners or leaving the current buffer requirements in place.

Only Councilman Gerber was against the idea of changing the plats. He said it wouldn’t look good to have fences closer to the road. He suggested that the city use the Monroe work crew — a gang of inmates from the jail who work for cheap — to clean up and maintain the area.

“I value the strip of open space,” he said, “and wouldn’t like to drive down Whidbey Avenue some day and see a six-foot fence on both sides.”

Councilwoman Sue Karahalios said she was concerned that releasing the buffer would amount to the city giving a gift to the homeowners, which would be illegal.

City Attorney Phil Bleyhl said he considered the issue and would have to do further research before the buffer land was released.

Also, Powers explained that a plat amendment would need to be evaluated under the State Environmental Policy Act before it could be finalized.

Councilman Danny Paggao said the plat amendment would be “a good move” and makes practical sense.

“The homeowners are willing to take responsibility for the area,” he said.

In the end, the council voted to move forward with amending the plat to remove the buffer, which would allow the homeowners to move their fences back. Only Gerber voted against it. Councilman Richard Davis was absent.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at or 675-6611.

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