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County tosses big building proposal

Island County dropped a proposal to increase the maximum building size in Clinton and Freeland Tuesday.

County Planning Director Phil Bakke said that the proposal, which would alter the county’s Comprehensive Plan to allow buildings up to 50,000 square feet, generated a lot of negative feedback from citizens. He said the county will continue to work with residents to develop a plan that is suitable to them.

“I think it is a wise decision to drop this at this time,” Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said. “All of the messages I received were negative — I didn’t receive any positive ones.”

John Coleman, an assistant planner with the county, said that the county was merely testing the waters with the proposal.

“This code change caught most people off guard,” Shelton said. “I think we need to do a bit more community outreach before we propose this kind of dramatic change to code.”

A couple of people had approached the county about constructing buildings that exceed current limitations.

Currently, buildings can not exceed 24,000 square feet in Freeland and 14,000 in Clinton. Those are the sizes of the largest buildings that existed when the ordinance was written in 1998.

Payless Foods in Freeland and a person interested in building an adult-care home approached the county about a potential change in the Comprehensive Plan.

“The county was looking at a way to to address some questions,” Coleman said. “We wanted to look at whether or not larger buildings are appropriate for Clinton or Freeland.”

Shelton said that the issue came forward a bit too rapidly. After an initial outpouring of negative sentiment, Bakke approached Shelton and asked if the issue should be dropped.

“I think that certainly this issue was moved forward by the planning department without a lot of discussion by the Board of County Commissioners if this was the direction we wanted to move,” Shelton said. “When Phil (Bakke) asked me if I wanted to drop the issue, I said ‘yes.’ I certainly didn’t pressure the planning department.”

Bakke did not return phone calls seeking further comment.

One of the opponents to the increase was Steve Shapiro, who worked with the Freeland Sub-Area Planning Committee. That was a citizen’s group that sought to guide the future of the area.

“I don’t think it should have been introduced,” Shapiro said. “I’m personally opposed to buildings of that size and will speak out against them in the future.”

Shapiro and Shelton both said that the fear of an invasion of “big-box” stores fueled the negative response.

“It doesn’t seem to me or most of the other people that buildings of that size are necessary,” Shapiro said.

Shelton questioned the need for the proposal in the Clinton area, as well. He said that Freeland has established itself as an area of growth, both currently and in the future.

“It made zero sense to me to increase the building size in Clinton,” Shelton said. “Freeland is, without a doubt, becoming the commercial center of South Whidbey — Clinton is not.”

Coleman said that even if the increase had gone through, it would have included design standards to limit the impacts a larger building would have on the surrounding areas.

Those standards would have included guidelines for the building’s appearance to keep it in context with other buildings.

“If we moved to the larger buildings, we would allow them to be more in tune with the character,” Coleman said.

For now, the issue is dropped, Shelton said. A solution to the problem of a potential lack of some vital services still needs to be found, he said.

The proposal for a large assisted-living facility is something that should be considered, he said.

“Certainly there probably needs to be something in the code in order to accommodate certain uses,” Shelton said. “One of the things that comes to mind is senior assisted living. Assisted living on South Whidbey is something that we desperately need.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Eric Berto at eberto@whidbeynewstimes.com

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