Planning commission sidelines proposed development

Island County Planning Commission dealt a blow Monday to a developer’s plans to build a large housing development outside of Oak Harbor.

Whether the blow is fatal remains to be seen.

After a lengthy public hearing Monday, members of the planning commission voted 5-1 to recommend that the three Island County commissioners exclude a request by Wrights Crossing LLC to place a proposed expansion of the urban growth area, or UGA, on the planning commission docket in the coming year.

The county commissioners, who’ve already expressed skepticism at the proposed UGA expansion, will consider the planning commission’s recommendation during an Oct. 4 work session.

Meanwhile, members of the Oak Harbor City Council will consider a proposed resolution at a special meeting Wednesday in support of “further review” of the developer’s request to expand the UGA.

The developer wants to build between 1,000-1,500 houses on farmland off of Monroe Landing Road south of Oak Harbor. The homes, according to the developer, would cost between $200,000 -$300,000, which some officials say will help solve the area’s affordable housing crunch.

The problem, however, is that the 250 acres must be inside Oak Harbor city limits to be developed at the necessary density, but the property isn’t within the UGA — the area designated for annexation. In order to expand the UGA, the proposal first has to be accepted onto the docket and then a buildable lands analysis has to show that there’s not enough vacant property within the city to support 20 years of growth.

As many people pointed out during the public hearing, the county completed a buildable lands analysis, or BLA, a year ago which shows the UGA expansion is not needed.

During public comment, 13 residents spoke against the project and seven spoke in favor — including two consultants hired to work on the project.

Carl Halsan, one of the consultants, said the developer is willing to hire a consulting firm to re-run the buildable lands analysis. He said a lack of affordable housing and home construction shows there’s not enough land that can be developed.

“We know the BLA says there is,” he said, “but that’s just not what’s happening on the ground.”

While many people expressed concerns about traffic impacts from such a large development, a traffic engineer hired by the developer explained that the studies on the issue are just beginning.

Paige Bates, of North Puget Sound Association of Realtors, said the organization hired a consultant who identified errors and omissions in the county’s buildable lands analysis.

Kathi Phillips, a real estate agent, emphasized the lack of affordable housing available on the island. She said there’s currently only 75 homes for sale on Whidbey in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.

Other speakers expressed a long list of concerns about the proposal. Several people argued that turning farmland into a dense housing development would be counter to the culture and the aesthetics of the island. They said it’s out of scale and counter to county policies.

Oak Harbor resident Fran Einterz said he takes exception to claims by development supporters that Whidbey doesn’t support farming anymore.

“I can assure you agriculture is not dead in Island County,” he said.

Steve Erickson, a spokesman for the environmental group Whidbey Environmental Action Network, spoke against the proposal that the developer complete a new BLA.

“They basically plan to hijack the county planning process,” he said.

“Don’t swallow it.”

The planning commission had three choices: recommending adding the proposal to the docket, excluding it or deferring it to a later date. Planning staff recommended either excluding or deferring the proposal because the year-old buildable lands analysis showed there’s more than enough capacity in the current UGA to support 20 years of growth. The staff emphasized that the state Growth Management Act places tight restrictions on UGA expansions.

Planning commission member Dean Enell made a motion to recommend exclusion. He said Island County just completed a “very good” BLA, and added that the Navy found fault with some of Wright Crossing’s population projections.

Enell said doing a new BLA would be a large burden on county staff, and there’s no reason to keep it alive.

“I don’t see the sense in kicking the can down the road,” he said.

Planning commission member Beth Munson cast the only voted against the recommendation, arguing that a larger project would allow for consistent and predictable growth.

“You’ve got to coordinate growth, and you can’t do it in a piecemeal way efficiently and economically,” she said.

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