EDITORIAL: Car dealers win sympathy

Leave it to the city of Oak Harbor to produce public sympathy for car dealers who usually end up near the bottom of popularity polls, one step above door-to-door patent medicine salesmen and journalists.

Despite this popularity gap, many Oak Harbor residents are rightly feeling sorry for our downtown car dealers, who have, without their knowledge, been zoned out of making any major improvements to their businesses. No new buildings, and no expanding into adjoining property, for example.

This city zoning action was taken in 2000, based on the desire to clear out the car dealers from downtown and, hopefully, move them to the north end of town. This makes sense from a city planning point of view — assuming more attractive businesses could be lured to the area — but someone forgot to tell the car dealers that their livelihood was being threatened. They didn’t discover the zoning change until this year, when one dealer applied to construct a building on his lot, and another purchased an adjoining piece of land in order to enlarge his display space. Both applications violated the new zoning rules.

What was done in 2000 is now catching up with city officials. The car dealers, now that they know about it, are understandably outraged, and point to the large amount of sales tax dollars they produce for the city each year. Not to mention property taxes and the employment opportunities they provide to Oak Harbor area residents. If they’re forced to move, they can just as easily move out of the city into Island County, or even Skagit County.

Ironically, this snafu comes at a time when the city has embarked upon a new effort to promote business development in town.

The city council should apologize to the car dealers for leaving them in the dark on a matter of vital interest to them, and then rescind the zoning change that stopped the dealers from improving their businesses.

Once that is done, city officials should start thinking about better ways to coax the car dealers out of the downtown area. This will take consulting with the car dealers, exploring other possible sites together, and perhaps coming up with a package of zoning, permitting and tax incentives to facilitate the move.

Try something different this time. Work with the businesses, not against them.

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