Council considers removing council from permit decisions

Oak Harbor officials are considering a step toward removing politics from decisions regarding development.

During a council workshop meeting last Wednesday, Development Director Steve Powers presented the council with the idea of transferring decision making regarding the most complex kind of permits from the city council to a hearing examiner. Under the proposal, elected officials would no longer have to hold quasi-judicial hearings to interpret regulations for any type of development permit.

“The advantage is,” Powers said, “we have an individual who is trained in land use acting in the capacity of a judge making the decision as to whether or not the rules are appropriately applied to this particular project.”

He added that transferring the decisions to a hearing examiner would remove emotion from the process. A hearing examiner is a “dispassionate” decision maker who, by code, doesn’t live in the community.

Emotions were on display at a council meeting in August at which the council approved a housing project for veterans and low-income people on Pioneer Way near the heart of the downtown area.

Prior to reaching the council, the city staff, the planning commission and the hearing examiner — who is experienced land-use attorney Michael Bobbink — reviewed the application and recommended that the council approve permits for the project, finding that it complied with city code.

Nevertheless, three of the four council members voted against the proposal, which had become controversial with people in the community who felt the proposed building had too little retail space for the downtown area and didn’t fit in with the character of the area.

Wednesday, Powers explained the current process under which different kinds of development permits are approved.

Building permits and short plats, the simplest types of permits, are decided by city staff and can be appealed to the hearing examiner. Conditional use permits are decided by the hearing examiner

Preliminary plats, planned residential developments and certain types of site plans are decided by the city council after receiving recommendations from the planning commission or hearing examiner.

Any decision regarding development permits can be appealed to superior court. In the case of the low-income development downtown, the Oak Harbor Main Street Association opposed the project and appealed.

Several council members spoke in support of Powers’ proposal to remove the city council from the process.

Councilman Jim Woessner pointed out that doing so would streamline and shorten the process for developers seeking necessary permits since they wouldn’t have to wait for available council meetings.

Councilwoman Erica Wasinger said she was OK with the hearing examiner making the final decision. She said the council’s focus should be on setting policy and regulations.

Councilman Bill Larsen discussed the fact that the city is out of step with most other municipalities that already have removed elected officials from the process.

Beth Munns expressed concerns because she felt council members wouldn’t know if regulations are working or not if they aren’t making such decisions.

Munns added that she was concerned about the hearing examiner’s decision in the low-income housing proposal; she said she didn’t learn anything from his written findings and conclusions because Bobbink didn’t address the many concerns brought forward.

“I felt like part of the process was just opinion,” she said. “And so maybe we need a new hearing examiner.”

Larsen, however, countered that the hearing examiner made the decision he had to under the law.

“It was the decision that should have been arrived at by any competent authority,” he said.

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