Council tables proposal that would make it easier to dispose of parkland

The proposed amendment comes as a developer proposes to build a Hilton hotel downtown.

In response to a public outcry, the Oak Harbor City Council tabled a proposal that would have allowed it to sell, donate or otherwise dispose of park land without a vote of the people.

The proposed amendment to the city code comes as a developer proposes to build a Hilton hotel downtown and the adjacent Hal Ramaley Memorial Park is “impeding” the project, a council member said at the Tuesday night meeting. While city staff said the proposed code change wasn’t specific to any project, members of the council and community clearly tied the two together.

A former city council member, the late Rex Hankins, spearheaded the adoption of a resolution in 1997 to amend municipal code 1.30.010 to prevent the city from disposing of park land without the vote of the people. The resolution stopped the city from moving forward with plans to allow a developer to build a hotel on Flintstone Park, which is located on Bayshore Drive. Years later, the council considered but did not adopt a proposal to name the park after Hankins since he “saved” it from a developer.

In his comments at a recent packed city council meeting, Mayor Ronnie Wright tried to get on top of the rhetoric from social media and citizens who disapproved of the proposal to remove Hankins’s amendment. The removal of the election language, he said, is simply to save money and not to avoid a fully public-involved process for selling park land.

While Ray Lindenburg, senior planner, said the push to remove this language was not for any specific project, council questions eventually became more and more specific to the Hilton hotel development between Pioneer Way and Bayshore Drive and if the bordering Hal Ramaley Memorial Park would impede it.

Lindenburg wouldn’t speak “on behalf of the developers” to confirm this, though he submitted a land swap and park redevelopment proposal for Hal Ramaley Memorial Park and the surrounding area to the former mayor in December.

The original intent of the 1997 amendment was to make sure park properties were not sold or transferred to private parties for private use or economic gain, but an election could still allow for this to happen, he said. In lieu of an election, the process would still require staff analysis, a public hearing, State Environmental Policy Act review and state law adherence. Further, the city council members, who are elected officials, would still be the ultimate decision makers.

“There’s no trying to sneak things through,” he said. “There’s full transparency. It’s the exact same thing as what we have here tonight. There’s notice given, people are here to comment on it and we want that. It’s part of the transparency.”

Lindenburg said the need for an election is unique among cities in Washington, but this was refuted many times by members of the audience.

“Incredibly concerning is the legal analysis that I believe is incorrect,” said Kyle Renninger, a fifth-generation Whidbey Islander. “I did a Google search and in about five seconds I found that Spokane, Washington, as well as outside of our state, Boise, Idaho, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Kansas City, Missouri and the entire state of Texas require a vote of the people before disposing of park lands.”

In New York, all municipalities must have a bill passed by State Legislature to sell park lands, said Amanda Bullis, engagement director of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network.

Removing the election element from the code would allow more “nimble” decision making, Lindenburg said, save time and money and not allow special interests to undermine the decisions and expertise of city staff.

“Is democracy expensive?” Renninger asked. “Yeah, it requires money. It requires sacrifice. So, let’s save our money by not proposing to sell our parks at all. That’s an easy one to me.”

Councilmember Shane Hoffmire agreed, saying that a law that requires a public vote was not intended to be removed without a public vote.

“Is democracy expensive?” Hoffmire repeated. “No, I think it’s priceless, so that’s how I’ll be voting tonight.”

City staff may be experts, but that’s no reason to eliminate a vote, said Steve Erickson, Whidbey Environmental Action Network co-founder.

“I know a professional planner or other professional may feel really frustrated that their expertise may be overruled by what the people want, but that’s what democracy looks like,” he said.

City expertise should outweigh a public vote, Lindenburg said, as there are “scientific ways” to determine how much park land each person needs.

Experts can make mistakes, said Kathy Chalfant of Oak Harbor.

“I printed this agenda out, and it says that it was approved by (former) Mayor Bob Severns and (former) City Administrator Blaine Oborn, so mistakes can be made by the city,” she said. “That was very careless to have that show up when I don’t think they’re the mayor anymore, so please let the citizens of Oak Harbor continue to have a voting voice.”

The original ordinance included exceptions for developing land for necessary public purposes, such as water, sewage and roadway improvements, and the city considers economic development a necessary public purpose, Lindenberg said.

Economic development is not akin to water, sewage and roadway improvements, Bullis said. To make this kind of claim, “economic development” needs a legally viable definition, otherwise the city can empower itself to do whatever it wants.

“Exactly how are these two things legally and logically related?” she asked.

Lindenburg’s presentation was one-sided, Renninger said.

“The framing of parks as economic impediments to economic development could not be farther from the truth,” he said. “They are economic drivers.”

Renninger acknowledged the history of the amendment to allow people to vote. Without it, a developer may have acquired Flinstone Park. “Can you imagine if that gem of a park had been lost forever?”

With this discussion, history is repeating itself, he said. Instead of running the Hilton’s proposal through the proper processes, the city “wants to weaken our park protections and end-run the will of the people. To me, that is wrong.”

As a fellow Whidbey Islander, Renninger urged the council to remain on the “right side” of history.

Mark Desvoigne donated three acres to the city for the public use of a park, he said, never intending the city to be able to sell it for economic development.

The ordinance can be amended to include a process to allow people who donate land to keep it with their original intent, Lindenburg said.

Oak Harbor has been unfavorable among Whidbey Island’s environmentalists since a former mayor and council cut down a 330-year-old oak tree one night in 2014 without public notice, Erickson said.

“Unfortunately, you folks, elected officials in Oak Harbor, have some very smelly baggage, I’ll call it, that you inherited from previous councils and the previous mayor,” he said. “I’m referring to the post office oak massacre. Even though you had nothing to do with that, you have inherited some of that because of your positions. You have an excellent opportunity here to turn that around and begin restoring credibility.”

Hal Ramaley Memorial Park is impeding the Hilton development, said Councilmember Eric Marshall, when the space is surrounded by other parks and there is no other place for the development to be. The purpose of removing the election element of the ordinance is to move parks, not eliminate them.

If council does not have to hold an election to purchase parks, why must they to sell them? he asked.

“We’ve invested in green space and park space, so to paint the picture that council is trying to sell off park land and do that, that can’t be farther from the truth,” he said, noting he’s lost sleep over this issue.

Hal Ramaley is a “remainder” parcel, Lindenburg said, left over from when the city built a road through Windjammer Park.

The city is locked in where it can grow, said Councilmember Barbara Armes. Losing the Hilton would mean losing jobs and tourists. While the public may no longer get an official vote, they can still show up and voice their concerns.

“If we allow this to go through, you need to speak up again if something else happens,” she said. “Maybe that’s not fair, but that’s what we need to do.”

Removing a public vote should be up for a public vote, said Councilmember Christopher Wiegenstein, and Hoffmire motioned to table the discussion until Erickson’s “no net loss” of park land is added to the comprehensive plan.

Lindenburg said the comprehensive plan update wouldn’t happen until the end of 2025, and while Hoffmire was the sole vote for the comprehensive plan amendment, other council members compromised with a motion to table the discussion to July to allow staff to amend the language for swapping park land without a vote as opposed to selling it outright for economic development.